Why (you should) fire Maple Leafs GM Dave Nonis?

Kevin McGran wrote a piece yesterday in the Toronto Star regarding his views on Dave Nonis. The basic summary; he’s had the odd hiccup, and he’s never gone through the major rebuild process before, but he’s still the right man for the job. 

I respect Kevin a bunch, probably more than the rest of the Twittersphere does, but there’s quite a bit of this argument that I disagree with. Let’s break this down a bit.

Shanahan

Some find it hard to believe that Nonis is still the GM. The narrative went that GM Dave Nonis would be fired … oh before the trade deadline … oh before the draft … oh before July 1 free agency. If so, that would represent a complete house cleaning by Leafs president Brendan Shanahan. Shanahan started with coaching assistants and front office assistants and circled in toward the two main targets – coach Randy Carlyle and Nonis. Maybe that was the plan. And maybe Nonis will be fired. Who can tell, truly, the way Shanahan holds his cards so close to his chest?

I think this runs under the assumption that Brendan Shanahan still has a clean track record in this process. I’m increasingly skeptical of that being the case, and think that a lot of his so-called “patience” can be better described as an attempt to build job security.

The logic presented for not immediately cleaning house was that Shanahan wanted to evaluate what he had in his staff before making any bold decisions, which on the surface is fair, but below it, there was an overwhelming a lot of evidence that they would end up producing the results that they have since; his hiring was an acknowledgement of a problem in itself. On the other hand, spreading out the dismissals gives him time to deflect the blame of failure onto others until the masses see failure as part of the solution instead of the problem at hand.

He’s done a pretty good job of that – it may have stalled the process a little bit, but in a public relations sense, he’s probably made it more seamless. However, I don’t think that makes Shanahan and Nonis the Yin and Yang, the now and future that McGran goes on to suggest.

The Track Record

McGran’s points in favour of Dave Nonis’ track record are as follows:

  • Mike Santorelli, Daniel Winnik, and David Booth were shrewd signings, much like Mason Raymond in the season prior.
  • James Reimer and Jake Gardiner were signed to favourable contracts.
  • Richard Panik was a very good waiver pickup.
  • Jonathan Bernier and Peter Holland were good, low-cost trade acquisitions
  • Signing Cody Franson to short contracts and selling him before hitting unrestricted free agency was a very good idea.
  • Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, and David Clarkson’s contracts are criticized, but none are untradable (though value for Clarkson would be hard to get).

Kevin puts on a very good pitch, but I think this is an overly-optimistic evaluation of the situation.

  • Signing players to “put up or shut up” late in free agency is common practice amongst general managers, particularly as the salary cap starts to slow in growth – I don’t think its fair to pat Nonis on the back for doing a thing that he’s supposed to do. He’s probably had some of the best return on investment of teams in recent years, though, which I’ll give him.
  • At the same time, is that a product of Nonis having an eye for players, or the players knowing that Toronto is a good showcase city? A week ago, Daniel Winnik praised the “Toronto effect” for raising his stock, though his game hasn’t seen much growth from last year. If a player knows that they’re undervalued, they (and especially their agents) know that going to the biggest media market in the hockey world is a great way to have people see your talents.
  • Jake Gardiner is a very good signing, and I won’t dispute that one at all. Reimer’s value is pretty solid, but at the same time, his situation had been mishandled going into it. Reimer had quietly requested a trade just months prior because he felt the Leafs weren’t giving him an opportunity to succeed, and basically stayed because that lack of opportunity decreased his value to the point where staying was favourable to him. Depreciating your own asset to force them into a better contract might work once or twice in the short term, but will make players weary in the long term.
  • I’m not blaming Peter Holland and Jonathan Bernier for the Leafs’ failures, but the reality is, the team has seen no success whatsoever since acquiring them. While the roster players that they gave up weren’t particularly valuable on the ice, going into this “scorched earth” phase would be a bit easier if they hadn’t given up three draft picks, two of which are in the first three rounds, to make these moves. These two trades made it so that wasn’t the case. Besides, I like Peter Holland, but his acquisition only happened because Nonis and his staff mismanaged the cap and had to sell off Joe Colborne for a song months before. These two moves are losses in the long run, especially if Bernier walks this year or signs an unfavourable deal.
  • I’d also consider Cody Franson’s situation a case of mismanagement. I don’t think that repeatedly forcing him into one year deals culminated into him going super-saiyan this year; he’s been a play-driving defenceman for quite some time and a borderline elite point producer his entire career, with the exception of last year. He could have likely been signed to a long term deal for less if this conversation was had earlier, and while Nonis made the most out of the bad situation he had by trading him now, it was a bad situation that he created.
  • No qualms with the points on Kessel and Phaneuf; I think Kessel has a good contract and that Phaneuf probably still has value to NHL teams. But there’s a lot of lenience given to the signing of David Clarkson, a player who McGran describes as having “forgotten how to play hockey”. McGran acknowledges how awful his contract is, and rather than placing the blame on the man who signed it to him, argues that it’s tradable in the right situation. If the right situation is retaining half his salary for half a decade, sure, but there’s massive blood on the leaves if that happens. Or if he stays. Or if he’s bought out. Or, basically any situation that doesn’t involve Clarkson magically becoming way better than he’s ever been in his career. 

There’s plenty of other things that McGran didn’t touch on, presumably because there isn’t a positive argument for them. We don’t need yet another story about how the MacArthur-Grabovski-Kulemin line turned into two UFA’s and a compliance buyout, but when the alternatives were “keep a solid line together” or “trade them all while they still had value”, and this was the route taken, you raise an eyebrow. When Grabovski in particular is seen as a better buyout candidate than John-Michael Liles, who you then proceeded to poorly showcase and flip for someone you used a regular buyout on, you raise an eyebrow. When you give up three draft picks for David Bolland and then only walk away from him because he wouldn’t take $5 million per season on a long term deal, you raise an eyebrow.

When you decide that Ryan O’Byrne is the player that you need to add to your playoff-bound team, you raise an eyebrow. When you sign one of your most injury prone players to a five year extension with a season still to play out, you raise an eyebrow. When you commit five years to a centre with no history of individual production, you raise an eyebrow. 

Dave Nonis has found a way to raise the eyebrows of the entire city with a lot of his decisions. He doesn’t really have a slam dunk move to his name since taking the reigns, but he has a long list of hiccups. He’s a guy that is being suggested to run a rebuild, who has also traded nine draft picks and four prospects in the past two years, while getting just two picks back.

His sacrifices for the short term have caused long term damage, and to make matters worse, brought no short term success. So Kevin, as much as I respect you, arguing in favour of him sticking around, well, raises an eyebrow.

  • CMpuck

    What was left out… it wasn’t just O’Bryne, Nonis wanted to flip a first that year for aging Kiprusoff when Reimer was standing on his head.

    Kipper save Nonis from his own stupidity.

    And for all the Nylander love, Nonis tried to trade that pick away for Vanek last deadline when NYI turned down a better offer than Montreal due to a tight budget.

    Garth Snow might have saved this franchise from Nonis’ stupidity.

    Two reasons Nonis should be axed IMO.

    Shanny should have fun with it though, just say ‘Davey, if you can do a pull up by the end of the day you can stay otherwise it’s time to re-enroll in the Brian Burke internship program.

  • CMpuck

    What is Shanahan’s win/ loss record since he joined the Leafs?

    What is Burke’s win / loss record since he joined the Flames?

    Does anyone have that handy?

    WW

  • Jerkball

    Noobnis is a a cliche of bumbbling baby doing a big boy job. All future and current managers should have the “noobnis folder”on hand 24/7 as not to repeat such incomeptent(malicious?) decision-making abilities. On a positive note, daily in my work I’m faced with difficult decisions and I ask myself “what would noobnis do?” And I see the obvious foolishness of my initial reaction and take to right path. Ty.