It’s now late January, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are skydiving down the standings. Last year, the reaction among the masses was a plea to reach for the parachute cord and pull; the results of the luck-driven prior season gave many hope that the tides could be reversed. This year? Written off. It’s done. Wipe the hands of the dust and start getting ready for what’s ahead. As such, speculation has begun as to what management has to do leading up to the trade deadline.
My answer? Not enter it as the same group they are now. Specifically, I’m looking towards the big guy.
I’m going to forgo my usual numbers-laden analysis of individuals and cut straight to the chase here. A lot of the current scuttlebutt can be traced back to the very man who is supposed to mend it.
Cody Franson is the first name that ends up in most trade talks. The pending unrestricted free agent is thought to be asking for a dollar figure that the Leafs can’t afford to pay. Not even “too high for what he is”; Franson has proven to be an elite even-strength point producer and better than most in moving to the offensive zone. Merely that the Leafs can’t afford it.
But how do you get to that point? You get there with a management team that gave Franson not one, not two, but three consecutive “put up or shut up” contracts in an effort to keep his salary down. It worked for them in 2013, as he had a down year, but this recent one is a catastrophe. Franson has finally had his coming out party, and the Leafs have completely failed to get any UFA years out of him before having to make a decision on him. Of course, there’s the potential out of “Nonis doesn’t feel that Franson is very good”, but this ignores the fact that he was assistant GM for his acquisition and was the GM for three contract extensions.
Staying on the current defencemen, Captain Dion Phaneuf has been in trade negotiations. Elliotte Friedman mentioned today that he was offered to Los Angeles in exchange for Mike Richards and a top prospect. Kevin McGran has noted that Phaneuf has been shopped across the Western Conference. Whether it’s feelers or firesale, the man with the C is definitely “on the market”.
The two obvious reasons for this sudden heel turn are “lack of cap space” or “lack of leadership”, and you can look back for both of those. Nonis signed him to his seven year extension that he began this year. Nonis was around for Phaneuf’s acquisition and appointment of captaincy. If he feels a mistake has been made in either regard, he’s a witness at best and an instigator at worst. I’m of the crowd that likes Phaneuf and wouldn’t mind keeping him for a little longer (seven years is a long time, though), but if you take shopping a guy (which is different than ‘open to offers’) as an acknowledgement of a mistake, Nonis is acknowledging himself.
The list goes on and on. It would be in the Leafs’ best interest to sell high on Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak (the latter being at peak value) before regressions (Lupul’s being age driven, Bozak’s usage driven) drop the value on their five year contracts. Dave Nonis signed both of those deals. Nazem Kadri needs a big raise? Nazem Kadri wanted a longer term deal and Nonis asked for the bridge contract. David Clarkson’s contract is the absolute worst signed in the history of the National Hockey League and is impeding the team? Who decided it was a good idea? Right.
Let’s say you wanted to ignore the entire 2013/14 offseason, which for all intents and purposes is one of the biggest catastrophes that has happened since Mike Milbury had power of an NHL team. Nonis hasn’t exactly done a lot to provoke optimism.
Let’s start at last year’s trade deadline. The Leafs had an 11-1-2 stretch heading into the Olympic Break that brought them from out of the playoffs to six points ahead of the Red Wings, but Detroit had caught two of those up by the deadline even with the Leafs having two overtime losses. Nonis chose to trust that the dominant team he saw prior was going to be the one that stuck around. The reality was that the Leafs were the second-worst possession team in the league over that stretch and stayed at the bottom. Drops in shooting percentage and save percentage plummeted lead to the crash and burn that we saw.
You can’t blame Nonis for wishful thinking; you can, however, for feeling that said thinking was the probable outcome. If he was realistic and expected regression, he could have obtained assets for the likes of Mason Raymond and Nikolai Kulemin, who he ultimately allowed to hit unrestricted free agency.
Fast forward into this offseason. The Frattin for D’Amigo swap is whatever. Gunnarsson for Polak has worked out for both sides, but retaining salary on Gunnarsson hurts a lot right now. Signing Stephane Robidas, who has looked relatively dreadful on the rare occasions that he’s healthy and probably won’t play out his 35+ contract. Whether he does or doesn’t, he’ll be in the way of either a roster spot or a paycheque for one of Toronto’s younger defencemen.
How about the moves that didn’t happen? Everybody likes to point out that the Leafs walked away from Dave Bolland, but Nonis offered him a five year deal at five million dollars a year. The only reason that he’s not on the
IR Leafs right now is because the Panthers offered him more money. Being bailed out on a bad decision because someone else made a dumber one doesn’t make your decision smart; it just makes it the second dumbest.
Or how about Josh Gorges? Nonis, as the story goes, traded Cody Franson to the Montreal Canadiens in a BC Boy for BC Boy swap. Gorges, who apparently watched The Hockey Sweater about thirty thousand times after getting knocked out of the playoffs, used his No Trade Clause to block the deal, saying he couldn’t give his all for the Leafs because he loved the Habs so much. Instead, he went to the Buffalo Sabres, where he’s become the second worst possession player (or the worst, because Patrick Kaleta barely qualifies as a modern NHLer) on one of the worst possession teams in professional hockey history. The Leafs kept Cody Franson, who is a Leafs fan, drives play, scores buckets of points, and is apparently now too good to afford keeping.
Even today’s rumour, which sees the Leafs trying to acquire Tyler Toffoli for about the twelfth time in as many months, comes with the caveat that the Leafs trade their captain in a deal that also includes them having the second worst contract in the game to go with the worst one.
We’re getting away from my main point, however. The reality is, every single player on the Toronto Maple Leafs roster has played their first game in blue and white with Dave Nonis as either the assistant GM or the actual GM. Nonis either assisted in acquiring or actually acquired every single player on this roster other than James Reimer (Leo Komarov was drafted before him, but technically brought back as a UFA). Nonis played a part in the process of creating or orchestrated every single contract on this team, including the ones that he needs to shed in a cap-induced panic. His recent highlights include not making catastrophic decisions because others stopped him from making them.
Even if Brendan Shanahan (who, in my eyes, is starting to run out of time to use firings as “patience extensions”) is around to stop him from making more of them, this isn’t a confidence invoking situation. Coming from somebody who advocated making him GM before he was even the assistant, my mind is long changed. Right now, Dave Nonis is assigned the task of fixing the mistakes of Dave Nonis.
Given the history, that should be someone else’s assignment.