Wednesday, January 9, 2013
Bob McKenzie first reported that Burke was being relieved of his GM duties and a press conference later in the day introduced former assistant GM Dave Nonis as his permanent replacement.
The timing of the news comes as a shock, training camp opens in a matter of days and the first game of the season a week later. Nonis himself had no idea it was coming.
The decision, however, has been discussed for months, said President and COO of MLSE, Tom Anselmi. As often is the case when new ownership arrives, Bell and Rogers evaluated the management structure of the Leafs after taking over from the teachers' pension plan and determined Burke did not fit with MLSE's long-term plans. Burke will, however, stay on as an advisor to the board.
The firing leads to many questions, not many of which were answered during the press conference.
What sort of direction does the team take next? Do they continue with Burke's vision, built around Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, and take the next logical step—trading for Roberto Luongo? Or does Nonis wipe the slate clean and start from scratch.
"We have some good building blocks, we have some good players," Nonis said during the press conference. "To turn around and gut the franchise now would set it back a long way... We need to continue to build a team, not start from scratch."
Anselmi added, "our ownership wants to win," and denied that Burke's firing was intended to implement a change in direction, insisting it was "more about [changing] a tone and a voice of leadership."
Although this seemingly rules out another re-build in Toronto, Nonis made some other comments that increased uncertainty.
In reference to some of the pieces the Leafs have, Nonis said, "some of those building blocks aren't ready to play here yet," before adding, "we need to continue to search for players who can play here right now." That sounds more like Nonis is less satisfied with the team as currently constructed, and his statement that the Leafs "need to make some changes to [the] lineup," certainly confirms as much.
His characterization of the Leafs sounds more like a team in transition. There are good players in the system, but they are too far away from the NHL, and the current roster is not strong enough to keep the team competitive in the interim.
So what's next?
Nonis made it clear that a rash of moves aren't imminent, and, in reality, probably aren't even possible with the season starting on Jan. 19. But change certainly is coming. The Leafs have a ton of cap space in the summer and can use a contract amnesty or two to provide even more flexibility. Plus, both Kessel and Phaneuf will be entering the final year of their multi-year deals in 2013-14, giving Nonis the tough task of determining whether to re-sign the pair and continue to build around them, or trade them sometime before their rapidly approaching UFA status erodes their trade value.
Thankfully, Nonis is a good hire to use that cap space and make difficult personnel decisions. He is an experienced GM and has a reputation for being careful and conservative with his dealings, unlike his predecessor. In Vancouver, Nonis refused to trade Ryan Kesler and Alex Edler for Brad Richards at the trade deadline in 2008. Richards was instead traded to the Dallas Stars and the non-move ultimately cost Nonis his job, not that he had any regrets, saying that making the deal to save his job would have been "cowardly."
"I wasn't about to take significant young roster players off of our team at this point in order to land a player," Nonis said back in 2008. "I think that would've set us back."
Based on this philosophy, combined with some of his remarks during today's press conference, it might make a Luongo deal even less likely. Nonis would seemingly be even less willing to give into Mike Gillis' demands for Luongo than Burke was, especially considering Luongo is older now than Richards was in 2008 and the Leafs are in an even worse position now than the Canucks were in 2008.
However, that is purely speculative and based on my interpretation of the press conference. Nonis could just as likely trade a bounty of picks and prospects to the Canucks once the CBA is ratified. If that's the case, it would seem pretty likely that Burke's ouster had more to do with his inability or reluctance to acquire Luongo like some are speculating. A Luongo deal would also firmly answer the direction the Leafs plan taking.
No one really knows what will happen next.
What we do know, however, is that it's a new era in Toronto, one which began much earlier than most expected. There are plenty of questions about why MLSE chose to fire Burke when they did, but the simplest answer is that Burke had to go because he failed to improve the team even modestly during his four years as GM. The Leafs were the only team that missed the playoffs in between the two lockouts, and when you're bested by Columbus, well, it's time to go, even if Burke made some progress.
Despite some awful free agent signings and the much-maligned Kessel deal, Nonis praised the outgoing GM, citing the foundation Burke is leaving management to work with.
“Years down the road, we’ll see the mark that he’s made.”
For better or worse, we will.