Just over a year ago the Toronto Maple Leafs did nothing at the NHL trade deadline, and it felt like the beginning of the end for Brian Burke, Ron Wilson and an era of bluster and promise that ended in a snarl.
On Wednesday Dave Nonis, Burke’s former right-hand man and eventual successor, did nothing — or next to nothing — at the trade deadline and it felt like the start of something.
Maybe even something good.
“This is the first year that I’ve been here that we’re not trying to move players out for picks,” said Nonis after presiding over his first NHL trade deadline as the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs since taking over from Burke, fired amid rancour before the season started.
Nonis has been as low profile as his old boss was high profile. His move Wednesday was perfectly symbolic. For a fourth-round pick in the 2014 draft he added Ryan O’Byrne from the Colorado Avalanche, a big, rugged, free-agent-to-be defenceman who will be a depth option for head coach Randy Carlyle and nothing more, and it seemed like the right thing to do.
There was no rush to sell off Tyler Bozak or Clarke MacArthur, who are heading into free agency. They might have fetched picks or prospects, Nonis said, but they are also key players for the Leafs now and so will remain with club as they push for the playoffs even at the risk of losing them for nothing in the summer.
“I think the message to our team is that we’re happy with their play and they’ve worked hard to put themselves in this position and it wasn’t about getting draft picks for UFAs, it was about keeping the group together,” Nonis said.
It’s probably fair to say the Leafs, fifth in the Eastern Conference, have exceeded expectations. And it’s also fair to say that it’s a group that has earned the right to see exactly what kind of team they have, and there is no better way to find out than in the playoffs, barring an epic collapse, which will tell its own story.
“I think the chemistry is there,” Nazem Kadri told Sportsnet’s Arash Madani after practice Wednesday. “We’re a pretty young team and everyone gets along and I think that translates on the (ice) … we’re a tight-knit group and ready to go to war with each other.”
If there is one shortcoming on the roster apart from the well-worn issues of an elite centre or stud defenceman — neither deficiencies which were going to be addressed at the deadline in any case — it is their lack of playoff experience.
Combined, the Leafs have only played 187 post-season games to their credit. James Reimer last was a playoff starter with the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL.
It was helping Reimer and backup Ben Scrivens accelerate their learning curve that was the motivation for reaching out to the Calgary Flames’ Miikka Kiprusoff, said Nonis, as opposed to pushing the current duo out of the net entirely.
There was some thought about adding some other veterans, but the price wasn’t right or the fit didn’t make sense, so the current roster will get to earn their playoff battle scars together.
The Pittsburgh Penguins can sell off prospects for veteran depth; the Leafs are a long way from that point.
“If winning now means the group doesn’t develop then you’re not moving forward as an organization,” Nonis said. “That’s something that’s happened (here) in the past and was never anything we’ve discussed. If we’re going to move forward as an organization we need to add to the group, not tear it down.”
This time a year ago the Leafs were a team in freefall, heading into the deadline on a 1-7-1 slide that flushed them out of the playoffs and Wilson out of a job.
Remember? Things were so fragile that Burke mused about imposing his own, in-house trade deadline so the tender psyches of his charges wouldn’t be burdened by the possibility of being traded, even though every other player in the league manages to push on.
“I think the trade deadline is hard on players, but I think its murder on players in Toronto,” said Burke.
This time around Toronto has proven themselves a resilient, cohesive group under Carlyle and Nonis — the antithesis of Burke in public – measured, cautious, understated, though he made no effort to play down any possibility that he was in the market to upgrade a team that could, it’s current success aside, stand being upgraded almost everywhere.
Yet they’ve won three straight and earned 13 out of a possible 16 points in their past eight games to pull themselves into fifth-place and more importantly seven points clear of ninth with 12 games to play.
And while Reimer, like Kadri, used the word ‘distraction’ to describe what it’s like to come to work each day knowing that his bosses were actively trying to find a veteran goaltender to push him or even replace him, his play proved otherwise.
He’s posted a save percentage of .920, which is ninth among goalies with at least 1,200 minutes under his belt and significantly superior to either Vancouver’s Roberto Luongos’s (.904) or Calgary’s Kiprusoff’s (.868).
“You don’t want to lose your job,” Reimer said. “You want to keep playing, keep being the starter, keep playing as many games as possible… But there are so many things out of your control and if you start worrying about all that stuff you’re not going to be able to stop the puck out there. It’s not going to make you any better if you start worrying about everything.”
The Leafs can start worrying about the playoffs, which is a revelation for a team that has finished outside the post-season since 2003-04 while ending up 26th, 22nd, 29th, 24th and 24th over the past five years.
Burke and Nonis will forever be linked, but by doing nothing on Wednesday and doing it quietly, Nonis continued to distance himself from the bombast that came before.
Treading softly where Burke kicked down doors, Nonis is carefully steering this ship into the post-season, something Burke never managed; his sound and fury notwithstanding.