With the shockwaves of Brian Burke’s firing still reverberating, reality quickly began to settle in for his replacement as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
As he jumped from media appearance to media appearance in the hours after taking on the job on Wednesday night, it was clear that Dave Nonis realizes he has a lot of work to do.
And with the lockout-shortened 48-game season scheduled to start in just nine days time, there’s not a whole lot of time to accomplish it.
While the Leafs have plenty of bodies under contract, there are holes at just about every position, with upgrades needed specifically in goal, at centre and/or on the blueline in order for the team to become a legitimate playoff contender.
More than starting over, however, Nonis confirmed that he believes the team must build on Burke’s work by filling out the roster he and the staff helped put together over the past four years.
“We’ve come a long way,” Nonis said. “It’s hard to recognize that when you look at some of the things that have gone on. But the reserve list and the group [in the NHL] is much stronger.
“To turn around and gut the franchise right now would set it back a long way, and it’s not something I think anyone has any interest in doing.”
Absent that full scale rebuild, the Leafs most pressing need is likely in net, and promoting Nonis – who acquired Roberto Luongo as GM of the Vancouver Canucks – will only increase the speculation that he will go to that well once again.
Two well-placed sources on Wednesday indicated that Nonis’s hiring made the Luongo deal more likely to be completed and that the Leafs and Canucks had previously made significant steps under Burke toward putting together the foundation of a deal.
Beyond that potential upgrade, however, the Leafs remain one of the youngest teams in the league, something that Nonis said they may need to address as they wait for some of their prospects to develop.
“We have to continue to search for players that can play right now,” he said.
Nonis also offered the interesting insight that the bodies they do have may not be able to play the Randy Carlyle way, as the gruff head coach’s crash-and-bang style hardly fits with a group that is decidedly on the small side, especially up front.
That was an issue late last season, when Carlyle came in and wasn’t able to turn things around, coaching Toronto to only a 6-9-3 record to close the year.
“Our players right now are going to be pushed a little bit outside of the envelope,” Nonis said, before later adding, “As a group, we have to be more difficult to play against.
“We need a coach like that to push players a little bit outside the comfort zone. That’s what we’re expecting when the puck drops.”
While most of the outside attention at this point unsurprisingly remains on landing Luongo in a blockbuster move, Nonis was also careful to add that he realizes the Leafs could use far more upgrades than at just the one position.
This is a franchise that has struggled with the defensive aspects of the game for at least five seasons, often losing games due to having one of the weakest penalty kills and worst goals-against average in the league.
While the cast of poor goaltenders under Burke has certainly played a role in those struggles, the fix is deeper than that, which is likely why Nonis was reluctant to pin the Leafs’ hopes solely on his ability to pull off a trade with the Canucks.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to look to improve our goaltending, our back end, size up the middle,” Nonis said. “There’s a lot of things that we could do.”
The Leafs team Nonis inherits
Lupul – Bozak – Kessel
MacArthur – Grabovski – Van Riemsdyk
Kulemin – McClement – Frattin
Connolly – Steckel – Brown
extra: Lombardi, Komarov
Gunnarsson – Phaneuf
Gardiner – Franson
Liles – Komisarek
The first call-ups
Kadri, Holzer, Ranger, Hamilton, Rynnas