Even the most reality-deprived hockey fans won't ever mistake Brendan Shanahan for Tommy Chong, but the Leafs have conveyed a similar message in the firing of Dave Nonis, Pete Horachek, and the entire coaching staff (aside from Steve Staios, who has been reassigned).
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Nonis should be judged entirely on his own merits, and there is much blood-letting and defending alike on twitter as we speak. While many point to the Phaneuf and Clarkson contracts as clear examples justifying his termination, others continuously point to his body of work since, in not only moving the David Clarkson contract, but also having a decent deadline day. Many argue that this was never “his team” and that he inherited much of the character-void deadwood that has disappointed Leafs fans yet again. The problem for Dave was not the players he inherited, but what he did afterwards that cost him his job in MLSE. The passing of the torch from Burke to Nonis was fumbled.
In 2010 the Maple Leafs, as per usual, were cleaning house and heading in a new direction. Brian Burke found himself in the position of being saddled with many poor contracts with a poisonous locker room and team culture (sound familiar?). Phaneuf, having issues in Calgary, with many fans calling for his head, was the centrepiece of a 7 man trade. At the time of this marginal blockbuster, I was entirely under the impression that Dion Phaneuf was not the end-game Burke had in mind, but a complimentary piece at best. I believed he was a stepping stone to the catalyst defensemen the Leafs desperately needed (and still do). Burke had shipped out Jason Blake and Vesa Toskala to Anaheim for J.S Giguere and then parted ways with Nik Hagman, Ian White, Jamal Myers, and Matt Stajan (the original Tyler Bozak). In my eyes, this was clearing 6 players off an abysmal team for 2 you could live with.
It was my understanding that Burke was overhauling the roster, and that Dion was not to be our franchise, but more like our segway to it. No-one doubts Phaneuf's capability, but I do not think any hockey fans ever believed he was going to be the number 1 defensemen on a Stanley Cup team, did you? Surely, Burke had more tricks up his sleeve. No-one can argue that the Leafs had vastly improved in the Burke era, and who knows other than Burke himself what his grand scheme was. But he was fired, and the Nonis era certainly killed any respectability of the Burke moves for the post-JFJ Leafs.
What David Nonis did was ink all his complimentary pieces to cornerstone contracts. While fans like me considered Phaneuf's former contract an albatross around the Leafs neck, and waited for it to expire to resign him cheap, or move him, Nonis did the unthinkable and extended it for 7 years at 7 million per!
Phil Kessel is a perennial 35 goal man, and to ink a sniper like that to 8 million per year is forgivable. No-one could foresee Kessel coming to the ACC and resembling Carlton the Bear this past fall, could you? But when Nonis resigned Phaneuf to one of the worst contracts in the NHL, fans definitely foreseen that. I read the comments in the Toronto Sun daily in the weeks leading up to the Winter Classic in Detroit. Disgruntled Leafs fans begged Nonis through their one sliver of miraculous communication to rethink this disaster, much as they did once they learned of the David Clarkson signing.
Toronto fans do not get as much credit as they deserve for being intelligent. Watching the comments through all of Nonis' mistakes has proven that to me, and anyone else reading along. Maybe if Nonis would have read the comment section occasionally himself, Dave would be here, Man.
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