Brian Burke confidently believed that what he had built and was building with the Maple Leafs eventually would produce a winning club and he wanted to be there when it happened.
Team ownership, of course, had other ideas. On Thursday more than a month after being fired as Leafs general manager, Burke made his official break from the team, departing the phantom “consulting” position to which he had been assigned in order to join his old team, the Anaheim Ducks, as a scout.
It was symbolic that hours after his reunion with the Ducks was announced a few things happened on the ice to suggest Burke’s fingerprints will be all over this improving Toronto team for a few years at least.
In a 3-1 triumph over the Buffalo Sabres, the Leafs looked to be precisely the kind of team Burke loudly guaranteed the hockey world he would develop when he was hired in late November 2008: big and uncompromising; hard to play against; willing to drop the gloves at all times; and capable of playing grinding miserly hockey built around tough team defence and quality goaltending.
It was all on display against a Sabres squad playing for new coach Ron Rolston. The Leafs, 11-7, haven’t lost more than two in a row yet this season, lead the league in hits and fights and, after allowing just 14 goals against in the past nine games, are suddenly one of the NHL’s better defensive clubs.
“They’re making me look good,” said goaltender Ben Scrivens who has allowed nine goals in 5 ½ games since No. 1 netminder James Reimer went down with a knee problem. “We’re making smart decisions, being efficient with the puck and the guys are just making it easy for me to play.”
Meanwhile, the last major trade that Burke made as Leaf GM, acquiring winger James van Riemsdyk for defenceman Luke Schenn, continues to look like one of his best. Van Riemsdyk scored his 10th and 11th goals of the season against the Sabres including the eventual winner in the second and the clincher in the third.
Former coach Ron Wilson would have sarcastically chided media types for “building statues” to players if he were still running the team and a player had a big night. The current Leafs coach, Randy Carlyle, instead offered cautious optimism.
“All we’ve tried to do is find him a spot,” Carlyle said, referring to van Riemsdyk’s place on left wing beside Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel.
“The tough one will be when (injured Joffrey) Lupul gets back.”
In other words nothing is guaranteed to anyone on this team and players who produce will play as long as they keep producing — evidence of which again was seen with John-Michael Liles and Mike Komisarek watching from the press box against the Sabres.