Shortly after the beginning of the bloodless coup that toppled him as leader of the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday, GM Dave Nonis allowed himself the painful luxury of a look across the dais.
MLSE boss Tim Leiweke was delivering the funeral oration. None of it was salutary.
“It’s a tough day,” Mr. Leiweke said, burying the season alongside the man. “I would prefer that we were not here having this conversation today, but sometimes through difficulty arises great opportunity.”
It continued on like that in blistering bureaucratese, always circling back to culture – Mr. Leiweke’s watchword.
“I’m not sure the Leafs have it,” he said. “I definitely sense that we lack identity, and right now, we’re a team that lacks direction.”
Mr. Nonis stared, neck reddening, eyes glassy. This was not a dressing down. It was a public beating. Whatever remained of Mr. Nonis’ power after those five or six minutes, it isn’t enough to turn a hamster wheel.
New team president and de facto GM Brendan Shanahan looked straight ahead throughout. When it was Mr. Shanahan’s turn to speak, Mr. Leiweke lasered in on him. As Mr. Nonis was tossed in for completeness sake, Mr. Leiweke’s gaze wandered toward the back of the room.
All the political things were said about a new tandem in leadership, that decisions would now be shared between the two men, though Mr. Shanahan would have final say in everything. Which is to say, all the say.
Mr. Shanahan, an old-school bruiser who prizes public comity, nodded dangerously when someone mentioned the word “consensus.” In hockey, consensus obeys the law of gravity – it never works its way uphill.
“I have a lot of confidence in Dave,” Mr. Shanahan said, which is the sort of thing you say about someone you have no confidence in.
Mr. Nonis did himself no favours. Given the chance to embrace a new direction, he chose to circle back to defeats of the past.
“People want to spin [the team’s late-season collapse] as a failure of the organization, as a failure of the people who are here,” Mr. Nonis said. “It should be the opposite. Being able to add a person like Brendan … I’m not sure how you can put a negative spin on that.”
Apparently, he was going through a mental to-do list – (1) Pick up groceries 2) Put house on market …) – when his boss’s boss opened the news conference.
If he’s feeling reflective, Mr. Nonis would be better served thinking hard on how he got to this spot. His signal talent has been timing.
He was the only available body as Brian Burke flailed his way out of the GM’s job in a bout of PR self-harm. He was six months into it when Mr. Leiweke took over. From the viewpoint of last July, the Leafs (incorrectly) looked like the most stable fief in the MLSE Empire.
“Maybe there were some notions that came from that playoff run that gave us a false sense of comfort,” Mr. Leiweke said.
Much was made of the fact that the CEO and GM had already agreed that another layer of management would be inserted whatever happened this year. And you might almost believe that was true if Mr. Leiweke hadn’t spent an hour planting a Roman Senate’s worth of knives into Mr. Nonis.
The hobbled GM would be wrong in thinking he is protected by the five-year extension he signed last summer. Mr. Leiweke has consistently proven that money ranks lowest on his priority list. Although he would not reveal the dollars or the years, he said Monday that Mr. Shanahan was allowed to dictate his own financial terms.
Giving that vote of confidence required the removal of one somewhere else. So on Monday, Mr. Nonis was effectively demoted to assistant GM of the Leafs. If he fidgets in that reduced role, he will be fired.
His example here is Bryan Colangelo, former Raptors GM and briefly the Team President in Charge of Everything That Isn’t Basketball (i.e. nothing).
Mr. Leiweke only hires iterations of himself. In new Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, he saw the conciliator and the big thinker. In Toronto FC GM Tim Bezbatchenko, he saw the analytical thinker and the willing student.
Mr. Colangelo was none of those things. After replacing him with Mr. Ujiri, Mr. Leiweke gave Mr. Colangelo a job in order to soothe MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum.
When Mr. Colangelo reacted as if things wouldn’t really change – he went so far as to audibly grumble in the audience as Mr. Leiweke gave his first state of the union address – he was ushered out. Mr. Leiweke happily continued to pay his salary to be rid of him.
Mr. Nonis doesn’t even have Mr. Colangelo’s slim advantage. Mr. Tanenbaum doesn’t care about him one way or the other. He’s conspicuously failed Mr. Leiweke. It would be odd if Mr. Shanahan wasn’t already daydreaming about some old running mate he’d prefer in the role of aide-de-camp.
When we talk about moving toward the future, what we’re necessarily talking about is erasing the past. Although he may not realize it yet, Dave Nonis is Brendan Shanahan’s launch pad. As the off-season countdown on this team begins, his regime is about to be incinerated during ignition.
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