Brian Burke started as an casual adviser to the Pittsburgh Penguins in their search for a new general manager, giving his ideas, opinions, thoughts and reactions about candidates they were interested in.
On Tuesday, Burke was hired as the president of the Penguins’ hockey operations department, a job he never saw coming but one he said excites him more than any of the many others he has held in the NHL.
“I would have said no if it was anyone but David Morehouse and the Pittsburgh Penguins,” Burke said. “I was happy with my life. I liked living in Toronto. But you get to work for the Pittsburgh Penguins, man. This is Cadillac class here. This is not a run of the mill team. This is not a run of the mill ownership. I’m so excited to move to Pittsburgh. It’s one of the great sports towns on the planet. It’s the best sports town in America.
“It was a no-brainer.”
Burke walked away from a job he loved in television, working as an on-air analyst for Sportsnet, to join new general manager Ron Hextall in the immediate opportunity to win the Stanley Cup with centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
It’s an opportunity that was born out of the mind of Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux after Hextall was chosen to replace Jim Rutherford, the two-time Cup winning GM with the Penguins who resigned Jan. 27.
“I was talking to Mario about Ron and he said, ‘Burkie, what about Burkie?’ ” Penguins president and CEO David Morehouse said. “I called [Burke] and said, ‘Hey Burkie, Mario just asked me to give you a call.’ There was silence on the other end of the phone, and then Burkie said, ‘You know David, if it was anyone else I’d be able to tell you no right now, but can I sleep on it a little bit?’ “
Burke accepted the job the next day.
“When you’ve got pieces like the Pittsburgh Penguins have you’ve got to think, ‘As long as we have those pieces we’ve got to try to win,’ ” Burke said. “You look at some of the great players I’ve had, I’ve got guys that are in the Hall of Fame, I think Sid is the best player that I’ve ever had.
“To me, you’re talking about a first-rate organization that’s got everything in place. You don’t have to reinvent anything. … We’ll try to make the team better right now.”
To do it, to win the Stanley Cup with Crosby, Malkin and the Penguins, Burke will have to prove himself wrong.
“I don’t think Pittsburgh is good enough to win,” Burke said on the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast on Nov. 26. “No matter what they do now with their (NHL salary) cap situation, I think that window has closed for me. I look in the East and I say are they better than [the] Tampa [Bay Lightning]? Nope. Are they better than [the] Washington [Capitals]? Nope. Are they better than [the] Boston [Bruins]? Nope.”
The conversation was about how having three or more players taking up huge chunks of salary cap room makes it difficult for a team to win the Stanley Cup.
In Pittsburgh, Malkin ($9.5 million), Crosby ($8.7 million) and defenseman Kris Letang ($7.25 million) comprise $25.45 million of the Penguins’ $81.5 million cap. Each is a three-time Stanley Cup champions with the Penguins (2009, 2016, 2017), but Malkin is 34 years old and Crosby and Letang each is 33.
So how does Burke reconcile his comments on the podcast with his new task?
“I’m not going to back away from anything I said in my media role,” the 65-year-old said. “I’m talking about the way I compare teams is, you take a team, you write it down on paper and put it next to the Tampa Bay Lightning or put it next to the Washington Capitals. That’s my job as an analyst on TV, to say, ‘OK, I have to pick which of these teams will finish ahead of the other one.’ All the teams that have had success have cap issues. There’s a whole bunch of teams with extreme salary cap issues who haven’t won a bloody thing. At least in Pittsburgh when Jimmy Rutherford goes to buy gas, he’s got two rings on. To me, I’m not going to back away from anything I said, but I also think when you have pieces like we have here, you’ve got to try to win.”
That is the entire reason the Penguins went with a combination of Burke, who hasn’t worked in a front office since leaving his job as the Calgary Flames president of hockey operations on April 27, 2018, and Hextall, fired by the Philadelphia Flyers after four seasons as their GM on Nov. 26, 2018.
Burke has 31 years in the NHL as an executive and won the Stanley Cup as GM of the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. Hextall was the Los Angeles Kings’ assistant GM when they won the Stanley Cup in 2012; the 56-year-old left to take the Flyers job five weeks before the Kings won the Cup again in 2014.
“I think they’re the two along with coach [Mike] Sullivan that are going to take us in a direction we’re used to being taken,” Morehouse said. “Nothing has changed. We’re the Pittsburgh Penguins and we’re here to win.”