If you can beat 'em, why not join 'em? Goalie Roberto Luongo should be part of the Toronto Maple Leafs' makeover instead of just turning aside their sorties, as he does here against the Leafs' Nikolai Kulemin during a Dec. 17, 2011 NHL game at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
Photograph by: Abelimages, Getty Images
VANCOUVER — The perception from afar seems to be that Dave Nonis didn’t do all that much for the Vancouver Canucks during his time as their general manager.
Other than subtracting Todd Bertuzzi and adding Roberto Luongo in the same transaction — which ought to be worth triple points — and changing the entire dynamic of the team, the critics must mean. Other than reminding the Canucks and their constituency what big-time goaltending actually looked like, and what it could do for a hockey club’s whole mentality and approach to the game.
Well, in retrospect, that challenge looks like a picnic compared to his current assignment.
A team that has done pretty much the square root of zip for nearly two decades — except for the first few years of the Pat Quinn era after acquiring a veteran star goaltender, Curtis Joseph, in 1998 — the Toronto Maple Leafs are now Nonis’s to reshape into a contender, and once more, it has to start between the pipes.
And it probably has to start with Roberto Luongo.
All Nonis has to do is make chicken salad out of the chicken poop the Leafs have been since the last time they made the playoffs, pre-2004 lockout, and throughout most of the four-year regime of his boss and mentor, the man he replaced Wednesday — just as he succeeded him as GM in Vancouver — Brian Burke.
The popular theory is that, with the cantankerous Burke out and the more proactive Nonis in charge, the last shred of resistance in the Toronto organization (if organization is the right word) to a trade for the redundant Luongo has been excised, and the Leafs will now move heaven and earth to get him out of Vancouver.
That may even be true, but if it is, it will be a testament to Nonis’s ability to dismiss a grudge. Because the man he will have to do the deal with is the same Mike Gillis whose courtship of (and by) Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini greased the skids for Nonis’s departure from Vancouver in April, 2008.
And the party line, going in, is that the Canucks aren’t willing to give Luongo away just to get him and his 10 remaining contract years off the books. They have a number of salary cap schematics ready, including one with Luongo staying, one with him going, and yet another with him going but the Canucks eating part of his cap hit (not the preferred option) — and whoever gets him is going to have to give value in return. So they say.
Time, and leverage — i.e., whether the Canucks have more than one suitor for Luongo’s services — will bear that out, or not.
As to the firing of Burke, this couldn’t have been done nine months ago, when the Leafs were finishing 13th in the East, missing the playoffs for the fourth straight season (actually seventh, but only four on Burke’s watch)? Or in August, when the new owners took over? It had to wait until 10 days before the 2013 season opens?
Well, naturally. It is a piece of lunacy entirely consistent with the standard established long ago by the tall foreheads at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment — most recently under the Rogers-Bell aegis — which now owns three of the most chronic bottom-feeders in professional sports: basketball’s uber-ordinary Raptors, soccer’s sadly mismanaged Toronto FC and the beloved Maple Leafs, avatars of the worst of the NHL’s post-expansion era.
It’s no wonder MLSE won’t touch the CFL Argonauts with a ten-foot pole. They win championships, and would make the rest of MLSE’s sports portfolio look bad. Also, they don’t make money, and after all, what’s really important, corporately speaking?
Burke? Not the corporate type. Too blustery, too blunt. He might have been a decent fit in Toronto if he had come in with a mandate to clean house and start over with a patient, draft-and-develop plan like the Pittsburgh Penguins did, or the Edmonton Oilers are doing.
“Pittsburgh model, my ass,” he once said. “They won a goddamn lottery and got the best player in the game. Is that available to me?”
Instead, he decided for reasons unknown that after 40 years of mediocrity, Leafs fans couldn’t put up with five more, so he mortgaged a goodly chunk of their future on the desperation quick-fix deal that will always be the signature of his Toronto tenure: two first-round picks and a second to Boston for Phil Kessel, who turned out to be the antithesis of everything Burke promised his Leafs would be: big, tough and hard to play against.
What was the famous quote?
“We require, as a team, proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence. That’s how our teams play.”
A little over four years in, there didn’t seem to be perceptible progress on any of those fronts, and the goaltending was miserable. But equally important: the Bell-Rogers suits decided Burke was too coarse for their tastes.
They say Burke’s personal life had nothing to do with it, either way, but everything about Burke is personal. If you buy him, you get the whole package, good and bad.
On the record alone, only Burke’s most ardent are even trying to mount an argument in his defence. Four years might not be enough to mold a championship-calibre team from the ashes he inherited, but it ought to have been enough to stumble into a playoff spot, even once.
His Leafs never did. Their high-water mark was 10th in the 15-team Eastern conference (12th, 15th and 13th the other three seasons) and though he may one day be credited with deals that brought the Leafs Jake Gardiner, Joffrey Lupul, Dion Phaneuf and James van Riemsdyk, the peanut gallery will never forget the first-rounders he gave up for Kessel — picks that the Bruins turned into Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton.
The suits will like Nonis better, even if he doesn’t knot his tie all the way to the collar, even if he looked, Wednesday, as though someone had just run over his dog.
But in hiring him, at such a time, MLSE is doing it again: naming a GM with a coach already in place. That’s how it was when Burke was hired, with Ron Wilson in situ behind the bench. Now, Nonis inherits Randy Carlyle.
That won’t be a problem, because he would have been a party to Burke’s hiring of Carlyle, anyway. And if Nonis pulls the trigger on Luongo and it changes the Leafs’ chemistry, it may turn out better than it has any right to.
But the Bell-Rogers suits ought to know — because they inherited Burke, and quickly found that they couldn’t live with him — that it’s no way to run a business.
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