Brian Burke is known for his opinions, especially when it comes to the seven Canada-based NHL teams.
And heading into this season, the Sportsnet analyst and former NHL executive feels particularly strong about one of them: the Montreal Canadiens.
“Montreal, in my mind, is more playoff-ready than any other Canadian team,” Burke said. “I think what Montreal did, I picked them as the best team in Canada now as far as the Stanley Cup favorite.”
Burke pointed to the strides some of Montreal’s young players made this past postseason, when the Canadiens defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in four games in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers before losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in six games in the Eastern Conference First Round. But he also noted what they did in the offseason, when they added forwards Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson, defenseman Joel Edmundson, and goalie Jake Allen.
In a wide-ranging interview with NHL.com, Burke, the author of a new book called “Burke’s Law: A Life in Hockey,” discusses the upcoming season and reflects on two of his biggest mentors, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and New York Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello.
Who do you think are the front-runners for the Stanley Cup?
“Looking at the best teams, I think Dallas had a magical run (last season), but I’m not sure they can do that again. Colorado looks like the best team in the West, but I don’t trust their goaltending. Vegas adds Alex Pietrangelo to a team that really has very few holes but had unbelievable difficulty scoring goals in the playoffs. If I’m looking at it, St. Louis is a recent [Stanley Cup] winner that lost a really good player in [Pietrangelo] but added a really good player in Torey Krug. They’re still formidable for me. So is Vegas. Colorado, I think if they can switch out one goaltender and get a legit starter, they’re going to be trouble for anyone that plays [it]. In the East, Washington to me is still is still a powerhouse. Boston will be good again, although I think they’ll miss Krug greatly. And Tampa Bay, once they sort things out, they’re going to be formidable again.”
How would you assess the seven Canada-based teams?
“I think it’s a great time to be a Canadian team. I think they’re all going the right way. … Toronto’s made good moves. Vancouver got stripped a little bit, but they still love their young core. Winnipeg didn’t do much, but I still like their veteran core along with some of their kids. Edmonton has two of the top five forwards in the League (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl) and I like some of the moves (general manager) Kenny Holland has made. Ottawa, they’ve been on a roll, man. It’s unbelievable what (general manager) Pierre Dorion has done between free agent signings and draft picks. They’re going to be a totally different team in about 18 months.”
What about the Canadiens has you so optimistic?
“[Jesperi] Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki demonstrated they can play center at a high level, even in pressure situations. You have [Phillip] Danault in the three-hole, all of a sudden, the center position looks pretty good. They couldn’t score off the wings other than Brendan Gallagher, so [Anderson is] an upgrade. Josh Anderson plays physical and hard. On defense, they bring in Joel Edmundson to round out their top six. And they get a quality backup goalie in Jake Allen, which is important because I expect there to be a compressed schedule. I think they checked all the boxes that were question marks, and I think they’re going to be a problem for teams they play in the playoffs.”
You still have questions about the Maple Leafs. What are they?
“TJ Brodie‘s a good pickup, a really good kid, a good skater. It doesn’t make them any bigger or nastier on defense, so I still think they’re missing a component where they can offset when they get forechecked to death in some of these games, sometimes for four minutes at a time. I like some of the other things they’ve done, but when I put their team next to Tampa, next to Washington, I don’t see a team that can beat either of those teams.”
Lou Lamoriello coached you at Providence College from 1973-77 and is someone you often refer to as a mentor. What is Lamoriello really like?
“Well, he was one of the first people to reach out when my son Brendan died. He means everything to me. He was so important in my formation as a man. He taught me not only about being a hockey player, but going to school and having good manners and doing the right things and treating people right. I owe the guy. I love the guy. He has a great human side which people don’t see so they paint him with this false image of being stoic. And that stereotype, however false, is fine with him.”
Another person you cite as having a huge influence on your life and career is NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who hired you as executive vice president and director of hockey operations for the League in 1993. In what ways did he influence you?
“Ask anyone who was around when Gary hired me in ’93 to look back on those 27 years and tell me what the League was like back then. No clear vision of where it wanted to go. No TV contract. Gary took that small entity and turned it into a juggernaut. It’s all about his vision. I remember him telling me even the first year, ‘We cannot have franchise stability until we get labor peace on a deal that makes sense.’ Eventually, we got the salary cap and that’s the first point where franchise value started to really accelerate and there was actually the possibility in the hockey business for a lot of teams to make money for the first time. He also realized with a national TV contract it was important to have teams in Phoenix, in Dallas, in both Florida cities. I said this in the book, I think a lot of people who have vision look over to the next peak. So when they’re standing on one peak, they realize they’re going to have to cross the valley to the next peak. Well, Gary’s looking ahead to the next seven peaks, not just one.”