The news that the Tampa Bay Lightning have Dave Nonis at the top of their shortlist for general manager candidates was perhaps an instance of the inevitable. If Tampa or Nonis deem it not a right fit, we can only expect more of the same from other owners looking to fill vacant general manager positions.
It was reported at the time of Nonis’ signing that a one-year clause was included to assure Nonis’ services belonged to the Leafs for 2009-10 at a minimum. When Nonis’ contractual obligation ends is unclear, but from Joe Nieuwendyk to Steffan Kronwall to Justin Pogge, it’s clear Burke will never step in the way of an employee’s desire to advance professionally.
But not all hope is lost. First, let’s look at what the Leafs have in Nonis, and hopefully what they don’t end up losing.
It’s often unknown exactly what role the assistant general manager plays in a given front office decision by an NHL club. That we hear detail about Nonis’ hand in many of the Leafs’ managerial decisions of the past year tells you he’s doing a lot right. Plus, you only have to shift your attention to the years 2004-2008 to understand Nonis has a number of prudent decisions on his resume as a frontline general manager. The Luongo deal speaks for itself; As Bitter Leaf notes, the choice to match on the Ryan Kesler offer-sheet was knowingly bound to generate some bad press at the time, but Nonis’ apt talent evaluation and long-term thinking continues to shine through today as Kesler goes a point-a-game in the playoffs following a 75-point season and a strong showing for the U.S. Olympic team. His ultimate downfall out West was perhaps his unwillingness to take a gamble at the deadline of 2008 as fans were calling for a major change to improve a struggling offense. There were rumours of an Alexander Edler and a first for Brad Richards deal sitting on the table that Nonis walked away from, deeming the long-term sacrifice wasn’t worth the short-term gain as the Canucks weren’t close enough yet to Stanley Cup contention. One could argue the Canucks are better positioned to compete now and later because of Nonis’ patient eye for the future, but he inevitably became Francesco Aquilini’s fall guy.
Interesting to consider, then, is that Nonis seems very much the ying to Burke’s yang. The pragmatic personality Nonis provides to the front office seems a valuable counterbalance to the at times hot-blooded Burke.Â Nonis’ composure is what makes him such a shrewd negotiator and is why Burke entrusted Nonis with taking the wheel during such a pivotal time of year for league management – the opening of unrestricted free agency. While Burke pursued Gustavsson overseas, it was Nonis negotiating and ultimately sealing the contracts of Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin and Colton Orr during opening week. While none could be called steals a season in, all salary figures were pleasantly fair considering the mania of early July, when so many GMs – as we as Leafs fans know too well – can’t help but gamble on long term overpayments. Not to mention the credit Burke often gives to Nonis for negotiations relating to their many college free agent endeavours that have played such a key role in making up ground for lost picks in the Kessel deal, or his role in the Phaneuf blockbuster.
It’s the complete level of trust between Burke and Nonis rooted in their history together from their time united in Vancouver, to Anaheim, to Toronto, and reciprocal personalities that makes the pair a team stronger than it’s individual halves. It’s perhaps also why Leafs fans can hope Nonis will continue on with what he and Burke have started in Toronto.
It may be increasingly rare concept in the world of sport, but loyalty may well win out in the Leafs’ favour here. If someone has an audio or a news link to Nonis calling his job the envy of the league, please share because I remember something to that tune. Nonetheless, the respect between Nonis and Burke is obvious, and there’s little doubt that Nonis is receiving plenty of accreditation from Burke, who often works in a shout out in his press conferences, and to a lesser extent the media.
Additionally, the Leafs may have more than loyalty to lean on here. Put yourself in Nonis’ shoes as an employee and consider how rewarding and fulfilling it can be to find yourself in a respected, influential and presumably well-compensated position within an organization. And it’s not a totally uncommon situation across the hockey world for hockey execs in Nonis’ circumstance to stand pat.
Jim Nill has ridden shot-gun to Ken Holland since 1994. Few would dispute that he’s overseen the most productive and opportunistic scouting staff for over a decade, and would have no problems finding a ship to captain if he so desired.
David McNab is another long-time assistant GM who has been in Anaheim since the club’s inception in ’93, best known for his ability to scour the collegiate system and find hidden talent. He added Andy McDonald, Chris Kunitz, Dustin Penner, and Ryan Shannon to the Duck fold as little-known players out of college.
David Conte has been the brain behind draft-day coups such as Marty Brodeur, Scott Gomez, Patrick Elias and Scott Niedermayer. Comfortable alongside Lamoriello in New Jersey, he serves as the VP of Hockey Operations and Director of Scouting.
Tampa Bay may not prove to be the ideal fit for Nonis as a drafter/builder on a club already armed with a lot of young talent and in need of some immediate upgrades. That’s not to say a better fit won’t come along at some time in the not-too-distant future.
But hopefully, Nonis sees his current position within the Leafs organization as that right fit and continues seeing out the vision he and Burke have devised.