Burke on poor start: Players are not executing

October, 14, 2009

TORONTO -- Somewhere in Boston, Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli is no doubt licking his lips as he sees what is happening in Toronto these days.

The Maple Leafs have caused near hysteria in their hockey-mad market with an 0-5-1 start. Their fans are not only disheartened by the brutal play of their heroes, but also quite cognizant of the fact that the Bruins could be staring at a lottery draft pick (via the Phil Kessel trade) should Toronto not pick up its hockey socks this season.

Leafs GM Brian Burke knew what he signed up for here nearly a year ago. He understands the plight of the fans in this market, hungry to end a Cup drought that's at 42 years and counting.

But even today, Burke has no qualms about the price he paid to get Kessel out of Boston last month -- a pair of first-round picks and a second-rounder.

"Well, if I had known we'd be 0-6, I still would have done that trade," Burke told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "I can't draft a player who is going have that kind of impact this year in this draft. This is about being better this year. But I'm not annoyed at any reaction from the fans. When you're 0-6, you should be grateful they're still coming to the games."

Because the Bruins do own that first-round pick this year, you can forget the Leafs pulling the plug early, if at all. No point making that pick look even better for Boston. Instead, I suspect Burke will continue to try to improve this team. One NHL GM told ESPN.com on Tuesday that the Leafs boss had contacted him and undoubtedly others. But when your team is winless in six games to start the season, great deals are hard to find.

"The ones that are calling, it's not a helpful group," Burke said of talks with other GMs. "I haven't got anything but anchors thrown at me. We're not in a hurry. If I didn't think this group could get the job done, I'd be more concerned. But I believe in the group."

And he believes, especially, in his coach. If the draft-pick-to-Boston talk is theme No. 1 for Leafs fans, the coach talk is slowly becoming No. 2. To me, at least, it seems awfully premature, but I've never pretended to understand Leafs fans.

Of course, what makes the whole thing even more intriguing for fans and media in this town is the fact that Burke and Wilson also double as the Olympic brain trust for Team USA. Could you possibly fire the man who coaches your NHL team when he also will run your Olympic bench?

Burke completely dismissed that kind of talk.

"Well, I think it's absurd," Burke said. "This guy has coached over 1,000 games in the NHL. Did he suddenly forget how to coach? I can tell you this -- there will be numerous, multiple player changes before the coaching staff would even be looked at, let alone considered. The players are at fault here. We're not getting it done. It's not the coaching staff. It's the players not executing."

We completely agree on that one. By the time unheralded Colorado forward David Jones had finished undressing Toronto's top defenseman, Tomas Kaberle, and scored a back-breaking goal in the Avs' 4-1 win over the Leafs on Tuesday night, one clearly got the impression that absolutely nothing was working on this team.

"There's plenty of blame to go around," Burke said. "If we're going to start pointing fingers, you have to point at every facet of our game right now. Our goaltending hasn't been good enough, our defensemen are not playing aggressively enough in our own end, and they're making bonehead plays and getting beat one-on-one. Our forwards are not sustaining a forecheck nor scoring goals, and our special teams have struggled.

"That's a lethal combination when your four key areas to winning hockey games aren't there."

But, the GM added, he does see some positives. There were moments in losses against the Rangers and Avs this week when he thought he saw signs of his team regaining some confidence. The team plays only once over the next 11 days, so there will be time to take a collective breath and regroup.

"I think we just have to be patient," Burke said. "As Ronny said last night, we'll try a little reset this week, maybe have a little fun and have a meeting to talk about things."

Hold on to your hats -- this could be quite the interesting season in Toronto.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer


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