VANCOUVER — Little has changed for the Brian Burke-Dave Nonis partnership since their days in Vancouver.
Burke is still the frontman, a huge personality who draws attention the way iron filings are drawn to a magnet. Nonis is still the able chief of staff, taking care of the detail work while the boss fights the big fights.
The two hockey men are now approaching their second decade together and, in that time, they’ve established a template which has been at the core of two NHL franchises.
In Vancouver, they laid the foundation for the Presidents’ Trophy team of last season.
In Toronto, where it’s been a 50-year process, they’re trying to do the same.
“You first look at this as just another job but, once you get here, you realize it’s a lot more than that,” said Nonis, the Leafs’ senior vice-president of hockey operations. “The following is massive throughout the league. The history behind the club and the expectations of the fans are amazing. You quickly find out it’s more than a job.”
Nonis then tells a story about walking down the street by the Air Canada Centre in Toronto and hearing his name called. He turned, followed the voice and found a homeless person beckoning to him from a grate.
Nonis walked over.
“Fix the f-bombing power play,” was the advice he received.
“If you’re going to be influenced by the crowd I don’t think you have much of a chance,” he continued. “You can’t manufacture improvement. Sometime it doesn’t happen as quickly as you’d like it to happen but you can’t force it.”
Which isn’t as easy as it sounds in that market.
The Leafs head into Saturday’s encounter with Vancouver occupying a place they haven’t been in six years — a playoff berth — but it’s how they arrived at this point which is the more interesting story.
Burke, as you must know, engineered huge trades for Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf which gave the Leafs two franchise building blocks. But the team’s future will be determined by a handful of smaller, more subtle moves which have Nonis’s fingerprints all over them.
Four years ago, the Leafs’ cupboard was bare. Now, well, it’s not certain what they have but the least you can say is it’s less bare.
Heading into this season, the Leafs had assembled a core group of 11 players who are all 27 and under. They also had two first-rounders in this summer’s draft, acquired former first-rounder Joe Colborne in the Tomas Kaberle deal with Boston and they still have Nazem Kadri in their system.
Not all of those players are going to make an impact on a winning team. But, for the first time in a long time, the law of averages favour the Leafs and that’s the key to the rebuilding plan.
“It’s a work in progress,” Nonis says. “We’re better. There’s no question.”
But how much better?
Nonis says the Leafs’ model is similar to the one employed in Vancouver. That might sound fanciful until you think back to a time when the Sedin twins were typecast as second-liners, when Ryan Kesler was never going to be more than a checking centre, when Alex Burrows was dismissed as a penalty killer, when Alex Edler was never going to be a top-four defenceman.
In the latter years of his administration, Nonis was under pressure from ownership to deal away players who now form the Canucks’ core. That he was right about those players is of small consolation to him now.
“That sticks in your craw,” he said of his firing. “But it’s always going to be that way in our business. I wasn’t the first. I won’t be the last.”
Besides, he has more pressing matters these days. Nonis admits it used to drive him crazy when the Leafs came to Vancouver and it was almost like a road game for the Canucks.
But, in these and other things, he’s learned to adjust.
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