Dave Nonis knew he was entering the trade deadline stuck in the middle.
He didn’t want to give up picks and prospects, believing the franchise’s cupboard isn’t stocked nearly enough to do so. And he didn’t want to sell off his unrestricted free agents and rob his players of a chance at a second consecutive playoff berth.
So the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager did the best thing many in his position often neglect to when the frenzy hits this time of year.
He did nothing.
That’s not the sexy move, especially in this market, where a half dozen Leafs were thrown in the rumour mill even as management said they weren’t expecting to be particularly busy. But it was probably the right move, this season anyway.
Even if it makes their push to make the postseason the next 19 games that much tougher.
After all, if you look around the Eastern Conference at what some of Toronto’s competition did on Wednesday, it’s a bit of an intimidating portrait of what the Leafs will be up against the rest of the way.
The Montreal Canadiens, who sit only three points ahead of them in the division, certainly got better by adding Thomas Vanek and Mike Weaver.
The New York Rangers landed Marty St. Louis and will be more dangerous. The Tampa Bay Lightning will not only have Steven Stamkos healthy for the first time in four months, but they added Ryan Callahan to offset the loss of their captain.
The Pittsburgh Penguins made a couple small moves to improve their forward depth, while the Detroit Red Wings, as beat up as they are, mitigated those losses by getting David Legwand at the buzzer.
And on and on, the contending teams and some on the bubble added useful pieces, even as Nonis sat silent.
The optics of that alone may be a tough sell to restless fans that have watched the Leafs pull their Jekyll and Hyde act all season, but ultimately, that’s the spot Toronto is in right now.
This is a young team, and it’s not one that’s a contender for the Stanley Cup. It’s a stretch to even believe they can get there next year. Instead, what the Leafs still need is a little patience in the short term and a really good off-season of trades and signings to fix the significant holes still in the lineup.
Some of those wounds are self-inflicted – with David Clarkson posing one enormous problem, cap and lineup wise – but others are unavoidable. The Leafs, like every team, have plenty of players hitting both unrestricted and restricted free agency in the summer.
Solving those issues in a manner that actually improves this lineup is going to take some finesse, and it’s there that Nonis will earn his paycheque, not on a day that was filled with rental buys by GMs with much more of a win-now mindset.
There’s no question Nonis’s scorecard to date is mixed – with strong calls like acquiring netminder Jonathan Bernier and Mason Raymond mixed in with major miscues like Clarkson – and the team has undeniably taken a step back from last season in several key areas.
They score fewer goals and – despite very good goaltending – allow far more. They’re consistently inconsistent, the penalty kill has tanked and the coaching staff has made odd lineup decisions and coaxed scant few defensive improvements out of the group.
But Wednesday wasn’t the time to make those kind of fixes, not when the Leafs are still trying to make the playoffs while also selling the hope that the future is brighter than today.
Even if everyone around them appeared to get better – and in a few hours’ time.
“That’s like trying to keep up with the Joneses,” Nonis said of whether all the activity by the Leafs direct competition made him want to do more. “But if it’s not going to help you, then why do it? To make a deal that’s going to set you back because someone else has made a deal, that’s not a prudent way to build your team.
“I think the group as it is has a chance,” he later added. “I was prepared to let them play the last 19 games and see how we do.”
It’s not sexy – patience rarely is – and it may not help the playoff drive, but the better, more important plays are still a few months away.
More from Dave Nonis on Wednesday:
“It’s easy to get caught up in what might be an exciting move and what may help you for a couple weeks. It’s easy to get caught up in that. I don’t think that’s a prudent way of approaching this day. At least not until we have more assets to give. When you can give up first round picks or top young players and not feel it, then you’re ready to make those deals.”
“We could have moved [our unrestricted free agents]. We could have moved a number of them. We could have stacked up a number of picks, and we chose not to do it. I believe that we have a chance to get in and we have a chance to do some damage if we do. [The players] should view that as a vote of confidence and play as hard as we can for the final stretch here.”
“They don’t deserve to have their teammates taken out of the dressing room and [for me to] make it even more difficult to get in.”
“I think our point total right now is roughly where it should be but how we got here is a little different than I anticipated. The players know that’s an issue for us. We can’t be as up and down as we are. This stretch run is going to be very difficult. There aren’t any easy games. And we have to approach it that way. If we don’t, then we’re going to have a tough time.”
“In the free agent market [in July], we’ll probably look for bargain shopping. There’s going to be good players. [But] I think our improvement’s going to come from within. [And] hopefully through a trade, probably [made] during the draft. We’re getting close to having a couple of Marlies make a solid contribution. In years past, we haven’t done a good enough job of that.”
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