Keeping Dave Nonis around was impossible for Shanahan

Any time you get two or more people talking about this new rebuild the Leafs are digging in to, you’re probably going to hear the word “finally” thrown around a few times. Finally, this team is scorching everything and letting it grow back naturally. Finally, the proper rebuild. The low and slow approach. 

If you believe a team puppet like Darren Dreger, even ex-general manager Nonis himself planned this all along. The whole league could see this had to happen, apparently.

But there was a time in the not-too-distant past where the Leafs didn’t really have to rebuild, and they could have gotten away with simply building or re-tooling. If you really think about it, this whole thing isn’t as overdue as it’s being played up to be, and it likely could have been avoided entirely if not for a stretch of arguably the worst “GM-ing” in modern times.

Nonis took over for Brian Burke in January of 2013, and since then has probably turned in the worst stretch of NHL management of the salary cap era. No, really.

I think you could argue that Nonis could have made three (meaningful) moves in 2013 and this team would not be the wreck it is today. This isn’t news to anyone who follows the team closely: Dave Nonis absolutely ruined the Maple Leafs that summer. 

Three moves.

First move: Re-sign Clarke MacArthur for 3.25 million per season. That’s all he wanted. The same contract again, that’s it. This doesn’t seem like a make-or-break decision, but MacArthur was (and still is) a useful player who simply ended up on the wrong side of a brutal coach.

Second move: Fire Randy Carlyle.

Third move: Put everything into shoring up the blue-line. The main hole was on defence. Make a trade, do something. Use all the time and resources you spent doing wrong things to do a right thing here.

Of course, the counter to this is “it isn’t that simple, a lot more happened for the Leafs that summer” – so what about it? Well, just stop. Don’t do those things. 

Don’t give Bozak money and term – let him walk. Don’t buy out Grabovski. Don’t buy out Komisarek. Don’t put effort into trading for a goalie when your current one just carried you on his back to a game seven you had no business being in. Don’t sign David Clarkson. Just don’t do any of these things. 

Again, none of this is news, we talk about it almost daily on twitter and such. But you get this sense from media and fans alike that this seems as simple as the Leafs being bad for a decade and now they’re finally being saved. It isn’t. They had another window to shape things up properly, and Nonis slammed it shut, starting with that first summer of decision-making.

Another thing that’s frustrating is this idea that Nonis pulled off some sort of miracle by trading Clarkson at this year’s deadline, and maybe that could, or even should, have saved his job. That’s one way of looking at it. The other, and more realistic view, I think, is that Nonis signed a player to the worst contract in league history, and the Leafs eventually hired enough smart people capable of finding a way out of his awful mistake. I have a difficult time believing Nonis was even heavily involved in making the deal with Columbus happen, as nothing else during his tenure indicates he’s capable of doing so. And no matter how you think it went down, the Horton contract still hurts them in the off-season, so this wasn’t a full erase. July 5, 2013 still hurts, and will continue to hurt. Again, that’s on Nonis. 

If the Leafs had anyone remotely competent calling the shots that summer, things could be a lot different right now and this whole scorched earth thing likely wouldn’t be dominating the headlines. Would they be contenders? I have no idea, but they likely would have carried enough good players to continue to add, and would have had a clearer look at their roster without Carlyle dragging everything into the gutter. Instead, because Nonis had no idea how to evaluate his roster, the team turned into a mixed bag of hell.

Nonis did everything wrong. Seriously, everything. He held on to Carlyle for nearly two years too long, put all his effort into areas that didn’t need addressing, and locked up players to enormous contracts when he had no idea where the team stood league-wide in the short or long term. His time on the throne is actually so bad it’s impressive. General managers complete headline-making, boneheaded moves all the time, but approaching nearly everything that way for up to two calendar years is something that’s unforgivable. (I probably don’t have to remind you that Nonis also made plays for a retiring Kiprussoff, was continually linked to Brodeur, and tried to trade Cody Franson for thirty-year-old Josh Gorges. Yes, truly a manager with his finger on the pulse of the league, one who planned this rebuild and wanted to focus on development. Come on.)

Basically what I’m saying is, even if we are looking at things more positively these days, we probably shouldn’t see this as an “Oh finally” moment for the organization in the sense that it was unavoidable. I’m staying positive because I think the guys currently in charge are smart and will make smart decisions from here on out, with whatever plan they have. But part of that plan includes cleaning up the mess Nonis made, and it’s a big one. They couldn’t keep him around to oversee that. 

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking this was a process that was imminent regardless of the general manager. It has everything to do with who was in charge, and thankfully he isn’t around to do further damage. 

  • StephenInOttawa

    Had Burke worn out his welcome with the community in general? No one talks about his departure as a turning point. I don’t think he would have made the mistakes Nonis did.

    • silentbob

      who knows if Burke would have made the same moves Nonis did. For all we know Nonis was doing things that he and Burke had already talked about needing to happen that off-season.

      I feel bad for Nonis. You could write this article about Burke have just as many missteps and mistakes, yet Burke, yet people tend to focus on Burke “fixing” his mistakes while Nonis “did everything wrong”.

      I’m not saying Nonis did a great job or didn’t deserve to be fired (though I wouldn’t have had an issue with him being there to do Shanahan’s grunt work), but I do think he gets unfairly pilled on while Burke gets unearned praise – and it is an interesting contrast.

  • Graphic Comments

    I dont completely disagree with your post, but I don’t Nonis was the worst…. There was of course John Ferguson.

    April 20, 2006 – Shedding the perceived millstone around his neck, Ferguson fires Quinn after the team fails to make the playoffs. Ferguson eventually replaces him with Paul Maurice, who had coached the team’s AHL affiliate Marlies that season.

    June 24, 2006 – In one of the most controversial deals of his tenure, Ferguson acquires goaltender Andrew Raycroft from Boston in exchange for Tuukka Rask, a young goalie many consider a future star. Though Raycroft would set a team record for wins (37) in a season in 2006-07, he fails to become the dominant No.1 goalie the team needs, forcing Ferguson to trade for Vesa Toskala the following year.

    June 28, 2006 – Ferguson rewards defenceman Bryan McCabe with a five-year, $28.75 million deal. While McCabe scored 68 points that season, the deal raises eyebrows because it is $7 million more than Kaberle, considered the better player. Both McCabe and Kaberle are also given no-movement clauses.

    July 1, 2006 – Ferguson makes his biggest splash, signing free agent defencemen Hal Gill and Pavel Kubina to multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts. While Gill is given a relatively modest $6.3 million over three years, Kubina gets $20 million over four years; a deal many consider to be over-valued.

    February 27, 2007 – With the Leafs in danger of missing the playoffs, Ferguson acquires Yanic Perreault from Phoenix in exchange for Brendan Bell and a second-round pick in the 2008 draft. A faceoff specialist, Perreault contributes just five points in 17 games

    June 22, 2007 – Tacitly acknowledging that Raycroft might not be up to the job, Ferguson trades a first-round pick (Lars Eller) and a fourth-round pick to San Jose for Toskala and forward Mark Bell. While Toskala emerges as the team’s top goalie, Bell must first serve a 15-game suspension for violating the NHL’s substance abuse policy and faces a six-month jail term once the season ends.

    • Ferguson does give him a good run but I tend to give JFJ a little bit of lee-way because I always assumed he wasn’t even making the moves, just listening to ownership. I guess we might be able to make the same excuse for Nonis, but Dreger often pointed out that Nonis had autonomy, which was something Burke established early on because he saw how JFJ was treated. So Nonis looks worse IMO.

    • acg5151

      that toskala deal got the sharks logan couture. leafs are so generous by helping other teams acquire elite talent for absolutely nothing while they are stuck with absolute sh*t!

  • acg5151

    Honestly people forget that Brian Burke had built a decent team with some good young prospects and some good forward depth. Apart from not having a #1 defenseman, which I imagine that Burkie thought that Jake Gardiner or Morgan Rielly might eventually turn into, the Leafs had a very good second line in Kulemin/Grabo/MacArthur, probably the second best RWer in the league, a solid but injury prone Joffrey Lupul, and JVR who has been a good top line winger. Apart from Bozak being the first line center, which I think Kadri could have done a lot better had he been given more than like 3 game auditions to get used to it, the forward depth was decent.

    On defense Phaneuf wasn’t a #1 defenseman but he could have been a capable #2. Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly are both going to be good puck movers and Gunnarson was a reliable stay at home dman who actually didn’t suck. Cody Franson was developing into a good second pair guy. Apart from just having crappy depth like Mike Komisarek whose deal would have just expired after a year, the Leafs were decent and would have been fine if Randy Carlyle hadn’t come along and Carlyle’d the team.

    Dave Nonis kind of sucked but JFJ was even worse, keep in mind though that JFJ was pretty much handcuffed by the team and according to rumors actually asked MLSE to begin a rebuild and was denied.

  • silentbob

    The worst pound for pound GM in recent memory was actually an interim GM: Cliff Fletcher
    Some moves of note
    Signs Jeff Finger cause fingers agent tricks him
    Moves up to draft (giving up 3 picks) lump of rock Luke Schenn
    Signs Hagman
    Gives up Second for Hal Gill
    days before Burke hired he trades Steen and coliacovo for Lea Stepniak
    Probably more I can’t remember

  • silentbob

    It’s easy to critique in hindsight, and i do believe that Nonis is to blame for a lot, but whether he kept Grabo/Mcarthur, not sign Clarkson/trade for Bernier, this team would still be mediocre and this rebuild is delayed even further. There is something fundamentally wrong with the core of this team working together. I still blame the beginning of the most recent pile on Burke for taking short cuts. He should of kept the draft picks the Leafs had and not take a gamble in trading them for Kessel who didn’t have a top center at the time and to this day still doesn’t and probably never will on this team until he’s long and gone. Who builds a team around a winger? I sincerely believe that Nonis thought he had a decent team after that 5 second playoff appearance and thought that he needed to get some pieces to go further in the post-season when really the team had a fluke year as we all know and they probably don’t make the playoff if it’s not a lock-out year. When Burke got fired, Nonis should of went with him. They leafs management should of started there and continued, it’s too bad that Nonis inherited Burke’s buddy, Carlyle. We all know how well that went. So all in all, I think Burke and Nonis are opposite sides of the same coin.

  • acg5151

    JFJ followed by The Second Coming of Cliff the worst years in the past 10. The common denominater that the last 4 GM’s share is that they never found a true #1 Center to replace Mats Sundin. Fletcher practically ran the man out of town, Burkie just finished the job. Calling Bozak the #1 Center is like saying Justin Bieber is a musical genius. This article is for the most part, mindless drivel. While I agree that the buyouts of Komisarek and Graboski were mistakes the writers assessment of the Clarkson contract is more than a tad melodramatic. Bad contract, perhaps, worst contract in the history of the NHL, ridiculous. The writer is in way over his head when evaluating the job done by Nonis. If he wants to preen on like a Diva I suggest he restrict his reviews to Figure Skating.

  • walkingman11

    If Brian ‘draft schmaft’ Burke started this rebuild 5 yrs ago this team would be in the playoffs right now. He had the cache to tear down and rebuild but he did not want to and now he’s ‘consulting’ for the Flames and getting credit where none is due.