Any time you get two or more people talking about this new rebuild the Leafs are digging in to, you’re probably going to hear the word “finally” thrown around a few times. Finally, this team is scorching everything and letting it grow back naturally. Finally, the proper rebuild. The low and slow approach.
If you believe a team puppet like Darren Dreger, even ex-general manager Nonis himself planned this all along. The whole league could see this had to happen, apparently.
But there was a time in the not-too-distant past where the Leafs didn’t really have to rebuild, and they could have gotten away with simply building or re-tooling. If you really think about it, this whole thing isn’t as overdue as it’s being played up to be, and it likely could have been avoided entirely if not for a stretch of arguably the worst “GM-ing” in modern times.
Nonis took over for Brian Burke in January of 2013, and since then has probably turned in the worst stretch of NHL management of the salary cap era. No, really.
I think you could argue that Nonis could have made three (meaningful) moves in 2013 and this team would not be the wreck it is today. This isn’t news to anyone who follows the team closely: Dave Nonis absolutely ruined the Maple Leafs that summer.
First move: Re-sign Clarke MacArthur for 3.25 million per season. That’s all he wanted. The same contract again, that’s it. This doesn’t seem like a make-or-break decision, but MacArthur was (and still is) a useful player who simply ended up on the wrong side of a brutal coach.
Second move: Fire Randy Carlyle.
Third move: Put everything into shoring up the blue-line. The main hole was on defence. Make a trade, do something. Use all the time and resources you spent doing wrong things to do a right thing here.
Of course, the counter to this is “it isn’t that simple, a lot more happened for the Leafs that summer” – so what about it? Well, just stop. Don’t do those things.
Don’t give Bozak money and term – let him walk. Don’t buy out Grabovski. Don’t buy out Komisarek. Don’t put effort into trading for a goalie when your current one just carried you on his back to a game seven you had no business being in. Don’t sign David Clarkson. Just don’t do any of these things.
Again, none of this is news, we talk about it almost daily on twitter and such. But you get this sense from media and fans alike that this seems as simple as the Leafs being bad for a decade and now they’re finally being saved. It isn’t. They had another window to shape things up properly, and Nonis slammed it shut, starting with that first summer of decision-making.
Another thing that’s frustrating is this idea that Nonis pulled off some sort of miracle by trading Clarkson at this year’s deadline, and maybe that could, or even should, have saved his job. That’s one way of looking at it. The other, and more realistic view, I think, is that Nonis signed a player to the worst contract in league history, and the Leafs eventually hired enough smart people capable of finding a way out of his awful mistake. I have a difficult time believing Nonis was even heavily involved in making the deal with Columbus happen, as nothing else during his tenure indicates he’s capable of doing so. And no matter how you think it went down, the Horton contract still hurts them in the off-season, so this wasn’t a full erase. July 5, 2013 still hurts, and will continue to hurt. Again, that’s on Nonis.
If the Leafs had anyone remotely competent calling the shots that summer, things could be a lot different right now and this whole scorched earth thing likely wouldn’t be dominating the headlines. Would they be contenders? I have no idea, but they likely would have carried enough good players to continue to add, and would have had a clearer look at their roster without Carlyle dragging everything into the gutter. Instead, because Nonis had no idea how to evaluate his roster, the team turned into a mixed bag of hell.
Nonis did everything wrong. Seriously, everything. He held on to Carlyle for nearly two years too long, put all his effort into areas that didn’t need addressing, and locked up players to enormous contracts when he had no idea where the team stood league-wide in the short or long term. His time on the throne is actually so bad it’s impressive. General managers complete headline-making, boneheaded moves all the time, but approaching nearly everything that way for up to two calendar years is something that’s unforgivable. (I probably don’t have to remind you that Nonis also made plays for a retiring Kiprussoff, was continually linked to Brodeur, and tried to trade Cody Franson for thirty-year-old Josh Gorges. Yes, truly a manager with his finger on the pulse of the league, one who planned this rebuild and wanted to focus on development. Come on.)
Basically what I’m saying is, even if we are looking at things more positively these days, we probably shouldn’t see this as an “Oh finally” moment for the organization in the sense that it was unavoidable. I’m staying positive because I think the guys currently in charge are smart and will make smart decisions from here on out, with whatever plan they have. But part of that plan includes cleaning up the mess Nonis made, and it’s a big one. They couldn’t keep him around to oversee that.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking this was a process that was imminent regardless of the general manager. It has everything to do with who was in charge, and thankfully he isn’t around to do further damage.