Thursday, November 29, 2012
On average, GMs last between five and six years with one team. If the Leafs once again fail to make the playoffs in Burke's fifth season as GM, ownership will have to seriously consider changing leadership.
After next season, Leafs ownership has two options: 1) fire Burke immediately, or 2) commit to Burke long-term. Giving Burke any more than one year to guide the Leafs, but less than a long-term mandate, will be catastrophic.
Those are the only two options because to ensure a successful transition, a new GM must receive a minimal amount of Burke's errors, in addition to a maximal amount of prospects, draft picks, and affordable, quality contracts. Essentially, a new GM deserves a relatively clean slate contract-wise, with as many low-cost, high-ceiling players as possible—exactly the opposite of what Burke inherited when he arrived in Toronto.
Thankfully, the Leafs only have three current roster players signed through 2014-15, giving the new GM a fresh start in two years. But Toronto can't wait for 2014 to make a move and let Burke stay in charge through the 2013-14 season. That's because allowing Burke an extra off-season would certainly negate any cap flexibility in the new GM's first season.
The problem is Burke will have close to $22 million in payroll off the books in 2013, giving him plenty of money to offer big contracts to free agents. That's potentially money committed to players the new GM would not necessarily want to sign. If you let Burke sign those free agents, you have to believe in his vision and see it through; otherwise, if the plan is to change directions for 2014-15, you can't wait. You need the long-term GM making the moves that will affect his own future, even if the timing isn't optimal.
The issue with next off-season is that Burke's target free agents are likely those of any incoming GM: Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. So the question, then, becomes who you think is better able to convince one or both to sign in Toronto: Burke or a recent hire.
If Toronto believes Burke has a better shot at landing Getzlaf and Perry, the team must commit to him long-term. Giving him just one extra year to see how things go won't help the Leafs because there is an equally important decision to make with the two pillars of Burke's rebuild: Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf.
Kessel and Phaneuf are in their final pre-UFA year in 2013-14. If a new GM is hired in 2014 rather than 2013, he will be unable to decide on the future of both players. Burke will have effectively decided for him, either by a) signing both to contract extensions, or b) keeping both past the 2014 trade deadline in an attempt to make the playoffs, thereby eliminating a new GM's trade option.
Therefore, a new GM could only re-sign them or let them walk for nothing. And letting Kessel leave for nothing is akin to flushing two blue chip prospects down the toilet. As Kessel and Phaneuf are the most important players on the current team, a new GM needs to decide what to do with them when every option is still available, and that's only possible in 2013.
Accordingly, Burke can only be given one last season to guide Toronto to the playoffs, or at the very least contend for a spot. If not, and the Leafs own another lottery pick, he's out.
For Burke, then, next season will be the most important in recent memory. It will determine whether or not he makes it through the off-season, a time when he will have money to spend, elite players to spend it on, and quality young players ready to make the leap to the NHL—his best chance to ice a team that most closely matches his vision. Unfortunately, if the Leafs fail once again, it is also the best time to fire him, giving MLSE a difficult decision.
However, a full lockout might save MLSE from making a decision and might save Burke's job. Without a fifth straight playoff-less spring under Burke's watch, the only real option will be allowing Burke to govern through the off-season. And at that point, he's here to stay.