I used to be a subscriber to The Hockey News about 8-9 years ago for a couple of years. I was enthralled to read features like their Top 60 Prospects, Future Watch, the 100 Most Powerful People in Hockey, their Annual Yearbook, and all sorts of stories and other tidbits I wouldn't get elsewhere then. As time went on, THN's content thinned, I found more engaging and real time information online, and eventually I ended the subscription.
THN hasn't died or anything, but much of it has been moved online. And it's still a foundation of hockey media. Today, via HFBoards, I learned that THN ranked all the general managers in the league. In Ken Campbell's article, he and a number of insiders and other experts, found Lou Lamoriello - the Lou we trust - to be the second best general manager in the NHL. That's not what has me befuddled, it's that he and the insiders slotted Brian Burke at #1 - as stated in the title.
Now, all due respect to Burke, I don't see how anyone can seriously claim him to be a better general manager than Lou. OK, if you only take the post-lockout years into account, then, I can see the argument. However, to me, it just doesn't add up here.
I apologize if this sounds a bit like a rant, but I really have to speak on this.
Brian Burke did transform the Anaheim Ducks into contenders who went on to win a Cup, and he boosted Vancouver in his tenure. Which was all great, but I won't belabor it here as the THN article does a pretty good amount of that on it's own. But has he made systematic changes to the organization to have them remain successful? I think not. Look at Vancouver since then: only making the playoffs once in the last 3 seasons, and currently reliant on "saviors" Roberto Luongo and now Mats Sundin. Look at Anaheim now. The post-Cup season was strong with a 47-27-8 record but crashed out of the first round of the playoffs. And while Anahem will still likely make the playoffs this season, they aren't as strong as they once were on defense and are fighting with Phoenix in a very tight Western Conference. And he dumped them for Toronto!
Can the league's best GM really be one who goes to a team, improves them, and leads them to trend downward later while going somewhere else to try again?
Compare this to Lou, who literally turned an organization from the late 1980s into one of the strongest in the league with a committment - not a reputation or a slogan - of winning. THN recognizes his committment to excellence and professionalism, but check out this wonderful display of knowledge:
Lamoriello oversees a ruthlessly efficient operation and can be difficult to work for, but the reward is you get to be part of an organization singularly dedicated to winning. How the Devils are winning after losing Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski is one of hockey’s enduring mysteries.
One of hockey's great mysteries? Hello! It's not a mystery! It's called developing an organization! No, it's not the neutral zone trap! If an insider had paid attention to the past two seasons, the Devils really haven't played that style - especially under Brent Sutter. This is what you get when you rely on lazy thoughts based on a reputation instead of just checking the team out as they are now.
The Devils are set up such to extract the best out of the players who are willing to give the committment to the team - be it through the emphasis on defense/two-way play or with the demanding work ethic. You may call them Interchangeable Parts, but it's been proven to be a successful model. Keep the talented, useful, and loyal ones (see: Sergei Brylin) and have them complement with others who would benefit in the short term. The goal has remained the same, and the process of putting the team together has always kept that goal in mind. Will this player not only have the talent, but the character to succeed? Because if they don't have the latter, they will not last long in New Jersey (see: Mike Jefferson/Danton).
The goal of this organization is the same both with and without Claude Lemieux, Stephane Richer, Bill Guerin, Bobby Holik, Petr Sykora, Jason Arnott, Scott Neidermayer, Scott Gomez, and Brian Rafalski - the Cup. And I think it's real telling that only three of those guys have won Cups outside of NJ, and they went to some excellent teams at the right time. Yet, Lou never just throws up their hands and said, well, it's time to rebuild! For Lou, if you're not complety committed that's fine. The team will use you as necessary and when you want to move on, it's OK. They'll find someone else either in the system or from elsewhere, and slot them based on how they play (or coach, in some cases) to best suit the goal of winning hockey games. If you are no longer proving useful or effective and refuse to adjust (see: Claude Julien), then you will be gone.
Here is what I think are some good, more positive examples of this line of thinking: Look at John Madden, a big scorer in college and in the AHL. But the only spot open was for a checking center. Did Lou move Madden for one or did Madden feel he had to ask for a move to be a scorer elsewhere? No! Lou trusted his system and the coaches gave Madden the opportunity. He adjusted to defensive hockey and the Devils have utilized him as such while becoming a top checker in the league.
Look at Johnny Oduya, a fan favorite in Frolunda for fighting. Did the Devils look at him and think, he's got to be an enforcer? No! They saw potential and the team went for him based on what the scouts found. Oduya was willing to work with the team and with the Devils he refined his game. Now, he has become a top-4 guy for bottom pairing money.
Look at Dainius Zubrus, a big, multi-tool player who hasn't put it together. A waste of talent? Lou didn't tihnk that, and figured he could be useful. He's been moved around until Sutter found a near-perfect role for Zubrus' skill set: playing big in a fight-along-the-boards scheme with Elias and Gionta, complementing them both with the skill he brings with his big frame. Far more than what Viktor Kozlov ever did.
Look at Paul Martin. Did he ever look to get out after seeing he was behind some great defenders? No! Who would have thought he'd become the top defenseman on the team after Stevens, Neidermayer, and Rafalski left in succession? Probably Lou and the coaching staff. He stuck it out with the organization, worked well with the coaching staff, on his own game, and has gone from strength to strength under the radar. Now, we don't mind if he plays 24 hard minutes - we welcome it.
I could go on. And I'm not even bringing up Lou's penchant (I'm not saying he's perfect, just great) for brilliant deals: like turning Cam Janssen into Bryce Salvador last season or the famous Arnott-McKay for Nieuwendyk-Langenbrunner back in 2002. Not an easy one, but crucial in getting New Jersey Stanley Cup #3.
And for a veteran or a free agent, who doesn't see the Devils' success and just marvel that the Devils have been so good at winning games. And they're doing it right now with legendary goaltender, Martin Brodeur!
Ultimately, it really comes down to this. Given how the team has remained a difficult one for opponents and a wildly successful one since 1994 (save for the 1995-96 season) despite all the changes, you have to look to what's been constant. I can think of two: the way Lou Lamoriello runs the Devils and Martin Brodeur. And this season, we just saw the Devils top the division while Brodeur's been injured. Further testament to building the team with not just talent, but guys who fit in well and are committed to the team concept and the goal of winning. And I wouldn't be too shocked that the success can even continue without Lou should his successor keep those values in mind and in the forefront. I find that to be far more impressive than an admittedly impressive transformation job.
If I can step away from Lou, I think Burke isn't even the second best GM in the league. Alternatively, Ken Holland has done quite well in Detroit as well and is quite Lou-esque in how he's kept Detroit still one of the best teams in the NHL. I could see Holland ranked higher than Lou in a way. But Burke? Please. He hasn't done enough to prove he's better than Lou or Holland. And if you want to just focus on right now, I think a Cup is the only thing Burke really has over Doug Wilson, who has built up a fantastic San Jose team that could be fantastic for many years to come. Something we may not be able to say about Anaheim.
Now, Burke's not a bad GM in anyway. He's clearly been successful. I just don't think he's the best in the NHL (or even in the top 3). I'm sure Campbell and the insiders who work at THN have their rationales, but from where I sit, I don't see how Burke being the best GM adds up at all. And that despite their position - they are THN after all - and their insiders, they can't put a finger on why Lou's Devils are so damn good. Something we all see every season. As far as the media organization as a whole, it's the lack of insight like this makes me think that I'm not missing a whole lot since those younger days.