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It has been, without equivocation, a very challenging summer for the Toronto Maple Leafs, one fraught with embarrassments and misspeaking and confusing contracts for just about everyone.
From Tim Leiweke sticking his foot in his mouth repeatedly over the past few weeks to assistant coach Greg Cronin listing the metrics the team uses to gauge success (and not having too many of his facts check out, it hasn't exactly been a halcyon month of July for the league's richest team.
That, obviously, goes without mentioning the player personnel decisions that befuddle at best, all by a man who got a five-year extension Thursday, though this, too, came without much logic behind it.
That Dave Nonis is now signed up with the Maple Leafs for the entirety of Tyler Bozak's new deal is actually somewhat fitting. He is now tied inexorably to it, as well as the theoretically useful years of the David Clarkson contract. The fact that it has all happened this way, and for reasons that defy explanation, makes perfect sense.
You'll have to keep in mind that Nonis got this job because Brian Burke wasn't getting results fast enough with the team he'd spent less than five years building. Think about that for a second, actually. Brian Burke was only the GM of the Maple Leafs for a little more than four year years, but it felt like roughly six times that many. Dave Nonis is now signed up for a little less than double that amount of time, and the reason why is simple:
He was the guy sitting in the big chair when the team Burke built made the playoffs and came within a third-period meltdown of knocking off the heavily-favored Bruins. This despite stats that did not project well over the course of an 82-game season and a coach who had free rein to mismanage his roster as he saw fit throughout the season. This despite an archaic view not only of the way in which the NHL is moving — more toward figuring out things about players and teams with analytics than gut and squinting at something really hard until you think you can divine secret wisdom from it — and the ways in which personnel should be handled, with a heavy emphasis on thugs to "intimidate" other teams instead of skill players to "score on them."
Dave Nonis is currently set up to run the Maple Leafs (presumably into the ground) until 2018. He has done almost no team-building of his own, save for moves that do not really help his team in any appreciable way.
This goes beyond buying out Mikhail Grabovski despite his having gone through one mediocre lockout-shortened season with a coach who misused him at every opportunity. Nonis entered the free agency period, following that amnesty buyout, with some $24.5 million in salary cap room. Here are the moves he made to whittle that down to a mere $6.17 million (with Nazem Kadri, Mark Fraser and Cody Franson still looking for new contracts, and the Leafs likewise looking to play hardball):
• Traded two prospects who were contributing something at the NHL level, and a second-round pick, for career backup Jonathan Bernier to supplant James Reimer as the No. 1 goalie despite the fact that Reimer has better statistics and has already been a starter for the team.
• Dramatically overpaid Tyler Bozak for the next five years even though he has only ever had success with one player (Phil Kessel).
• Re-signed Colton Orr for two years because fighting is important.
• Signed David Clarkson for seven years and way, way, way too much money to theoretically make the Leafs tougher to play against and maybe score 30 goals, which is a thing he'll never do again in his career.
• Traded for Dave Bolland on the basis that he might bounce back from his poor season in Chicago — you know, the same reason they bought out Grabovski — though to be fair to Bolland, he only got to play with Patrick Kane all season.
• Gave Paul Ranger one year and a no-movement clause.
How bizarre are the Maple Leafs' priorities at this point? That's the most legitimate question a neutral observer can ask. The team's primary issue this past season was defense, and the only answer Nonis has produced after about a month of free agency is bringing Ranger, who hasn't played in the NHL since 2010, aboard for one year.
This comes with the acknowledgment that the Leafs and "stats people" are never going to agree on how a team should be run in 2013, because this so-so season that granted them a playoff appearance in the most bizarre season in almost two decades and thus validates everything they believed about team-building. Interestingly, this is something of a continuation of what Burke would have done, at least in theory, because he has often and famously said things about how statistics are a drunk's lamp post, and how important it is for hockey teams to be truculent. For all the scrutiny Burke drew in his four-plus years as Leafs GM, there have been shockingly few people calling out Nonis for awful moves for which they would have crucified his predecessor.
Here's the very strange part, though: Nonis got this five-year extension for doing what amounts to minor maintenance on the team for a major amount of money, the equivalent of paying $3,500 for a tire change and full tank of gas when your windshield is missing. Meanwhile, he has left the larger, looming problems unaddressed. Given that the CBA allows him to start negotiating contract extensions with players entering the last years of their current deals, Nonis has apparently not taken much in the way of steps toward re-upping two players whom most would consider fairly important to future success for the Leafs: Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf. James Reimer and Jake Gardiner also have deals that expire at the end of June, 2014.
Throwing silly money at Joffrey Lupul, David Clarkson and Tyler Bozak is all well and good to some extent. But even with the cap likely to rise to the neighborhood of $70 million next season, getting Kessel and Phaneuf, two cornerstone players who are indisputably the best on the team at their positions, are going to be tough to squeeze in.
The reason for that is simple: Yes, as of right now it seems they will have as much as $35 million to play with under the cap, but they also have just 10 guys under contract for next season at this moment. How the team can justify extending Nonis in this way when so much is up in the air doesn't make the slightest bit of sense, but then again neither does hiring him in the first place or being of the belief that the team's success last season is indicative of anything it will do in the future.
Let's boil the facts down to the simplest possible reason: The Leafs made the playoffs for the first time since 2004. That's it. That's the whole reason. What Nonis's bosses seem to have forgotten in making such a decision, though, is that it was a long road to get to that point, and that even if they don't think this season was a fluke, the Leafs' chances of getting back into the playoffs in their new divisional situation are extraordinarily low.
Once the postseason shine and Bruins-related almosts have worn off, and the Leafs are fifth in the Flortheast by the Olympic break, this extension isn't going to look quite so good as it does now. And right now it looks awful.
What happens when a deputy commissioner stops being polite and starts acting real
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly was in Vancouver on Tuesday night to help the Canucks announce their role in hosting the Heritage Classic this coming season. The problem with that was that Canucks season ticket holders were also allowed to ask him a series of rather uncomfortable questions about a wide range of topics that one cannot imagine Daly was exactly eager to take.
Given that this Q&A was held in Vancouver, one had to suspect that there was no way there wouldn't be a crybaby question about the quality of officiating in the playoffs, and in fact there were two. However, Daly's answer to the first of these was actually pretty interesting and, I thought, fair.
Obviously he's going to back up his officials to some extent and in acknowledging that no refs are ever perfect, all the teams involved in the postseason really want to see is things played a little looser, even if referees are told not to change their standards, and consistent from game to game. That's about as honest an admission as you're going to get out of the league of what we all already knew to be true: The playoffs are treated differently. Vancouver fans actually booed him when he said this stuff. Like they didn't know it was going on.
There were a host of other questions, too, about expansion to Seattle (the league might look at it), and revenues in Winnipeg versus Atlanta (about double on a per-game basis), and how many outdoor games the league is doing (maybe too many but we'll see). The most interesting one, though, came last.
A relatively new season ticket holder asked Daly how the league could justify penalizing teams that signed deals, which were valid under the old collective bargaining agreement, retroactively. This ranks right up there among the Fairest Questions Ever Asked, and Daly, who had been perfectly candid in talking about a number of things for the previous 20 minutes, went into full buck-passing mode.
Vancouver, with Roberto Luongo's contract on the books, could very well take a major hit in this regard were their embattled goaltender to retire at any point in the next year or three. Daly, then, bobbed and weaved away by explaining that it wasn't the league itself, which had long had a stated and open opposition to these types of contracts and the teams that offered them. The league wanting something like that? Perish the thought!
"I think it's fair to say that a majority of the clubs in our league felt that they were potentially at competitive disadvantages against clubs which were able to structure contracts in such as way as to gain a competitive advantage based on cap charge, the way the CBA worked, and that was something they wanted to address in collective bargaining," he said.
So your beef, for any fans of teams whose teams dealt in signing players to those back-diving deals, isn't with the league and its long-standing crusade against them, but rather the Board of Governors and the league's general managers. "Ultimately we came up with the rule we came up with," was how he closed.
It's pretty easy to see why teams would want to stick it to competitors who circumvented the spirit of the cap, though not the actual letter of the law, in giving out these deals, but that they were allowed to is ridiculous. Make no mistake, the reason this got pushed through with everything else the league wanted is that it doesn't have much of an effect on players to begin with. How many of these deals even exist? A dozen maybe? The only way it might affect players, like Luongo, is that it gives teams less of an incentive to trade those players; it has no bearing on retirement dates, as we saw with Ilya Kovalchuk just a few weeks ago.
This is, make no mistake, an eff-you from a bunch of teams that didn't sign these deals and the league itself to a handful of clubs across the NHL. That the league would allow once-legal deals to remain in place but now come with bobby traps is the definition of petty and silly and needless.
Which is to say, it's perfect for the NHL.
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