Brian Burke has done some really great things to turn the Toronto Maple Leafs organization around since the John Ferguson Jr. days. Somehow he continually convinces Anaheim and Calgary to trade with him when they always come out on the losing end of the deal. However, while Burke has come out as the undisputed winner in several key trades (the Phaneuf, Lupul, and Kaberle deals come to mind), those successes have been undermined by some costly over payments on some severely underperforming UFAs. The signing of Komisarek, Armstrong, Connolly, Lebda and Orr were met with some scepticism at the time, and the production from these players has not lived up to even the limited expectations they were given.
Mike Komisarek was signed as a feature of Burke truculence revolution after an “All-Star” season in 2009 to a 5 year $22.5 million contract. Three seasons later, he remains the 17th highest paid defensemen in the league, and yet he's been a healthy scratch 6 of the 10 games since his return from injury. Expectations on Komisarek were, at best, to be a shut-down, impact defensemen and, at worst, a top 4 physical presence. Instead he’s a $4.5million healthy scratch/injury replacement who, when he plays, is less effective than Jeff Finger was. Yeah, I went there.
Colby Armstrong has contributed nothing other than increasing Ron Wilson's tweet count. He’s universally regarded as a good guy and a good teammate, but he’s paid $3million a year to play hockey well, not be everyone’s BFF. Recently, he’s come back from injury only to take up a seat next to Komisarek in the press box. How many people predicted Darryl Boyce and Joey Crabb playing ahead of him? Armstrong is said to be upset by this decision, but what does he expect? He has a 3 year $9million contract, and has produced only 8 goals so far in his career as a Leaf, and none this season.
Another key figure of Burke’s 2009 truculent fetish is Colton Orr. Burke pulled out all the theatrics in a “tie optional” press conference/rant when he sent Orr down to the Marlies, as if it was the league's fault and not Burke’s own for Orr suddenly being made obsolete. Orr’s $1million per year contract isn’t crippling, and he certainly provided some great entertainment value (cough, Carkner, cough). But nobody can argue that a million dollar 4th-line Marlie is money well spent.
When Brett Lebda was traded last year, Leafs Nation practically had a parade to see him out of town. Our friends over at PPP had “No More Brett Lebda” as their banner for months after. I get it. Lebda was a liability when on the ice and it wasn’t until Matt Lashoff was called up that the Leafs had a respectable bottom pairing. Give Burke credit for committing grand larceny in acquiring an asset like Cody Franson and the overpaid but useful Matt Lombardi for a liability. Lebda’s 2 year $2.9million contract was bought out by cash-strapped Nashville halfway through the deal. A minor UFA signing by Burke, but again, results were wildly different from expectations.
Finally, Tim Connolly. He was picked up in the 2011 offseason to be a first line centre to play with Phil Kessel. Fair enough. His 2 year $9.5 million signing was a bit surprising only due to his injury prone past. But at $4.75/yr, it could be argued that if Connolly was able to replicate his post-lockout 0.82 point per game percentage and contribute to a rejuvenated top-six, he’d be worth the money. Unfortunately, no such thing has happened. Connolly, when healthy, hasn't lived up to anyone's expectations, and is probably the league’s most expensive 3rd line centre. Some may say he hasn't been healthy scratched because they're worried he might end his career tripping on his way into the press box. Conjecture aside, rack this one up in the “disappointing so far” category.
Imagine what the Leafs would look like if two or three of these signings had worked out as hoped. Leaf fans have mostly ignored these UFA misses because with the cap rising all the way to $64million, difficult decisions haven’t had to be made. But with key players like Grabovski, Kulemin and Franson due for raises this coming offseason, endless cap-space won’t always be such a luxury. With Toronto losing 6 of 7 while key UFA signings rotate in and out of the press box, Burke’s shortcomings have become more obvious. As the Leafs cling to 8th place in the East, fans certainly hope Burke’s got another lop-sided deadline deal up his sleeve.
**Update: after a Thursday loss to San Jose, the Leafs now cling to 9th place. Once again, Komisarek and Armstrong were scratched.