Thursday, June 07, 2007

Burke deserves the credit
How the Ducks' GM built a champion

At the end of the 2003-04 season, the Anaheim Ducks weren't a contender — or even a playoff team.

Anaheim finished 12th in the Western Conference with just 29 wins that year, scoring more goals than only the Columbus Blue Jackets and Carolina Hurricanes and fading into obscurity.

Brian Burke wasn't hired as general manager until more than a year later, June 20, 2005, but he immediately began to put his stamp on his new team. Six weeks after his hire date, he signed Scott and Rob Niedermayer to four-year deals.

At the time, hockey people were skeptical of the deal, as Burke had effectively tied up 25 per cent of the then-$39-million salary cap in two over-30 players, one of whom was a career checking-line winger.

A few days earlier, Burke had found his head coach in Randy Carlyle. The long-time NHLer had never been an NHL coach, and was, in fact, in obscurity with the Manitoba Moose, but Burke knew Carlyle from his connection to Vancouver, and liked his no-nonsense attitude.

Unlike the freewheeling Canucks, the Ducks were to be a team built in Burke's image.

Burke then took a chance in late August on a fan favourite in Teemu Selanne, who was set to play on a rebuilt knee and a bargain-basement contract, and began shuttling veterans out the door: Sergei Fedorov, Vaclav Prospal, Petr Sykora, Steve Rucchin — all gone.

The franchise's top five scorers from that dismal 2004 team were all out the door by the next summer, and this year's edition of the Ducks doesn't have a single defender from that team. The holdovers, the survivors of Burke's purge? His goaltender, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, and three forwards: Andy McDonald, Sami Pahlsson and the then little-used Chris Kunitz.

The Ducks weren't very good to start Burke's first season in California, but as he rotated players out in exchange for 'his guys', character players who were castoffs from other organizations, the team began to win. A lot.

Anaheim went 22-10-2 to end the year and claim a low-seeded playoff spot, and would knock out the Calgary Flames and Colorado Avalanche in the postseason before losing in the conference finals to Edmonton.

Then, in the offseason, Burke added Chris Pronger while giving up little from his roster and, well, a contender was born.

But, really, Burke's success with this team was just as much about his ability to find castoffs to fill roles on his organization when others had given up on them. Waiver claims, deals using meaningless draft picks or that appeared to be salary dumps — they were what really worked for the Ducks' GM.

Francois Beauchemin, a spare part thrown in the Fedorov deal. Todd Marchant, a waiver pickup. Ditto for Kunitz. Dustin Penner was undrafted and unknown in 2004. Travis Moen was picked up in a 'minor-league' deal with the Blackhawks in 2005. Sean O'Donnell was tossed in the trade deadline bargain bin by Phoenix in 2006. Joe DiPenta and Kent Huskins were minor leaguers Carlyle brought with him from the Moose.

Even youngsters like Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf were unheralded, in a sense, given how far they fell in the 2003 draft, and weren't expected to contribute like this, especially not so soon.

When he was first fired in Vancouver, Burke was bitter — not only because he was leaving a successful organization he had rebuilt from the ground up, but also because the timing would mean he would be out of work (and out of pay) for at least a year while the lockout ran its course. And while he moved into an analyst role with Canadian television during the year off, he also started to ponder the changing landscape in the NHL and the inevitable salary cap.

He spent time with his good friend, Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian, who had presided over a contender under a cap system, and asked for his advice.

"He said everybody is always saying with (Peyton) Manning and Marvin Harrison that too much cap room is tied up in two guys," Burke said. "But those are the right two guys. He said focus on the (right) guys and find a way to make it work."

Burke had one 'right guy' when he arrived in Anaheim in his goaltender, Giguere, and he added another in Scott Niedermayer soon after. Pronger fell in his lap the following summer, giving the gruff GM his 'right guys' and the core, big-budget pieces to build around. Forty per cent of the team's cap went to Giguere, Niedermayer and Pronger; the remaining 60 was split among the 32 other players who suited up for Anaheim this season.

All told, Burke has been with Anaheim just 23 months, and in that time, he turned an also-ran into the Stanley Cup champion. And not by a nose — no, this was a decisive win by the Ducks, one that included three five-game series wins and a dominant performance in the finals over the Ottawa Senators.

I've been saying for years that Burke is the best GM in hockey, after watching firsthand how he rebuilt a terrible Canucks team into a contender, but the one caveat coming the other way was always "he doesn't have a Cup."

Brian Burke is the best GM in hockey.
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17 Comments:

At 1:25 AM, June 07, 2007, Anonymous DD said...

From what I can remember James, it was the "new" Canucks GM Dave Nonis who hired Carlyle as the head coach of the Manitoba Moose before the lockout commenced. After a franchise best finish in Winnipeg, Brian Burke gave up a draft pick (second rounder?) in order to hire Carlyle away from the Canucks.

 
At 2:33 AM, June 07, 2007, Anonymous David Johnson said...

The other guy who deserves some credit is the coach of the Ottawa Senators. It was Bryan Murray who drafted a lot of the young players that played key roles for the Ducks (Perry, Getzlaf, Kunitz, etc.) as well as guys like Lupul who Burke was able to use to acquire Pronger. Murray was the guy who brought in Rob Niedermayer which was a key reason why Burke could pry Scott Niedermayer away from the Devils. You could almost say that Murray built a significant portion of the group of forwards while Burke built the defence.

 
At 2:38 AM, June 07, 2007, Blogger J. Michael Neal said...

At the end of the 2003-04 season, the Anaheim Ducks weren't a contender — or even a playoff team.

...

Brian Burke wasn't hired as general manager until more than a year later, June 20, 2005, but he immediately began to put his stamp on his new team. Six weeks after his hire date, he signed Scott and Rob Niedermayer to four-year deals.


This post post engages in what I like to call Fun with Endpoints. I'm not saying that Brian Burke isn't a good GM, but it really should be remembered that the team went to the Stanley Cup Finals in the spring of 2003. Clearly, the team had something going for it before Burke took over.

It also very clearly had some pretty big flaws. Burke should be credited for solving those flaws. Writing as if the Ducks sprang, de novo, into contention when Burke took over, though, borders upon hagiography rather than history.

 
At 2:46 AM, June 07, 2007, Blogger James Mirtle said...

That's garbage.

There was almost absolutely nothing left of that 2003 team when Burke arrived, and he stripped the roster almost bare before remaking it into what it is now.

If I'm writing a piece that's making the point Burke's a good GM, what relevance is it that a team well before he got there went to the finals, especially when that club was obviously awful in 2003-04 and in need of a major overhaul? I mean, the essential building block I acknowledge he had was Giguere, but that's really about it.

You're going to tell me I wrote this trying to pretend I didn't know the Ducks had been to the finals before? What kind of a fool would that make me?

 
At 5:01 AM, June 07, 2007, Blogger canablach said...

Please rephrase it:
"KLowe deserves the demerit"
It works better and it's *** true.

 
At 5:11 AM, June 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not even a single mention of Bob Murray? Surely he deserves some of the credit as well.

 
At 7:53 AM, June 07, 2007, Blogger Deborah said...

I didn't know very much about the management in Anaheim, but after reading James' article, it seems like Burke did a great job and hired a lot of important people. Why are the other posters so snarky in their comments?

 
At 8:16 AM, June 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why are the other posters so snarky in their comments?

Brian Burke has the reputation of a self-made man in love with his maker. He also likes to pick fights with members of the media who by ink (or bytes) by the barrel and thus there's always lots of 'opinion' about Burkey. But he gets the last laugh today.

 
At 9:43 AM, June 07, 2007, Blogger Ben W said...

It's a bit misleading to call Kunitz a waiver pick-up. Yes, they got him off waivers from Atlanta, but only because the Ducks waived him in the first place. The credit you give Burke for claiming him back has to be overshadowed by Burke's waiving him in the first place.

And while Perry and Getzlaf might have slipped in the draft anyone that watched them play junior hockey should have known they were going to be impact players. You would think they slipped into the third or fourth round by the way they're mentioned in this piece. Instead they went 19th and 28th in one of the best first rounds in recent memory.

 
At 10:36 AM, June 07, 2007, Blogger James Mirtle said...

You would think they slipped into the third or fourth round by the way they're mentioned in this piece. Instead they went 19th and 28th in one of the best first rounds in recent memory.

I'm assuming some basic knowledge on the reader's part.

Besides, find me two other players picked at that point in the first round who had the impact these two did in the playoffs a few years later.

 
At 10:38 AM, June 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm assuming some basic knowledge on the reader's part.


See that's your problem. This is the Internet.

 
At 12:57 PM, June 07, 2007, Blogger Ben W said...

Besides, find me two other players picked at that point in the first round who had the impact these two did in the playoffs a few years later.

Off the top of my head- Scott Gomez (27th overall) and Cam Ward (25th overall). both won Cups four years or less after being drafted and played significant roles while doing so.

 
At 1:19 PM, June 07, 2007, Anonymous Frank said...

James, ain't love grand. When you fall in love everything looks wonderful.

The first rule of journalism is not to fall in love with your subject. Be objective and report on both the good and the bad.

Clearly, Burke made some very good moves in the past two years with Anahiem, but he took over a team that had an incredible number of young talents from past drafts that he could use. In other words he took over a team where the "cupboard" was full, but needed reorganizing.

You fail to report that the team he left, had an "empty cupboard" because of his very bad drafting record. In the seven years he was with Vancouver he drafted over 60 player. Of these only seven are regular NHL players today. And only the Sedin twins, Kevin Bieksa and Bryan Allen would qualify as top 6 forwards or top 4 defencemen, and perhaps I'm even being generous with this assessment.

Also, Vancouver lost two good players - Schaefer to Ottawa and Umberger to Philadelphia because of Burke's incredibly abrasive personality and general lack of people skills.

Today Vancouver is in an incredibly difficult position because it has few talents left in its farm system that will make an impact in the next few years. Dave Nonis has said his first priority is to rebuild the farm system that has been completly depleted by Burke's poor draft record. But it will take many years to recover.

You say that Burke rebuilt the Vancouver team between 1998 and 2004 to a succesful team. Well lets examine that statement objectively. Vancouver turned around because of Naslund, Morrison, Bertuzzi, the Sedins, Jovonowski and Ohlund. Naslund, Morrison and Ohlund were with Vancouver before Burke arrived. Bertuzzi was acquired by Mike Keenan. Burke did acquire Jovo from Florida for Pavel Bure, and he did draft the Sedins.

As for being a successful team - well they were during the regular season but when it came to the playoffs they were a complete bust. In the seven years Burke was in Vancouver he won only one playoff series against St. Louis.

So the record on Burke is pretty mixed. Up until this past year his record could best be described as average to below average.

Lets wait another five years and see how he does before proclaiming him the best GM in the league, over the likes of Holland, Poile, Lamoriello, Regher, Sather and Rutherford.

 
At 2:15 PM, June 07, 2007, Blogger J. Michael Neal said...

I'm not saying that you don't know that the Ducks were good in 2003. I'm saying that you don't place enough weight upon that fact.

Andy McDonald was already a Duck when Burke came on board.

Ryan Getzlaf was drafted in 2003, and was in the system already. That he and Perry developed so quickly is a credit to someone, but the talent was there.

Corey Perry was drafted in 2003.

Pahlsson was acquired in 2000-01.

Rob Niedermeyer was acquired in 2002-03.

Beauchemin was acquired by Burke, but he had something of value, Fedorov, to trade away to get him. Saying that he was a throw in isn't that accurate, because he was the only thing that the Ducks got besides salary relief. Without him, there's no trade. Burke gets credit for picking the right spare part to get, but he traded away more talent (very frustrating talent, but talent nonetheless) than he got because he found someone who had the cap space for Fedorov. Besides, fleecing Doug MacLean doesn't exactly qualify one for Executive of the Year. I mean, who hasn't?

Dustin Penner was already in the system.

Chris Kunitz was already a Duck

He acquired Chris Pronger, but did so with pieces that were with the team when he joined them, and in a set of extremely favorable conditions that were none of his doing.

Of the 20 players that played in ten or more games in the 2003 playoffs, 11 of them were still on the roster when Burke took over, including some of the key parts: Sykora, Giguere, Rucchin, Pahlsson, Salei, Carney, R. Niedermeyer, and Vishnevski.

As I said, he's a good GM. He made a bunch of smart moves in figuring out who to keep, who to let go, and who to trade for other value. Implying that the cupboard was bare, though, is just wrong. Of the key pieces in this year's playoffs, Burke acquired Pronger, S. Niedermeyer, Selanne and Beauchemin. Marchant was not a key player in the playoffs. The rest of them were already in the organization when Burke arrived.

The 2003-04 Ducks didn't make the playoffs because they badly underachieved, and not because there was nothing on the roster to work with. Burke may even be the best GM in the game, though I'd throw Ken Holland and Loophole Lou in there as possible alternatives.

 
At 3:39 PM, June 07, 2007, Blogger Kel said...

I think Frank made some good points, but he got some of the facts wrong.

Morrison was acquired by Burke, for Mogilny. Yes, Schaefer was traded away because of a contract dispute, but Burke won that trade because Salo has become a better player than Schaefer has after the trade. Umberger was another story.

I don't think turning a team from missing the playoffs into a division leader, which Burke did, is something that an average or below-average GM can do. Burke was at least above-average GM, as more than a few of GMs never achieved the same.

Burke left Nonis with a bare cupboard, but not so much because of drafting but rather trading away draft picks for sometimes useless players. Drafting low and in shallow draft years didn't help. Burke at least got the right players in drafting the Sedins, in a draft year that was believed to be top-4 deep only. (The other two , Stefan and Brendl, didn't contribute to the teams that drafted them nor did they become impact players for any team.)

The biggest issue with Burke was that he had trouble acquiring the right goaltender for the team, and his claim that the town is a goalie graveyard has been disproved when a real top-qualify goaltender showed up in Vancouver and quickly became the most popular player in town.

Still, I think he's definitely better than average before he joined Anaheim.

 
At 4:25 PM, June 07, 2007, Blogger James Mirtle said...

I think the majority of pundits are giving others like Bryan Murray, etc., way too much credit for assembling the Ducks. Burke's fingerprints are all over this team, and he deserves 90-95 per cent of the praise.

 
At 4:08 AM, July 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This article was horribly biased and very misleading. It's a good thing most of the people leaving comments weren't so easily fooled.

I think the majority of pundits are giving others like Bryan Murray, etc., way too much credit for assembling the Ducks. Burke's fingerprints are all over this team, and he deserves 90-95 per cent of the praise.

What? Instead of just reiterating your original point, how about you post some counter-arguments to the ones made against you? And we've already shown how Burke's fingerprints aren't all over the team.

Yes, Schaefer was traded away because of a contract dispute, but Burke won that trade because Salo has become a better player than Schaefer has after the trade.

That is completely subjective and I disagree. Salo can't even play a full season anymore!

You know, the Anaheim Ducks accomplished something similar to the Carolina Hurricanes before them.

The 'Canes lost in the SCF in '02, fell into mediocrity, then became one of the best teams in the league and won the Cup in '06, four years later. Anaheim did the exact same thing, but in '03/'07. Using the same arguments James gives, Jim Rutherford must also be the best GM in the NHL.

 

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