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.