Thursday, January 9, 2014
After making the playoffs last season the Leafs have taken a gigantic step backwards in 2013-14, although they are miraculously still in a playoff spot thanks to a terrible Eastern Conference.
Now seems like a good time to evaluate Nonis' first year on the job.
Clearing dead weight and handing the reigns to the kids
Nonis' first task after taking over from Brian Burke was purging the roster of redundant players with no long-term future in Toronto, most notably Matthew Lombardi and Tim Connolly. Ditching the two overpaid, underperforming veterans, even though it meant the Leafs ate money, opened a roster spot for Nazem Kadri, who responded with a breakout season. Nonis also waived Mike Komisarek later in the season and ate even more money to open a spot for Jake Gardiner, not that Randy Carlyle put Gardiner to much work.
Cheapie deals for Mason Raymond and Paul Ranger
NHL GMs make their biggest mistakes in free agency, and although Nonis is no exception (just wait until the cons...) he did well to sign both Raymond and Ranger to cheap one-year deals. Often the best free agent signings are for players coming off down years who have to settle for inexpensive short-term deals. These players are often highly motivated and give an excellent performance (just look at Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur, and Tom Gilbert to name a few). Raymond has already surpassed his point total from last season and looks primed for only the second 20-goal campaign of his career. Ranger has been less impressive, but taking a flyer on a former top-pairing guy was a smart move and at such a low cost there is nothing holding Ranger in Toronto if Nonis deems him expendable.
Played hardball with RFAs
At one point it looked like Nonis had spent so much of his once ample cap space that either one of Kadri or Franson would be priced out of Toronto. Instead, Nonis re-signed both for substantially less than they were asking and didn't lock the Leafs into long-term deals for players who had proven very little. The move seems prescient as Franson has struggled defensively with increased responsibility and Kadri has failed to improve on last season's breakout campaign, although improvement points-wise was always going to be difficult. Now the Leafs have a better idea of each player's value moving forward and can make a more informed opinion on whether they fit long-term.
Jonathan Bernier trade
Despite being strong in goal (how is that Ben Scrivens guy doing in LA, anyways?), Nonis acquired Bernier for relatively cheap. Scrivens becomes a UFA at year's end and Matt Frattin has six points in 30 games and is averaging less than 13 minutes a night. Bernier has combined with James Reimer to produce one of the stingiest goaltending duos in the league. Although he has yet to cement himself as the No. 1 starter in Toronto (and it looks like we're at the portion of the season when a full out goalie controversy engulfs the team), the Leafs are better off in net both now and in the future.
Phil Kessel extension
Toronto's most dynamic player and primary goal-scorer, Kessel was a must sign for the Leafs if they had any hope of becoming a contender. Without Kessel you may as well push reset on the rebuild button. Instead, Kessel is back in Toronto for another eight years. The cost was huge, but that's the reality in the NHL for star players.
Signed David Clarkson and Tyler Bozak
Nonis has repeatedly said he didn't sign Clarkson to score, but he must have believed the bruising winger would have more than three goals and eight points in the first year of a seven-year deal. That deal was a dud when it was signed and nothing Clarkson has done so far this year has disproved that. And don't start on the intangibles nonsense, because no one gets paid that much money for that long to be good in the room. Being suspended twice definitely hurt Clarkson and this year has become a throwaway. Maybe Clarkson rebounds next season and provides the Leafs with some sort of value, but this deal is a buyout waiting to happen. For what it's worth, Clarkson seems really likeable so that has to count for something.
The second major deal of Nonis' first off-season as GM wasn't as cap destroying, but it was pretty bad nonetheless. Bozak is a fraud of a No. 1 centre, and at least Nonis didn't pay him like one, but $4.2 million over five years is a lot of money for a guy banking points off Kessel's hard work. Bozak has played well so far this season when healthy, but there's over 200 games of evidence that tells us he isn't very good, so thinking the last 20 games (in which he's shooting close to 30%) is the new norm is fool's gold.
Bought out Mikhail Grabovski
To make room for Bozak, Nonis got rid of Grabovski, Toronto's best centre. For a number of years Grabovski had been one of the league's most productive second line centres. In fact, even if you include last year's season of horrors, Grabovski was 35th among centres in points since arriving in Toronto. So there weren't many second line calibre centres better than Grabovski. Toronto's stupidity was Washington's gain as Grabovski is well on his way to another 50+ point season, the type he was accustomed to in Toronto before Randy Carlyle showed up and turned him into an extreme checking centre. You can argue Grabovski was overpaid, and that's fair, but keeping Grabovski and buying out John-Michael Liles while letting Bozak walk would have saved the Leafs over $2.5 million more than they did by using a precious amnesty on Grabovski.
Likes face punchers
Sure, Randy Carlyle plays them, but Nonis signed them, and to multi-year deals as well! For the most part the best teams in the league forgo dressing enforcers entirely, yet the Maple Leafs erroneously believe dressing two is the key to success. For a team lacking depth, wasting two roster spots on useless players has a negative ripple effect through the whole team. The Leafs use their fourth line less than almost every other team, which could play a role in why the Leafs get pounded in the third period (only three teams have allowed more third period goals than the Leafs).
Caters too much to Carlyle
Instead of having a coach who coaches to his players strengths, the Leafs have a coach who continually attempts to hammer square pegs into round holes. Accordingly, Nonis has made plenty of moves to make a Randy Carlyle roster. One example was letting Clarke MacArthur walk, although after Carlyle benched him in the playoffs I'm not sure he would have re-signed even if he was tendered a contract. That's another guy doing pretty well in a new locale. Another example is trading for Ryan O'Byrne at last year's deadline, a player who isn't even in the NHL anymore. If the players your coach hates keep doing well for other teams maybe you should start questioning his ability to evaluate players.
Mismanaged cap space
The Leafs entered the off-season with the most cap space they had in years. Unfortunately there weren't many impact free agents, not that it stopped Nonis from spending wildly. The Leafs blew through so much cap space that they were forced to deal Joe Colborne for a bag of pucks. Colborne hasn't done much in Calgary to make Leafs fans regret the deal, but I'm sure he would have looked nicer down the middle than the failed Jarred Smithson experiment. It's a good thing the cap is going up dramatically, so last year's foolishness won't hurt Toronto as badly as it could have.
Failure to properly address most pressing needs
The Leafs' biggest areas of weakness, and the most important positions in hockey, centre and defence, went almost completely ignored in the off-season. Dave Bolland and Paul Ranger were brought in, but for a team starved for talent at both positions counting on a third line centre and a bottom-pairing defenceman to transform your club into a contender is a tall task. Unsurprisingly, the Leafs have been one of the worst defensive teams (again) and their lack of centre depth was exposed after Bolland and Bozak went down with injuries.
Joffrey Lupul extension
I hesitate to put Lupul's extension in the pros category mainly because of his extensive injury history. He has already shown an inability to stay healthy in year one of his new long-term deal. That said, the cap is increasing dramatically and Lupul's deal could look downright cheap if he can stay somewhat healthy. He could also still be used to bring in help on the defence at some point.
Tim Gleason trade
At least Toronto received something potentially useful for Liles, who had no real shot at playing time under Carlyle. Gleason has historically been used as a shutdown defenceman, but he wasn't playing well in Carolina this season, battling through injuries, which marks the second straight year of poor play. If he can get healthy and work his way in the top-4 Nonis did well, if not it looks like more cap space flushed down the drain.
Dave Bolland trade
One of the best Leafs to start the season, Bolland was a perfect addition to assume the checking role of the departed Grabovski until he suffered a brutal ankle laceration from an errant skate blade. He's currently rehabbing and his return is unknown. He's an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and there's a chance he's already played his last game as a Maple Leaf. That's disappointing. The Leafs didn't give up much to acquire Bolland, but his injury has made analyzing the move difficult.
Peter Holland trade
Young Holland certainly has a lot of promise, not that Carlyle has given him much opportunity to show it, saddling him on the fourth line between two face punchers playing less than five minutes on many nights. Nonis again was able to acquire a promising asset for very little, and even though Holland was recently sent down to the minors there is a lot to like about this transaction. Trades are not won and lost through 26 games, however.
Dion Phaneuf extension
Keeping the captain in Toronto certainly cost a lot of money, but he was paid fair value. Phaneuf's value over the next seven years seems much less certain than Kessel's, and there are legitimate concerns over his play. As the leader of a terrible defensive unit he has to shoulder a healthy portion of the blame, even though Carlyle's system does the defence no favours.