Johnston on Leafs: A strong start to the summer

Chris Johnston of Sportsnet.ca joins Tim and Sid to talk about the Toronto Maple Leafs busy free agency and the influence Tim Leiweke has had on general manager Dave Nonis.

Ever so subtly, there has been a change in approach from the Toronto Maple Leafs front office.

Patient and safe seem to be a thing of the past.

Dave Nonis has instead charged into this off-season with an unmistakable sense of urgency and purpose. The Leafs general manager was one of the busiest men on the draft floor at Prudential Center over the weekend and came away with centre Dave Bolland on a difficult day to consummate deals.

Couple that with the earlier acquisition of goaltender Jonathan Bernier — Toronto was one of four teams making a serious pitch to Los Angeles for his services — and it’s been a strong start to the summer.

If Nonis gets his way, the action will continue.

“It’s a start,” he said Sunday night at the draft. “There’s more things that we hope to do. Whether we can accomplish those things between now and September remains to be seen. We’re going to try to remain active and see if there’s more changes we can make.”

Some of the shuffling has been dictated by circumstance.

With the salary cap dropping to $64.3 million and all kinds of free agents on the roster — Toronto still has a league-low 12 NHL players under contract for next season — there was plenty of manoeuvring to be done.

However, Nonis also seems to have a strong sense of where his team needs improvement after watching it end a nine-year playoff drought during the 2013 lockout-shortened season and fall in seven games to the Boston Bruins.

That’s a departure from his first few months on the job, when he wisely resisted the urge to make sweeping changes after taking over from Brian Burke just days before the start of the season.

The Bolland acquisition offers a good example of his determination.

Nonis kicked off the trade talks with Stan Bowman by sending a text to the Chicago Blackhawks GM on the night his team won the Stanley Cup. Of course, that message also arrived not long after Bolland had scored the winning goal in the final minute of the deciding game.

With the Leafs lacking depth at centre and experience overall, Nonis felt the two-time Cup winner would make a perfect fit. It certainly helped that coach Randy Carlyle was strongly in favour of the move as well.

“Part of having all those banners and Cups is being in the right place and part of it is being the right type of person and player,” Nonis said of Bolland. “Usually if you’re on multiple championship teams it’s because you provide something.”

Simply making a bunch of off-season changes doesn’t come with any guarantee of future team success. There are numerous examples of that throughout pro sports.

However, there should be no question that Nonis has placed his stamp on this Leafs roster by the time the players report for training camp on Sept. 11.

The week ahead should be interesting.

Nonis has held firm in negotiations with his own players — it appears as though he’ll let former No. 1 centre Tyler Bozak walk away in free agency — but will soon have to start getting some signatures on contracts.

He is also expected to use a compliance buyout on defenceman Mike Komisarek before the league-wide window closes at 5 p.m. ET on Thursday. A decision on using a second one will be determined in part by whether he takes on more salary in a trade before then.

If anything, Nonis hinted that his desire was to shed some salary before free agency opens on Friday.

“We’ve just eaten up some cap space (by acquiring Bolland), but we’re working on a couple things that might free up some as well,” he said.

You get the sense the Leafs are juggling a lot of balls in the air right now.

The most uncertainty can currently be found on the blue-line, where only three players (not including 2012 first-round pick Morgan Rielly) are under contract. Expect that to change soon.

When Carlyle looks at the evolving roster, he draws optimism from a perceived upgrade in goal now that Bernier will share the crease with James Reimer.

“I don’t know how much we can stress how important goaltending is,” said Carlyle. “If you don’t have it, you don’t have a starting point. You look at these two young players, Reimer and Bernier, and we’ve given them an opportunity to compete at that position.”

There is bound to be other competition as well.

Nonis has been burning up the phone lines recently and clearly has his eyes trained on a few targets. As a result, it’s highly unlikely that Bolland and Bernier will be the only new faces at Air Canada Centre next season.

“There’s a couple other possible moves… that may happen as we get into free agency,” said Nonis. “Some teams are looking to address certain needs. If they’re unable to do that then I think we’re in a position where we can help those teams out.”

By now his colleagues should realize that he’s open for business.