These here are heady times for Dave Nonis.
While he may have taken over the Toronto Maple Leafs top hockey job in title back in January, the reality is that his tenure truly starts this weekend at the NHL draft.
After all, in a stretch that kicks off what may be one of the busiest two week periods in NHL history in terms of trade and free agent activity, he can accomplish an awful lot with his roster.
Good or bad.
In a league where a general manager’s tenure can often be short and brutal, two or three years from now, Sunday alone could end up being one of the defining days of Nonis’s time with the Leafs.
With so many teams contemplating large scale moves, it’s up to Toronto’s GM to step up and pull the trigger on a few key moves to improve a roster still very much in need of beefing up.
Will he be decisive? Will he outwit his competitors?
And will he shed a reputation gained in Vancouver for being risk averse and overly patient?
Because the number of transactions he needs to pull off in the coming weeks is pretty remarkable all on its own.
With only 11 players under contract, the Leafs eventually need to come to terms on new deals for eight restricted free agents, find closure in talks with at least two unrestricted free agents and also find time to convene around the draft table to make seven picks that begin with the 21st overall selection.
The most pressing item on the agenda, however, is making sense of a crowded trade market and how they can benefit, something Nonis was still grappling with when he met with media on Friday afternoon at the team’s hotel in suburban New Jersey.
“It’s different than we’ve ever seen before, there’s no question about that,” Nonis said of the trade landscape, which is red hot given the NHL’s salary cap is dropping by nearly $6-million. “There are more names thrown out than I’ve seen before. More big, significant names with fewer teams to take them. That’s not normally the case.
“Usually you get big names put out there and there’s a bunch of teams trying to pounce on it. That’s not the case right now… the cap jumping down has a significant impact on what teams can do.”
At first glance, Toronto’s cap situation looks better than most.
After the planned buyout of defenceman Mike Komisarek’s contract, Nonis will have a whopping $23-million in cap space to work with, giving him more than all but four other teams.
But with so few regulars signed – fewer than any other team, at this point – that freedom is a little illusory, especially given Nazem Kadri, Cody Franson, Carl Gunnarsson and newcomer Jonathan Bernier are all in need of not so insignificant pay raises.
Those contracts alone should bite off more than half of those available cap dollars, tightening the squeeze that most teams are feeling these days.
That means that what Nonis really has is the ability to add only one big ticket contract without shuttling out significant salary, meaning he needs to make that marquee signing or trade count.
And that brings the focus to the two key Leafs players in all of the trade and free agent talk this weekend: Captain Dion Phaneuf and centre Tyler Bozak.
Phaneuf presents one of Nonis’s toughest assignments this season in that his contract has only one year remaining, and the Leafs face losing him for nothing if they don’t pony up on a huge extension.
That’s the reason his name has been floated out in trade rumours of late, as Nonis needs to get a handle on his value around the league and what he could potential fetch in a deal as a way of determining how to proceed.
All he would acknowledge on that front on Friday is that he hasn’t been fielding many calls for his top defenceman.
“I think Dion gets a bad rap by some people in Toronto, but he was a significant part of our team,” Nonis said. “I don’t envision moving Dion. I think he’s going to be here. With that said, we can’t say that there isn’t a player that we would move if it actually benefited the team.”
As for Bozak, talks on a contract haven’t really gone anywhere and won’t be budging in the coming days given everything else going on.
It is now extremely likely he won’t have a contract by the time we get to the NHL’s new two-day period where pending UFAs can interview with other teams, a process that begins on Wednesday and will give his camp a better idea of his value on the open market.
If that exceeds what Nonis is willing to pay, Bozak isn’t going to be back with the Leafs, creating one hole to fill down the middle in a summer when many teams are searching for help at the position.
There are centres available in free agency – Vinny Lecavalier, Derek Roy, Stephen Weiss and Mike Ribeiro among them – but none are expected to be bargains.
“It wouldn’t be that hard [to get a deal done],” Nonis joked of signing Bozak. “We’d just have to give him what he’s asking for.”
In all, with a potential blockbuster trade, the loss of a centre that played 20 minutes a game and the addition of Bernier in goal, this Leafs team may look remarkably different a few days from now than it did to end the season.
It will finally have Nonis’s direct stamp on it, free from the influence of predecessor Brian Burke.
And, with new MLSE boss in Tim Leiweke looking on and intently assessing that handiwork, these Leafs could very well succeed or fail on the basis of what this week brings.
How’s that for pressure on a GM in only his sixth month on the job?