In a macro sense, two seemingly competing management philosophies defined this Leaf season.
First was the need to clean up the mess left in the wake of the John Ferguson era and the short-lived second coming of Cliff Fletcher as Leaf GM.
Before the team could move forward, this was a job that desperately needed to be done. The departures of Vesa Toskala, Jason Blake, Jamal Mayers, Matt Stajan, Nik Hagman, Ian White, Jiri Tlusty, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Lee Stempniak, Justin Pogge, Pavel Kubina and Nik Antropov over the past 13 months might be individually debated, but collectively they represented a strain of mediocrity that needed to be deleted.
To simply trash the current roster today is like viewing a basement reno with the ancient wallpaper gone, the floor ripped up and the old wiring exposed, and then loudly declaring the overall objective missed. For the Leafs, only the ugly contract of Jeff Finger and the lingering uncertainty of veteran Tomas Kaberle now remain as complicating issues from the pre-Burke era.
At the same time this cleanup was in progress, however, the club made the controversial move to acquire sniper Phil Kessel, a deal made more costly by a 29th place finish.
Certainly, Burke can make a case for the Kessel trade based on the merits of the player and his own track record in making aggressive, risky moves to bring in star quality players in Hartford, Vancouver and Anaheim. Ask Canucks fans if, after years of waiting and criticizing, the performance of the Sedin twins this season isn’t evidence Burke did that franchise a good turn 11 years ago.
Still, it was the timing of the Kessel deal that was confusing. Burke made it clear he had no interest in a gradual, Washington/Pittsburgh-like rebuild. But why? He has a long-term contract, the building is full, the fans are famously patient (or non-discriminating) and taking a year or two to add blue-chip prospects seemed to be logical.
So while the jettisoning of unwanted bodies went well, and the spectacular Dion Phaneuf trade seems likely to help the Leafs much more than the Flames, it was all overshadowed to a large extent by the curious timing of the aggressive Kessel trade by a GM choosing the high-wire act without the crowd clamoring for one.