With free agency upon us – and fresh on the heels of Mikhail Grabovski’s buyout – the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to be an incredibly different looking team come the fall. Through General Manager Dave Nonis’ machinations since taking over the reins in January, the Leafs roster now looks more shallow and vulnerable than it did at the end of the season less than two months ago.
Quite simply, Nonis slowly and quietly backed himself into a corner with the choices he’s made since taking over from Brian Burke. On a team that appeared to over perform benefitting from a shortened season, the general consensus was that there were a lot of upgrades that need to be made if this team was going to remain a winner. Nonis has to have a master plan, because right now, the Maple Leafs do not look equipped to contend for their first back-to-back playoff berth since 2004. And that’s all on him.
I can think of four moves that Nonis has made in his tenure that I completely support, ones that showed clear direction and made the team better. And they are all fairly marginal. The first was the forcible demotion of Tim Connolly to the Toronto Marlies. The other three were the trades of Matthew Lombardi, David Steckel and Mike Brown. This freed up space for the likes of Nazem Kadri and Matt Frattin, young talent that made the team better. It made the team look like a meritocracy. Talent won out, and replacement level veterans were sent packing.
Just about every move he’s made since then, from acquiring Ryan O’Byrne and Frazer McLaren; and all-but-begging Calgary for Miikka Kiprusoff; to his recent off-season antics have been at best, dubious decisions that haven’t clearly made the team better at the time or down the road.
Even the area where Nonis is getting plaudits heading into today – cap management – appears to be something of an illusion. As of this writing, the Leafs have a little less than $25-million in cap space available; second most in the league heading into free agency.
Half of that will quickly be eaten up in contract renewals for Kadri, Jonathan Bernier, Carl Gunnarsson, Cody Franson and Joe Colborne. So they’ll realistically have about $12 million to play around with to replace an entire forward line (Grabovski, Frattin and MacArthur) while finding an upgrade on a rail-thin defense corps.
I’ve been told by many Leaf fans on Twitter since Thursday’s noontime bombshell to practice patience with Dave Nonis. I don’t sit in on the meetings. I’m not privy to the trade proposals being flung MLSE’s way. I am not their organizational architect. They’ve got a point, certainly.
But patience is in short supply. After only six months into his tenure as the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, I believe that Nonis has inherited a playoff-calibre team assembled by Brian Burke and whittled it into something almost undefinable. He’s stripped the team of a few cheap, useful parts. His availed cap space only becomes beneficial if he uses to it to upgrade on parts let go or expunged; not to re-sign Tyler Bozak or overpay on a similar mediocre center talent. The team has let go of their only centre to crack 50 points in a single season. He solidified goaltending, though it was not an area on anyone’s radar and comes potentially at the cost of destabilizing morale.
This is his time. He’s got two months, starting at noon today, to reforge this team into his own image. There’s no greater stage in hockey than Toronto, and Dave Nonis is going to have to put on one hell of a show to convince me that he’s building a winner. Cause it’ll be his job (and fans’ hopes) that’ll get terminated if not.