No easy decisions with Leafs as contenders
New GM may need to play hard ball with Nylander contract
TORONTO — As the story goes, Lou Lamoriello was hired by the Maple Leafs on July 23, 2015, right smack in the middle of a busy off-season.
One of his first jobs was to deal with the contract of a young Leaf prospect who had been haggling for weeks. Lamoriello quickly delivered a blunt message: “I didn’t negotiate the offer we’ve made to you, but I’ll honour it for 24 hours. After that, it’s off the table.”
The prospect quickly signed. Lamoriello tends to mean what he says.
He brought order to the chaos in Toronto. Lots of rules, and it worked beautifully for three years. The Leafs went from Salute-gate to the ship that no longer leaked in a matter of months. The team’s record improved substantially.
Then came last summer, and, faced with a wrenching decision between young executive Kyle Dubas and Lamoriello, team president Brendan Shanahan chose Dubas. The rules became more relaxed. Facial hair is now fine, for instance.
In the early days of the postLamoriello era, things are pretty darn good. The team is flying high, the goals are going in at such a rate that the fact the Leafs tend to allow quite a few hasn’t mattered. It’s still a little hard to believe that classy centre John Tavares is now part of all this, that he picked Toronto ahead of other suitors offering more.
It’s easy to forget just how hard it was to get to this point, to being one of the stronger and more entertaining NHL clubs. Easy to forget the hard choices.
Until the team turned the corner in the 2016-17 season, it was pretty ugly. Lots of good people got fired, including a slew of scouts who really weren’t to blame for the state of affairs. Dave Nonis got canned. So did Dave Poulin. Phil Kessel and
Dion Phaneuf got blamed, then they got traded. Joffrey Lupul was exiled. It certainly seemed more than a five-year plan would be necessary. Instead, it turned around pretty much the minute Auston Matthews was drafted. Just 4 1/2 years after Shanahan arrived, the team is a winner and, maybe, a contender.
Except the choices now get even harder. You wonder, will the toughness and single-mindedness of Lamoriello be missed?
Already, the issue of William Nylander’s inactivity has been a more controversial issue than it might have been. Dubas had his “we can, and we will” comment. Shanahan weighed in, and his comparisons to the Detroit teams he played on didn’t go over well. This week, assistant GM Laurence Gilman was asked, but carefully steered clear of offering his thoughts on Nylander.
All very non-Lamoriello, this chatter. It feeds the frenzy.
What matters much more is how Leaf management makes the tough choices moving forward, and new contracts for Nylander, Matthews, Mitch Marner and Jake Gardiner represent the toughest of those choices. The Leafs can’t give everybody what they want. No team can.
So is Dubas really ready to make the difficult choices? Is he ready to play hardball, and will agents and players take him as seriously as Lamoriello? The answer may be yes. Or this may turn out to be the kind of bumpy ride freshmen NHL general managers go through while learning from their mistakes.
It’s tough for even the veteran GMs these days. Lamoriello couldn’t keep Zach Parise in New Jersey, and he couldn’t prevent Tavares from leaving Long Island. David Poile couldn’t get Ryan Suter and Jimmy Vesey to sign in Nashville. Doug Wilson couldn’t keep Patrick Marleau. Peter Chiarelli thought signing Milan Lucic to a lucrative deal would help the Oilers, and it hasn’t. Trading Taylor Hall has become a disaster. If it’s difficult for those veteran GMs to manage a roster within a salary cap, it’s even tougher for the new kids on the block.
Maybe Dubas can get all these players under contract. Doubt it, but it’s not impossible. Nylander may also be part of a new wave of young NHLers choosing to sit out until their demands are met. Anaheim hasn’t signed Nick Ritchie, Winnipeg is going to have its hands full signing Patrik Laine. This contentious period moving from entry level contracts to second contracts is a major issue across the league. Expect it to be a significant part of the next labour talks.
Dubas needs to be prepared to play hard ball. To be the bad guy. To have the rest of the industry snort derisively at his decisions. To tell Nylander at some point, for example, that he can either take a final offer or sit. He’s Toronto’s for the next five years, one way or another.
Or will he be prepared to be cutthroat at some point and trade away one of the three young stars even after telling Tavares he’d sign them all? Would he ever get to the point with Matthews, for example, that he auctions him off for huge returns that strengthen other parts of the lineup, signs Marner and Nylander, and builds a team around Tavares? Now that would be cold-blooded.
This all detracts from the pure joy the Leafs are bringing the city with their high-scoring, exuberant ways. Years of patiently waiting for Morgan Rielly to blossom have paid off. Matthews may go down as the best Leaf ever drafted. Marner’s wizardry is wonderful to watch. Tavares is the $77million free agent who wants to stand in front of the opposition net, not find refuge on the perimeter. This is all good, good stuff. In an ideal world, it would all just be about hockey, not the business of hockey.
But the hardest choices are unavoidable. The wealthy Leafs can’t be an easy mark like they’ve sometimes been in the past. They also can’t demand or assume players should take less just to be part of this hockey club.
It was easier to decide to be awful than it will be to do whatever’s necessary — Lamoriellostyle — to win.
William Nylander of the Toronto Maple Leafs continues to sit out without a new contract.