This is part two of my analysis of Dave Nonis’ tenure as the Maple Leafs General Manager. Read part one here, in which we discussed his first six months on the job.
The reason I wrote this was because I have found that my optimism for the team’s chances to compete with their current core is looked upon with scorn by the majority of analysts, most of whom seem to consider Dave Nonis to be terrible at his job. Since my views seem to be heavily in the minority, I thought it would be worthwhile to objectively look at his moves over the last year-and-a-half.
We left off last week with the Bozak signing, the Bolland trade and the Grabovski buyout. We begin today with:
The Bernier Trade/ Signing
On June 23rd of last year, Nonis and the Leafs made a trade that will potentially go down as one of the biggest heists in franchise history. The Leafs sent Matt Frattin, Ben Scrivens, a second round pick and cash to the Kings for Jonathan Bernier.
This trade really exemplifies what is wrong with coverage of the Leafs from the media: An obvious slam dunk was ripped by people who should know better, and who – it seems to be – long ago lost the ability to be objective. It seems the penchant for negativity and this team knows no bounds.
The argument against the trade went something like this: The Leafs made the Playoffs with James Reimer, and had no reason to go out and get a goalie, let alone one who has played less games than Reimer and never proved he could be a starter. It was a waste of assets because Bernier would be superfluous on Toronto. Worse, they said, was the “unnecessary” two year almost six million dollar contract they signed him to before he played a game.
I argued at the time that it was irrelevant to sight Bernier’s experience: as a former 11th overall pick, junior star with decent NHL numbers up to the point of the trade, and a killer pedigree and scouting report, he was worth the risk. The risk being absolutely nothing, it turns out, as the Kings essentially traded a potential AllStar goalie for a second rounder. Also, don’t forget, the only reason LA wanted to move Bernier was because he was usurped by Quick, one of the best goalies to emerge in the NHL in sometime.
Furthermore, anyone who looks at the history of goalies should have liked the trade because goalies are notoriously unreliable. Sure, Reimer was good in 2012, but there’s nothing to say he continues to be, just as there are and were no guarantees with Bernier. It makes sense to have two potential starters on your team because the position, outside of 3 or 4 star players at any given time, has an insane amount of fluctuation and variation, meaning you can’t predict year to year which goalies will be good. Given that that is a fact, it’s logical to not ‘put all your eggs in one basket’, so to speak and go with two young potential starters, which the Leafs did and which turned out to be the only reason they were anywhere close to making the playoffs last year.
If we add Bernier’s superb performance last season to our analysis of the trade, it is an unquestionable win for Nonis. A five star heisting that – should Bernier go on to win a Vezina or a Stanley Cup – will go a long way to ensuring Nonis legacy and reputation.
Besides smartly extending Bernier for two years and thereby getting two, super-cheap, high value seasons out of him, Nonis also has made two other major contract extensions during his term as GM.
The first, Phil Kessel’s new contract, which kicks in this season, pays the star forward $80 Million over 8 years, keeping him in the blue and white at least until 2022. Hard to argue against this move. Kessel is one of the premier players in the NHL and the cornerstone of the franchise. He has put up an incredible 6 straight 30 goal seasons, never misses a game, and continues to be one of the most underrated star players in the NHL. While I like Bozak, it remains to be seen what Kessel can do with a centre who is as talented as he is. Like the Bernier trade, this is Nonis other move that is beyond question.
The second, and more controversial extension was for Captain Dion Phaneuf. Keep in mind though, this is only “controversial” because Dion has taken on the role of whipping boy for uninformed fair-whether fans. His value to the team rivals only Kessel’s, as Phaneuf plays in all high pressure situations, plays a number of roles and some of the hardest minutes in the NHL.
While some people think $7 million/season is a little too much, it’s unquestionable that on the open market – especially in light of what Orpik and Niskanen got – that Dion would fetch a much higher salary had he gone to UFA. Another thing people forget is that it makes no sense to compare Dion’s salary to someone like Shea Weber’s and say “he’s not worth more than Weber,” since Weber signed two years ago and would command a much higher salary if he signed today.
The fact is, Dion Phaneuf is – at worst – a top 20 Defenseman in the NHL, and there is probably no player who’s reputation has such disparity between fans of the team and objective talent analysts. Signing him was a good move which will pay off exponentially when Nonis either gets him an elite partner or Rielly/Gardiner rise to the occasion.
Joe Colborne to the Flames for a 4th round pick: This was terrible. Sure, Colborne would have been lost to waivers if they elected to send him down to the AHL, but there is no excuse for keeping a 4th line that was among the least used in hockey while letting a talented player at your weakest position go for nothing. Nonis’ worst trade by far.
Jessie Blacker and what became a 2nd rounder to the Ducks for Peter Holland: I like Holland, but this was again a bit of an error. The Leafs could have manipulated Hollands playing time to keep the 2nd rounder, and they didn’t. They could have also just kept Colborne and not had to make this move in the first place. Still, Holland might end up being better than Colborne or the second rounder anyways, it’s just too early to tell.
Mark Fraser to the Oilers for Teemu Hartikainen: Getting a warm body for Fraser was something of a miracle. Minor trade, but a flyer on Hartikainen was a worthwhile gamble.
John-Michael Liles to Carolina for Tim Gleason: A bad trade,but one that I understand. Gleason represented something the Leafs needed – a physical defenseman – and Liles was something they had an overabundance of – offensive defenseman with no physicality. It didn’t work out because Gleason was terrible and it cost more to buy him out than it would have to buy out Liles (this, as all contract numbers, per CapGeek.com). Bad trade, but good move to realize it and buy-out Gleason this summer.
Jerry D’amigo to the Blue Jackets for Matt Frattin. I like this trade. Frattin provides speed and some offensive upside, plus you have to figure the Leafs know each of these players better than anyone else would. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt here and say good move.
Carl Gunnarsson to the Blues for Roman Polak: Criticized blindly by people who just look at the trade in a vacuum, this move addresses one of the Leafs most pressing needs (physical defenseman) at the expense of a player playing too high up in the lineup, with injury concerns and no scoring or physical dimension to his game. I’ll call it a win until I see otherwise.
Signing David Clarkson: This is a much criticized move, but honestly, let’s give it another year before we declare it a disaster. Clarkson had a lot of suspensions and injuries last year and he can do a lot better this year. Sure, the term and cap hit are prohibitive, but if he scores 20-30 goals and provides some grit and toughness, it might end up being only a slight overpayment for a decent player. If he has another season similar to last year then it will be a horrible move.
Not singing Dave Bolland: While some say the Leafs just got lucky here, I believe they knew what Bolland wanted, and offered just less so that he would go to another team and they could still make it look like they did everything to bring back a guy who is a home-town hero and popular player. The contract he signed in Florida is so ridiculous that I can’t believe the Leafs really wanted to come anywhere close to it. I guess we’ll never know, but not signing Bolland has to go into the “win” box when analyzing Nonis’ job to date.
Signing Komarov, letting Kulemin go: While some say Nonis paid a bit much for him, Komarov is a speedy and versatile player who is better than Kulemin at roughly the same price Kulemin was getting before he got his beyond ridiculous contract with the Islanders this summer. If you look at it like a trade, it’s a win for the Leafs.
Mason Raymond, Jay McClement,Petri Kontiola, Stefane Robidas and Mike Santorelli: It was a great move last year when the Leafs signed Raymond on the cheap and got 19 goals out of him. It was also a great move to let him walk away rather than paying him for last years goals. In return, the Leafs go cheap with Santorelli and Kontiola, who, at the very least, provide depth and might just provide similar value to what Raymond did. I do hate to lose McClement, but I can’t get to upset about a 4th line centre moving on,even if I do believe he provides good value for that role. Robidas is old, but still competes hard and you could do worse with your 6th defenseman. Overall, hard to argue or be too upset or happy one way or the other with these fringe player moves.
Before we make our final judgement on Nonis, it’s important to remember he’s still fairly early in his term as GM. Yes, he has so far failed to get that number one centre missing since Sundin, but, at the same time, the Leafs are a year, probably two, away from contending even on the most optimistic timeline, and by that time, he could very well have a one-two punch of Nylander and Kadri down the middle, and there’s a real possibility that that could be something very special indeed.
Nonis has also failed to provide Phaneuf with a partner of equal quality, but again, by the time this young team matures, the Leafs will have a formidable pair in Rielly and Gardiner who project to both be top pairing star players.
The sum total of Dave Nonis moves is this:
Great Moves: Trading for Bernier, Signing Phaneuf and Kessel to extensions.
Terrible Moves: Losing Colborne, buying-out Grabovski, singing Clarkson.
Everything Else: either too soon to tell, a draw, or of a minor nature.
If you look at this, even without context, the good far outweighs the bad. Furthermore, if you look into it a bit, Colborne is probably nothing more than a wasted asset that amounts to burning a second rounder in the sum total of the Holland trade. Bad asset management, but not a disaster by any stretch.
The Grabovski buyout and Bozak signing are also justifiable and, again, even in the worst case scenerio, we are talking about Grabovski here, a decent, not great player. I also think Bozak is just a place-holder so it’s not like he is betting on him to magically become a star here. And, if you can call burning some cap space on a free player (Clarkson) your worst move, I don’t think you are doing that badly.
The verdict is in, and Dave Nonis has done a pretty good job with what he had to start with. It’s a slow process, compounded by years of losing and mismanagement, but those who call him an “idiot” are, I think, judging him harshly because of the team’s past.
Really, the worst thing you can say about Nonis is that he hasn’t brought in the #1 C and D that the team needs. If you’re going to criticize him, however, for things he hasn’t yet done, maybe you should also applaud his patience? Think about it: he could have, at any time, moved young players in order to make the team better last year or right now. Instead, he has kept Kadri, Gardiner, Reilly and all his first round picks. Sure, the team is not a contender today, but what about tomorrow? The future is brighter than it’s ever been, and while we can thank Brian Burke for part of that, Dave Nonis deserves a ton of credit. He is not an idiot, he’s actually done a good job.
Covering the Leafs for the Hockey Writers.