The 2013 Toronto Maple Leafs surprised many as they marched to the playoffs for the first time since 2004. The Leafs caught everyone off guard as they battled night in and night out, eventually falling inches short to the Boston Bruins in the first round. However, when looking closer at the Leafs roster moving forward, it appears as if the Leafs also took their ownership and management by surprise. It’s difficult for me to believe that within the boardroom of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment they envisioned the level of success that the boys on the ice acheived, especially after they fired General Manager Brian Burke a week before the season began. Dave Nonis and Randy Carlyle’s team was expected to fail and both men weren’t supposed to be long term solutions for the blue and white. Funny what .920 plus goaltending ruins.
In reality, the shortened 2013 season for the Leafs was meant to be one of identification and evaluation. The common belief was that new owners (Rogers and Bell) intended on wiping the slate clean and beginning fresh. This idea becomes even stronger when one looks at the fact that MLSE was in the process of bringing in a new President. That President eventually turned out to be Tim Leiweke, a man who (in only a couple of weeks on the job) has already gutted the Toronto Raptors’ front office. Leiweke is also apparently determined to return Toronto FC of the MLS to respectability. Is it that absurd to believe MLSE fully intended their new President to do the same for the crown jewel of their empire? The same franchise that had worse results than both the Raptors and TFC? The Leafs were a complete joke, and both Rogers and Bell appeared to have had enough the day they dismissed Burke.
The bean counters had timed it right too. The Leafs are in the perfect place to be overhauled. Following the 2013-14 campaign the blue and white have only four players (Mikhail Grabovski, Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk and John Michael Liles) under contract. While this summer will most likely see Carl Gunnarsson, Nazem Kadri, Joe Colborne and Cody Franson join those other four, the Leafs are in the ideal spot for a new architect to guide them in whichever direction he feels fit.
The issue now becomes, due to this unforeseen success, what direction does current General Manager Dave Nonis take the Leafs, and how much much freedom will Leiweke give him? The Leafs are at a crossroads, both star winger Phil Kessel and Captain Dion Phaneuf are entering the final season of their contracts before becoming unrestricted free agents. They have plenty of cap space and are in the prime position to fine tune this roster. According to the most trusted man in the business, this is going to be a hectic off-season:
Me thinks I hate it when guys start tweets with "me thinks" but that said, me thinks there's going to be lots of NHL news-action coming up.
— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) June 8, 2013
With the salary cap going down, the Leafs are in the best spot to take advantage of many teams that have painted themselves into a corner. I’ll say this, I like Dave Nonis as a GM. I think the current Leafs boss is both capable of making transactions and assessing talent. However, his desire to acquire Miikka Kiprusoff at the trade deadline (and offer him a contract extension) was an awful move. His loyalty to Randy Carlyle (a coach he apparently did not want the Leafs to hire) is also something that fans should keep their eyes on. My level of trust in Nonis has waned significantly since the day he replaced Burke. Much to the chagrin of Bell and Rogers, over the next 12-18 months the Leafs have now found themselves in Nonis’ hands. Both the Kessel and Phaneuf deals are significant in how this roster will look both presently and for the foreseeable future. While those two moves are critical to what the blue and white are, Nonis’ secondary moves (Kadri, James Reimer and Jake Gardiner’s second NHL contracts, Gunnarsson and Franson’s RFA deals in addition to the UFA decisions on Tyler Bozak and Clarke MacArthur this summer and Nikolai Kulemin next summer) will go a long way in constructing the fabric of the Leafs. The Leafs GM will also have to go about filling his roster considering the lack of under contract players. Ideally the Leafs would continue infusing youth onto the team and letting it grow. However, the Leafs are employing a coach that has proven, both in Anaheim and in his one season in Toronto, to prefer veterans to young players. Looking at both the talent on the roster, and the youth coming up in the system, it seems like Nonis has a choice to make on that front as well.
At the time of his hiring Nonis was said to be in the midst of restructuring his current contract with the Leafs. There hasn’t been one word since about whether that extension was ever signed or whether the 2013-14 season is still the final year of his deal (I haven’t found anything to tell me otherwise). Having Nonis enter into a lame duck year in such a crucial time of the Leafs development is a horrifying thought. Leiweke and the Leafs can’t go half way with this. Either MLSE takes a page out of Craig MacTavish’s playbook and admits that they want their own management team to coincide with their vision, or they extend Nonis and let him mold this team whichever way he feels is best. Either way, the surprising success of 2013 was fun. That was yesterday though. What’s in store tomorrow?