Times of crisis are always relatively simple to identify when it comes to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
All you need to do is count the members of management on hand, watching a mundane midweek practice from on high, and the number of media scrums given by those who rarely meet with the media.
It took a fair number of fingers on Wednesday.
Most notably, the Leafs’ general manager, Dave Nonis, stepped in to receive some of the bullets intended for besieged head coach Randy Carlyle in the wake of Toronto’s latest self-soiling on ice: a 9-2 loss to the Nashville Predators that followed a 6-2 loss to last-place Buffalo.
Nonis’s message was predictable. We have, after all, been here in Crisis Land™ before with this team – although perhaps not as early as mid-November.
“Well, no one was here after the Boston game – we were 6-1-1 – asking about his job security,” Nonis said defiantly to the assembled horde when asked about Carlyle potentially being gassed.
“We haven’t done a good enough job the last two games as a group … We’ve got some things to work on. But we just need to get back to where we were a week ago.”
The unfortunate newsflash is where the Leafs were a week ago wasn’t all that much different. As with all NHL teams, Toronto’s season is going to be filled with ups and downs, but no truly good team is hammered like they have been in some of these losses.
That’s made Carlyle an easy target right now. A deserving one, certainly, but an easy one. But he shouldn’t be the only one taking heat for where the Leafs are at.
Just shy of six years into his tenure with the franchise, Nonis has managed to somehow stay relatively unscathed. But starting initially as Brian Burke’s right hand man, then on his own, and now under Brendan Shanahan, he has been a key figure in Toronto’s demise, making critical errors that continue to cost the organization dearly.
The seven-year, $36.75-million (U.S.) deal given to a one-dimensional third-line player in David Clarkson in the summer of 2013 should have been a fireable offence on its own, given the ramifications it will have on the Leafs’ salary cap situation for years.
The contract is immense and probably unmovable, and the real kicker is Nonis tried to double down on Mimico-bred talent by giving a similar contract to Dave Bolland in the summer.
(Mercifully, Bolland landed in Florida, where he has spent the season sidelined with yet another injury.)
With two boat anchors like that, it’s hard to imagine how Shanahan could ever plow his way out.
As it is, it won’t be easy. The Leafs may be mediocre and in the no man’s land that’s between contention and the league basement, but they’ve also committed huge dollars to that mediocrity.
They have more than $54-million already on the books for 15 players next season, meaning simply retaining this lot will be difficult.
Adding talent? Good luck.
Nonis has done a good job of preaching patience publicly since he took over for Burke, but if you look at some of the moves he has either made or intended to make, they’re at odds with a patient, youth-oriented approach.
How on earth would dedicating 15 per cent of one’s cap long-term to near-30-year-olds Clarkson and Bolland be considered patient?
Or giving a three-year deal to 37-year-old free-agent defenceman Stéphane Robidas? Or trading 27-year-old Cody Franson for 30-year-old Josh Gorges?
Or letting a cheaper, younger and better player than Clarkson like Clarke MacArthur walk to a rival?
On and on the list goes, if you go back far and deep enough.
“You can do a lot of damage to the long-term success of your team by overreacting,” Nonis said at one point on Wednesday.
You can also do a lot of damage by trying to stay the course with a strategy that’s clearly not working.
The reality is the Leafs don’t so much need patience as they need vision. Turning some of the flotsam on this roster over and the team into a contender will take several seasons of careful restructuring and strategic manoeuvres, and Nonis has demonstrated several times over that’s not his strength.
To get better – significantly better – they actually have to dynamite some of what he’s done, pushing out the bad contracts (Clarkson, Tyler Bozak, Dion Phaneuf et al.) for what might be little return to free up salary and keep what there is of value.
Shanahan has his work cut out for him, and he may need a GM without ties to what’s there.
Nonis escapes criticism for a lot of reasons these days. For one, he’s a genuinely decent man, one with a lot of friends in hockey and the media. He networks well, and he networked his way somehow into a five-year contract extension mere weeks after the Clarkson abomination was signed.
Nonis is also now no longer in charge, having been bumped down by Shanahan’s hiring in April, making him less of a threat.
But if we’re ascribing blame for where the Leafs are, Nonis belongs there with Carlyle, especially given he backed his coach all the way – including in how he reformed the roster.
The other troubling part of all this is that if you take a long, hard look at Toronto’s front office, it’s pretty low on experience at the NHL level. Shanahan doesn’t have it. Assistant GM Kyle Dubas and new director of player personnel Mark Hunter don’t either.
In the days ahead, they could use someone with a strong grasp of how to rebuild a roster via the draft, trade and free agency, over the long haul and thinking outside the box.
And does it make any sense to have to lean on an executive who helped create this mess to get them out of it?
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