There are many reasons why the Toronto Maple Leafs finally made the NHL playoffs after nine years but one major change in philosophy is just as responsible, if not more so, than any of the others.
It was one of the first major decisions David Nonis made after he was promoted to general manager when a few members of the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment board of directors got their way and had Brian Burke fired. Like most decisions, it was made after consultations with the key executives in the Leafs front office, although the impetus for it originated with head coach Randy Carlyle.
Carlyle strongly believes your performance, not the size and length of your contract, is what should secure your employment on the team. The rest of the front office, from Nonis to vice-president of hockey operations Dave Poulin to assistant GM Claude Loiselle, agreed.
“A meritocracy,” is what one Leaf executive called the new approach.
It is why players like Mark Fraser, Mike Kostka and, most notably, Nazem Kadri made the team out of training camp and Matt Frattin was promoted a little later. It is also why Tim Connolly, Mike Komisarek and Matthew Lombardi, veterans with big salaries, were eventually exiled to the Leafs’ American Hockey League team or traded away.
The change in culture had the desired impact in the dressing room. Once the young players saw they had a chance to earn a job strictly on their merits as hockey players, they were much more eager to buy what Carlyle was selling. The most important thing the coach was selling was his aggressive fore-checking game, backed by a defensive system that emphasizes protecting the front of the net and clearing loose pucks.
There were lots of individual success stories, of course, from goaltender James Reimer to Kadri to James van Riemsdyk to Cody Franson. But by dramatically illustrating that those who work the hardest and the smartest are rewarded, Nonis, Carlyle and company ensured a season that could easily have gone off the rails was a success.
When the lockout ended, there was more noise about the possibility of the Leafs finishing out of the playoffs for a 10th consecutive year than anything else. The fans and media were clamouring for a trade for Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo because no one believed Reimer could bounce back from an injury-filled 2011-12 season. And there was squawking because Burke still had not landed that big No.1 centre the team needed.
With the season cut to 48 games due to the lockout, things were already on the strange side, and few felt sanguine about the Leafs’ prospects. Then, on Jan. 9, the same day the NHL board of governors met to approve the new collective agreement and get the season started, MLSE announced that Burke had been fired. No one would have been surprised if the Leafs season unravelled from there.
But Nonis, who is no stranger to running NHL teams, stepped in and imposed his personality on the team just like the brash and belligerent Burke liked to do. Only in this case, it was an attention to business without the grand pronouncements and media feuds.
By the end of training camp, it was determined a youngster like Kadri was ready for the NHL. Space was cleared by trading Lombardi and shipping Connolly to the Toronto Marlies. Carlyle felt Kadri still had a lot to learn but liked the youthful energy he brought to the team and besides, Connolly’s sour attitude did not win him many fans in management.
Komisarek was assigned a permanent seat in the press box to open a spot on defence. Franson was allowed to play his way out of the dog house and is now the top assists man among the defencemen.
It is easy to suspect none of this would have happened if Burke had not been fired. Connolly was his guy and Burke is famously loyal to certain players. But those close to the Leafs say the moves started with Carlyle, who was Burke’s guy, too, and for a lot longer than any of the players. He may have resisted a little more than Nonis, perhaps, but it is not likely he would have stood in the way.
“We still have three games left. We are not above thinking the three games mean nothing. The three games mean a lot to our group. … We’ve got three more games to improve our seeding. It’s an opportunity. We’re not done yet.” -- Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle says his team will not be spending this week in Florida playing out the string now that an NHL playoff berth is secured.