Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS A grim-faced Dave Nonis attends a news conference in Toronto on Wednesday at which it was announced he was the newly appointed Toronto Maple Leafs general manager, replacing his friend Brian Burke. Star columnist Damien Cox considers Burke’s firing, coming this late in a shortened season, “downright Ballard-like.”
“Wasn’t Nonis already the GM?” said the agent.
Fair point. Though Burke was the larger-than-life, louder-than-bombs star of Canada’s greatest ongoing soap opera, and though Burke’s business card boasted of his status as president and general manager of one the NHL’s heritage franchises, it’s long been understood among hockey insiders that Nonis has always acted as far more than Burke’s right-hand man.
During Burke’s four-plus years on the Bay Street scene, Nonis often stood in as the club’s chief negotiator of trades and wooer of free agents. While Burke was off doing valuable community work here and other executive duties there, Nonis handled the day-to-day duties of an NHL GM, a job Nonis occupied in Vancouver from 2004 to 2008.
And though Nonis is Burke’s indebted protégé — Nonis even came to his first press conference as chief Leaf wearing the loosened-tie look that Burke made a trademark — there’s reason to believe he is something else important. Specifically, his own man.
Where Burke was a combative contrarian, people close to the game will tell you Nonis has built a name as a quiet consensus builder. Their paths have run in parallel. Their styles are divergent. And certainly they haven’t always agreed.
When the club was looking for a coach to replace Ron Wilson in the grim days when last season transformed itself into a lost season, NHL sources say Nonis went to bat for Dallas Eakins, then and now the coach of the AHL Marlies. Nonis and other front-office executives were of the belief that Eakins is everything a modern-era coach should be; progressive but hard-nosed, communicative with players but never friends with them. Burke, of course, insisted on his old friend Randy Carlyle. And though Carlyle certainly deserves a chance to prove himself in the coming 48-game season, the early returns on his tenure — six wins in 18 games after taking over for Wilson in March — suggest the old-school taskmaster may not be the best fit for one of the NHL’s youngest collections of athletes.
Roberto Luongo has become a realistic target. Another matter on which Burke and Nonis differed, of course, was the long-rumoured trade for Luongo, the top-tier goaltender that Nonis brought to the Canucks during his tenure in Vancouver. Burke’s aversion to the deal has been well-reported by my colleague Damien Cox; Cox has written that Burke had recently been pronouncing himself “90% sure” that the Leafs would begin the season with James Reimer and Ben Scrivens manning the goalmouth. MLSE sources say there are board members who favoured the Maple Leafs making a bigger splash in the lead-up to the season that begins Saturday night in Montreal.
Luongo was the obvious bombshell. Not that Nonis will breeze into the office on Thursday and consummate the deal. There are more than a few suitors for Luongo, which has only emboldened the Canucks’ desire to extract value in a transaction that was once seen as a contract dump.
Phil Kessel could become trade bait. In one of the great challenges in recent NHL history, Carlyle will use this season to attempt to insert a disciplined two-way system on a team built for Ron Wilson’s run-and-gun style. It’s difficult for a coach to preach defensive responsibility and a commitment to fitness when there’s a pudgy floater like Kessel at the top of the team of scoring standings. Not that it’d be impossible for Kessel to have a mid-career change of habits, but history suggests the sniper’s talent trumps his commitment to the game. That means the example he sets is disastrous on a young club like Toronto’s. He has to go. Now that the major roadblock to moving him — i.e. Burke’s ego — is out the door, a deal is possible. Not that it will fetch anything close to what Burke surrendered to get him, a haul that turned out to include Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton.
The front office will be quieter. This might not be as entertaining for the folks who enjoyed Burke’s gift for the prickly sound bite. But it certainly won’t be bad for the Maple Leafs’ image around the league. Burke made enemies en masse. “Pittsburgh model my ass,” was the memorable utterance on the day last spring when he suggested the Penguins, one of the model organizations in the league, had simply lucked into their success. That didn’t go over well. It wasn’t an isolated incident. Nonis, who has acknowledged publicly that many of Burke’s headline-grabbing outbursts often made him cringe, will get to work repairing the bridges that his old boss burned.
The roster could become less American. No jingoism rings from this space, but it certainly poured out of Burke, the scion of USA Hockey who stocked the roster with a long list of U.S.-bred players. Nonis went to school in Maine and lives in New Hampshire, but he’s from Burnaby and doesn’t figure to harbour Burke’s obvious bias.
If Burke ever spoke those words, it would have sounded disingenuous. Nonis sounded sincere. Acquiring a top-notch goaltender could go a long way toward shifting focus from the front office to the ice.