Tom Anselmi was on-hand at the Air Canada Centre during a surprise press conference Wednesday afternoon that saw assistant general manager Dave Nonis introduced as the 14th general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Anselmi cited a “transition to new ownership, new leadership, new priorities” as a reason for the decision:
“Since the closing of the sale in August I’ve spent a lot of time working closely with our board as they evaluated our organization and its people and the long term direction of our teams. So part of that assessment involved taking a look at the Maple Leafs and out hockey organization. As a result of that, we’ve decided to make a leadership change and move into a direction in our General Manager role.”
Brian Burke was relieved as president and general manager but will remain in the Leafs organization as a senior advisor to the club.
Nonis, who formerly replaced Burke in Vancouver, thanked Burke for . Nonis said that the front office staff and the coaching staff would be kept together. Randy Carlyle worked under Nonis while he was in the Canucks organization with the Manitoba Moose. Here are his opening remarks:
First of all I want to thank Brian for everything he’s done, I think years down the road we’ll be able to look back and see the mark that he made, which is significant. Second I want to thank him personally everything that he’s done for me, I’ve worked for Brian for most of my adult life and he’s always been a great friend and mentor.
Second [sic] I want to thank the ownership group for their faith in us as a management team to allow us to continue to build this franchise and we’ve come a long way, still have a long way to go and we really thank them for their support and their faith in us. We have a quality staff in place. Cliff Fletcher brings a great deal of experience obviously and anyone in Toronto knows what he’s done here. He’s always been a great resource for me and our management group and will continue to do so. Both Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle are quality executives who both played in this league and understand what it takes to win, and they will both continue to work with me to move this franchise forward.
Finally our coaching staff: We have a very good coaching staff in place. Randy is a quality head coach, he worked for me before in Manitoba, we go back a fair ways, our assistants… they’ve meshed with Randy and again, going forward, we’re very happy that we have him here with us.
We’re going to have a very short window to make some difficult decisions. Going forward, we don’t know exactly where that start date is, but we’ve been preparing for it with meetings in the last several days, we’ll continue to do that, and once we get the great light, we’re going to have a very short window to make some decisions about this hockey club.
This hiring isn’t, of course, without its fair share of assumptions. Rumours about Brian Burke’s personal life went unaddressed by Anselmi and Nonis, and I won’t reprint them here for fear of The Leafs Nation becoming a source of a smut box. What we do here is discuss the Leafs from an outsider perspective, trying to figure out this hockey team and the things it does without using clichés and talking points from inside the organization.
That said, I’m willing to take Anselmi’s statement that it was simply the timing of the sale at face value. It’s odd that they would not have allowed Burke to finish out his year and see what his roster could accomplish, but Anselmi did cite that the board and the new owners did not see a long-term working relationship with Burke, so they relieved him of his duties before anything else came to the forefront.
There was a question asked about Roberto Luongo. Nonis repeated the old Burke standard that he can’t discuss players under contract with other clubs. Disagreement on Burke’s decision with Luongo could very well be a reason why this was the final nail in the coffin. The money is that this increases the chances of the Leafs acquiring Roberto Luongo.
Experience with Nonis’ style and his Canucks tenure
The spring of 2004, before the NHL entered a lengthy lockout, Brian Burke was at odds with a member of Vancouver’s ownership group, Stan McCammon, that became a fairly public feud. Burke was fired and the Canucks promoted one of their two assistant GMs, selecting Nonis over current Oilers GM Steve Tambellini. The first decision Nonis made was drafting Cory Schneider with the 26th overall pick, but otherwise he was fairly quiet as the NHL braced for a prolonged lockout.
Coming out of the lockout, the Canucks made few changes. They had one of the strongest rosters the previous year, with a big line of Todd Bertuzzi, Brendan Morrison, and Markus Naslund, a second line with the Sedin twins, and two excellent defencemen in Mattias Ohlund and Ed Jovanovski. The Canucks ran into a slew of injuries—including one to starting goaltender Dan Cloutier and he was replaced by the somehow more inferior Alex Auld—and they missed the playoffs. Nonis then fired coach Marc Crawford and replaced him with Alain Vigneault.
Nonis had a busy summer of 2006, replacing about half the roster. He dealt Todd Bertuzzi for Roberto Luongo while managing to get a 2nd round pick for Dan Cloutier from Los Angeles. He signed a new top pairing defenceman in Willie Mitchell and all-star candidate Rory Fitzpatrick, preaching a desire to build from the net out.
So Nonis put some good building blocks in place. The trouble is that was it, and Nonis didn’t pull the trigger on any other deal. The 2007 Canucks, behind an excellent season from Luongo, made the playoffs and lost in the second round to eventual Cup-winning Anaheim. The next year, Nonis tried to fix the scoring issues his roster faced by signing: Brad Isbister, Byron Ritchie, Ryan Shannon, Kris Beech, and all of them, through different stretches, found themselves on the first powerplay unit. It was about as successful as you’d think.
The sale of the Canucks to current owner Francesco Aquilini closed that season, and Nonis was fired quite soon after the playoffs began. He was replaced by Mike Gillis.
I think Nonis is quite smart, he’ll understand the new collective agreement well and look for any opportunity to improve the roster. The problem is that he makes fairly underwhelming moves, continually searches for diamonds in the rough and other than the Luongo and Mitchell deals, accomplished nothing. He also drafted Patrick White with the 25th overall pick and Taylor Ellington with the 33rd overall pick in 2007. You’re not expected to know who those people are.
What’s next for Burkie?
I think I side with Nations Network overlord Wayne Gretz here:
Brian Burke should be the next Commissioner of the NHL. He can withstand the media glare, understands the game and is a ball bustin type
— Wanye (@WanyeGretz) January 9, 2013