It seems possible that by the March 2nd NHL trade deadline ‘the Big Smoke’ will refer not to the city in which the Toronto Maple Leafs are located, but to the foggy, suffocating mixture of airborne solids and gases emitted by the much anticipated Maple Leafs fire sale.
With Sunday’s trade of Mike Santorelli and Cody Franson, the Toronto Maple Leafs have begun to cash in their most expendable assets. That much is clear. What remains to be seen is whether this deal is the first ember that will inevitably spark a complete combustion of the flawed core constructed by Brian Burke and Dave Nonis over the past five years.
If the Maple Leafs are really in full blown teardown mode, and if you’re keeping up with the latest in #TMLtalk scuttlebutt it sure seems like they are, then at least team brass isn’t prepared to explicitly admit it yet.
“It’s not like we’re trying to move out our whole roster, that’s not the case,” Nonis told reporters during a conference call on Sunday via David Alter, “but if there are deals that will help move the team forward then we’ll look to do them.”
What specifically does this management group seem to believe will help move the team forward? Youth.
“If we’re trying to put together a young group that can grow together and have a chance to win, we’d have a harder time (moving one) of our younger players,” Nonis continued later during his availability. “For us to move Morgan Rielly right now – unless it was something that makes so much sense in terms of rebuilding a team – you just wouldn’t do (it). I wouldn’t say ‘untouchable’, it’s really anybody, but obviously there are some players that would be really difficult for us to move.”
It’s interesting to note that in discussing ‘youth’ with the media on Sunday, Nonis singled out a 20-year-old. Maple Leafs stars like Dion Phaneuf, 29, and Phil Kessel, 27, aren’t exactly greybeards, but they’re certainly not seedlings of the sort that Nonis seemed to be describing.
The likes of Franson and Santorelli qualify similarly as young veteran pieces, rather than ‘youth.’ It’s worth noting here that the Maple Leafs by all accounts tried to re-sign both players.
“I’m not going to comment on the contract negotiations,” Nonis said of his club’s inability to retain Franson and Santorelli. “What I would say is that both players weren’t unreasonable necessarily in what they’re looking for and they’re both quality guys that I’d have on any team I was associated with again…
“We felt that if there was a chance that we wouldn’t sign them… that we needed to move them and get some pieces. I would say that both players looked at staying here and talked about numbers that weren’t necessarily outrageous given the market, but it just didn’t fit for us at this point.”
That the Maple Leafs went through the motions in extension talks with Santorelli and Franson softly suggests that this club isn’t poised to engage in the full-scale demolition of the current roster. At least not on the sort of scale that would make even Tim Murray blush.
This isn’t to say that the likes of Kessel, Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul and Tyler Bozak are off the market entirely, surely that’s incorrect, but perhaps this rebuild will look somewhat more like Calgary’s than Edmonton’s and Buffalo’s when it comes to signing and retaining useful veteran pieces (players like Dennis Wideman and Matt Stajan). We don’t know for sure yet.
Because it’s the Toronto market and the amplification of Maple Leafs related hyperbole hits 165 decibels on a relatively quiet Tuesday, we might expect the trade of Franson and Santorelli to be characterized as the first step towards a complete dismantling of the club as we know it. It might be. That’s only one extreme possibility though, a possibility that seems less likely – frankly – than the club engaging in a series of smaller, less dramatic trades designed to shed salary and accumulate futures more gradually.
You never want to miss the forest for the trees, but the individual components – and in this arboreal metaphor, the individual Leafs – matter too.
“In this situation you’re talking about two players who are going to be unrestricted,” Nonis said on Sunday in discussing the broader implications of the deal. “And we felt we couldn’t risk not getting something for them in the event that we couldn’t re-sign them, and it was important that we got some assets back.”
If we’re looking for deeper meaning in this trade – that’s it: “we got some assets back”.
Trading away Santorelli and Franson may or may not foreshadow a stripping down of this roster, but it’s surely representative of a shift in asset management strategies from Maple Leafs brass. The era of signing 27-year-old Finnish grinders to multi-year contracts? That’s over, and you can forget signing the likes of Stephane Robidas, or dealing for Roman Polak to bandaid up an undermanned defense corps too.
The moves this management group will be looking to make now are about building for two- or three- (or even four- or five-) years down the road. Whether the likes of Lupul, Kessel, Bozak, Phaneuf, or even Nonis have a place with the Maple Leafs on that path will probably depend on the returns on offer and the replacements available.
How far this process goes and whether or not we’re treated to the conflagration many are expecting remains to be seen.