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TSN 1050's Interview with Brian Burke

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Somehow the talk of the Hall of Fame Inductions
Somehow the talk of the Hall of Fame Inductions
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

TSN 1050 caught up with Brian Burke in Toronto tonight.  Originally this was only going to be about the team, but it stretched into 12 minutes of interviews.  During this time, Burke was questioned on the state of the team, whether or not they may trade pieces to go for it this year, Joe Colborne, Johnny Gaudreau, and the effects of decreased fighting in the league analytics.  They also talked about Phil Kessel's snubbing of the media and went off on a weird tangent and talked about the Boston Red Sox World Series rosters after talking about the book Moneyball.  Here are the quotes from Burke during the interview and some thoughts on the topics.

On whether the start to the season has surprised him -

I think anyone who says they're not surprised would be - if not outright lying would be at least stretching it a bit.  We thought we'd be better.  We had a real terrible start last year which is really what killed us.  We were a record - an N.H.L. record tying number of one goal games - like 46 one goal games.  But our first 20 games last year we couldn't win a game.  We didn't have any goaltending.  Ramo was hurt, Retto Berra was struggling.  Just very different things, so we thought we'd do better.  We were worried about the schedule.  We knocked off 11 road games already by November 10th.  I've never done that in my career - knocked out that many road games that quickly, and we managed to have a winning record through that despite some pretty severe injuries especially down the middle so all good so far.  The coach has done a real nice job, our captain has done a real nice job.

So far all nice things during the interview.  The team definitely had its goaltending concerns last year.  They were second to last in even strength save percentage last year while this year they've moved up to 13th.  Hiller has definitely helped solidify things coming in at eighth amongst starters.  The team's done well on their road games and they're off to a hot start compared to last year where they were terrible.

On whether winning now means the team will go for it this season -

To me what's accelerated the process is that we were able to [improve] mostly through our coach.  We were able to change the culture and - some of it was management - we got rid of a couple of guys who didn't share our vision on how this game is played, but it's mostly Bob Hartley.  He's done a real good job.  I think what's emerged is we've got a real mobile defense and we're getting the puck out of our end in a hurry.  That's not a surprise to any of us.

T.J. Brodie was the most improved player on our team last year and he and Mark Giordano together are deadly and we get out of our area quickly and with little fanfare and all of a sudden we're a quick team, so the one thing that I think for us to play in the west - we haven't played any of the big boys in the west yet - we got to get bigger, like we know that.  We're not - we're a very small team comparatively by the western standards.  We added Engelland and Bollig so we're a little bit bigger but - and we get Joe Colborne back that helps us, but we need to get bigger.  We know that.

Ignoring that debauchery of a sentence involving Brodie and Giordano together, there are a lot of contradictions in this answer.  The team has gotten quicker and more skilled and that's why they're winning, so we need to add more size.  Involving Deryk Engelland and Brandon Bollig in the conversation is particularly befuddling.  Engelland was perhaps the most perturbing signing of the offseason.  There was no redeeming quality to him that said that he deserved the contract he got.  His possession numbers were terrible and even if Burke is the type to ignore that his plus minus was terrible.  His numbers have been getting worse each season.  Perhaps they felt that he'll return to his form from three seasons ago, but the money doled out was far too much for a weak reclamation project.  Bollig at least had some redemption value in his possession numbers, but relative to the rest of the team they were poor, he doesn't score and virtually everyone he was on the ice with performed worse.  Additionally, trading a third round pick in a rebuilding year for a marginal improvement on your fourth line and touting that as an offseason victory is asinine.

On Joe Colborne

I think if you look at what Toronto kept I think it made sense for them to give away Joe Colborne for a pick.  They didn't give him away - that's not fair to Dave Nonis.  To trade him for a pick in terms of what they kept and what they had, it made sense for them.  For us it made sense.  He's a Calgary kid.  I think he's just coming into his own as a player.  He's a big kid even though he doesn't play black and blue hockey.  He's 6'5", 6'6", I don't know and he towers over me.  He's got a grip on him like when he shakes your hand he almost breaks your hand, and he's like a sponge in terms of learning so I think the sky is the limit for him.  We used him at wing and at center last year.  I think he's a center, but he's a great kid so we're really happy with him.  I don't think he's ever going to be a superstar but he's a quality player and a quality person.

They basically said, "Tell us about Joe Colborne" and this was his answer.  He mentioned zero tangible skills on him, instead mentioning that he is big and he has a strong handshake.  It would have been nice to affirm what kind of role they were expecting him to play.  His possession numbers were poor last year even on a Calgary team which didn't exactly excel in the category.  Additionally, equivalency models basically showed that he can expect to average 24 points per season.  He had 28 last year and there's a good chance that he doesn't average more than 34 points per season for his career.  If he's the replacement for McGrattan or Bollig on the fourth line, then fine, but he's probably not a blue chipper for the future.

On Johnny Gaudreau

I think it's fair to say he's been our biggest surprise in terms of - I really wasn't sure he could make our team.  You know I mean you never know if a player that diminutive - this is not a small player, this is a tiny player, and he's at a height where he's in a danger zone head wise for legal hits in our league.  This is not a guy where players are going to have to try and elbow him in the head, they're going to get him and if they get him that's going to be where the contact comes, so we're trying not to make too much out of his start.  He's got to continue to get out of the way when it's appropriate, but his vision is special this guy when he's got the puck everyone on the ice is dangerous.  He finds people he's a great passer he's stops up makes good plays so so far so good.  We had trouble finding him ice time on the road a little bit, but at home the coaches have been really able to spring him and he's been good.

It's a bit sad that Burke had more negative things to say about Gaudreau than he did Colborne.  Gaudreau clearly is a much higher ceiling player than Colborne, but apparently the size is just too much to overlook.  Hits to the head are never legal and players have been suspended for hitting players such as Nathan Gerbe and Mats Zuccarello before when hits on other players would be at shoulder height.  He's second in the league in points among rookies so to say he's been good seems like a bit of an understatement.

On whether Gaudreau would have been able to play ten years ago -

No.  No, role changes made it possible for him to play but - and people say, "Is he another Theo Fleury?"  Theo is an explosive player.  Johnny's not our fastest player by a mile.  He's our quickest player  - short bursts and he's really smart but he's not explosive like Paul Byron or powerful like Theo was.

Not much to say here.  Nice to see Byron get some positive recognition.

On the decrease in enforcers -

Brian McGrattan's ice time has been dropped a lot and he hasn't dressed for as many games.  I mean this is the way it's going - your toughness has to be able to play.  It's really been that way for several years.  Even going back to our cup team which was 07, George Parros could play, Travis Moen could play, so these were guys that played meaningful minutes, you know anywhere, from eight to 12 minutes.  And if you can't do that now you're not going to play and the middleweights are taking over and the rats are taking over a little bit.

You know my beef with my the whole fighting issue is people who - I don't think there's a debate within the game, I think among the managers and players - we feel the amount of fighting that exists is about right.  We've dramatically reduced the number of fights, we've dramatically reduced the role of fighting as a strategy, but I think now to totally take away the players ability to police the level of violence that happens on an ice rink would be a mistake.  And I think part of the reason player safety is so busy right now is because the fighting is down.

The roll of enforcers certainly has decreased for the reasons Burke has mentioned - teams prefer to dress players that can play.  Burke's views on Parros and Moen are a tad odd.  Parros was a positive possession guy that year, but he only played 34 games and when he did play he was only averaging 4.9 minutes of ice time per game - no where near the eight to 12 he seems to suggest.  Moen played 82 games that season, was on the ice for 14.4 minutes per game, carried a relative Fenwick of -8.16, was -4 and put up 21 points.  He was terrible and clearly couldn't go like Burke remembers.  The roll of fighting, that horse has been beaten.

On whether the decrease of fighting has lead to an increase in dirty play -

You look at the suspensions and the reviews that have taken place and to me they're doing - it's all over the ice.  So, I - My view on it is that the day we get rid of fighting we're going to have a real problem, but I have no problem with the amount it's been reduced, and now if the heavyweight who can't play - if he's going to be a thing of the past, but now teams like you know Montreal dresses Brandon Prust.  You know like he's a good player, but he's a tough player so that, that - I support that.  If that's where we're going, that's fine too, but if we get rid of those guys and now it's just rats, I have no interest in watching that.

None of the sentences in this paragraph make sense.  Beyond that, Burke's assessment on a player is troubling.  Prust has played 191 games over the past four seasons.  During that time he's put up relative Fenwick of -6.36 percent and has averaged 20.6 points per 82 games.  Additionally his argument is very circular.  The N.H.L. is disciplining players so that the players don't have to police the game and now the complaint is that the players aren't policing the game.  In addition to this, this is the same guy who last invited Trevor Gillies to camp who has been suspended for more games than he's played for his "rat like behavior."  There's obviously a huge amount of hypocrisy there, but his shady acquisitions aren't just limited to Gillies.  Burke also traded for Kevin Westgarth, a player who averaged a penalty differential of -48 over the course of a 1000 minute season last year.  These are two of the dirtiest players in the game, but it's somehow okay because these guys fight and are larger?  The point he's trying make is extremely obtuse given his own acquisitions.

On people bashing him over his stance on analytics -

The issue is that I gave a speech at M.I.T. at their sports conference about four years ago and I said that analytics are like a lamp post for drunks - useful for support, but not necessarily for illumination.  That quote has been trodded out and people are like, "Oh brian burke's a dinosaur; he doesn't believe in analytics."  The Calgary Flames, we have who I believe is the best analytics guy in the National Hockey League, Chris Snell.  He's been there for four years.  Like we think this is a really, really important guy for our team.  I think the term has been misappropriated and misused.

I don't think most of what we do is in analytics.  Analytics to me are you take data points and it leads to some predictive thing, so you say okay if the prime rate goes to prime plus one, new housing starts go to X and loan defaults go to Y and the jobless rate goes to - hey all of a sudden we can predict that the stock market's going to move positive - let's all invest.  That's analytics to me.

What we do is statistics.  Okay so you measure things - faceoff percentages, time on ice, Corsi, Fenwick.  I made fun of it today.  It says Doppler stats today.  So I - anything that anyone comes up with that will make us a better hockey team or give us better predictability on a draft, we'll buy it the next day.  We'll spend millions to get that edge.  I haven't seen it yet.  I don't think a system's been devised that gives you an edge in drafting or trading.

It's great that he has Snell, but like he's said, he's been there for years.  He himself has no track record of ever actually hiring an analytically minded individual.  His later part is once again circular - they're measuring things like faceoff percentages, time on ice, Corsi, and Fenwick and trying to come up with a method to winning - at least I would hope that would be the point or why are they looking at those numbers.  They state that they'd buy something that would give them an edge in the draft, but there are numbers that have been doing that for years.  They're called points and the Flames completely ignored them this past draft.  Hunter Smith in the second round is 6'6" and had .625 points per game in the O.H.L.  Both forwards that sandwiched him averaged more than double that.

Burke is saying that he's looking at analytics, but it doesn't seem to be true.  If he's looking at analytics and trying to assemble the best team possible then simply put there's no logic in signing Engelland to a contract.  It's one thing to have a possession sieve or two on the fourth or even third lines when they're playing eight to 12 minutes maximum like he said earlier.  When they're on the defensive pairings, they're playing 15 plus minutes and most of that is coming at even strength.  This severely handicaps the team's chance of winning.  The Islanders lost John Tavares for the season and still posted a better record after Andrew MacDonald was traded.  The Penguins lost Matt Niskanen, but have still looked like world beaters after dropping Brooks Orpik.  It cannot be stressed enough how much having a possession nightmare amongst the defensive pairings is a hindrance.  The Flames already had one in Ladislav Smid and then added Engelland.

On the quote at M.I.T. being used against him -

They didn't listen to the rest of the discussion which is I believe in analytics, but I also think that this is an eyeballs business and the notion that some guy in a room is gonna sort through computer programs and put a team together I think is laughable.  This is still a full contact sport, character is still an essential element to this.  It's not baseball which is a series of identical repetitive events that lends itself to that type of analysis so I just - I think it's like a craze.  It's like right now It's like oh you need analytics It's the hot thing.  It's the cool thing.  It's like the little black dress when that came around and I'm saying okay, I read "Moneyball."  The guy that wrote "Moneyball" I think deserves a lot of credit for looking at things differently, but that to me is a survival strategy for a small market team.  No one's won a title with moneyball.

Once again, it's interesting he brings up character given some terrible individuals Burke has sought out.  Also, the Boston Red Sox won a title with moneyball.

After bringing up the Red Sox winning a title with moneyball -

No they had a couple moneyball players, Youkilis, but they're also a line ball team and they ran, so no.  I - it's - I think this whole thing is overblown and I think it will pass as a fad in our sport - not go away but as far as everyone talking about it non-stop, I think teams are still going to use it as a tool like we always have, but it's not going to be the driving strategy in putting your team together.  You still got to go watch guys play.

"I'm not listening!  I'm not listening!  Na na na na na na!"

On Kessel vs. the media -

We're allowed to discuss other teams players if we're doing it in a complimentary fashion and it's clearly not tampering or saying you're trying to get a player or whatever and I'd be happy to defend Phil Kessel.  First off, the notion that - the notion that players have to deal with the media after every single games including losses - where is that written down?  Cause I've never seen it.  I've never expected my players to expect it every night - I don't expect Dion to go out every night and address the media after a loss.  Sometimes an assist coach can do it.  Okay can they duck the media regularly, no.

Phil was a very shy kid.  he's not an outgoing kid.  He would love to just play hockey and never do the media stuff, so I don't blame him for saying - I didn't see the context, I don't know who the reporter was, but to me I have no problem with Phil saying it or any other player saying that to a reporter and the notion that there's some outrage about - that that he doesn't want to talk to you after a 6-2 loss, that you have the right to be outraged about that, sorry I don't buy it.  I'm getting mad sitting here.  I don't want to talk to you guys either.

To those who attack his character cause he didn't want to talk to a reporter, like I had - you know I was here for five and a half years or whatever I was here for, there's plenty of reporters I don't want to talk to after we lose so I'm with Phil I think he's a great kid, he's played really well here and if he gets - if he has to he gets a mulligan for that one.  It's not like him to say that, but I don't have a problem with it.  I wouldn't call him in if I were still a G.M. here.

It's pretty hard to disagree with Burke here.  Each player faces their own demons and for some it's hard enough to face the media on a good day, never less after a debilitating loss to what's been the worst team in the league.  It's nice to see him defend his players even if he no longer employs them.  It would be awesome if he could take an even greater stand against this type of behavior by the media.

Here's a link to the full interview.