No easy de­ci­sions with Leafs as con­tenders

New GM may need to play hard ball with Ny­lan­der con­tract

Waterloo Region Record - - Sports - DAMIEN COX

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.

GETTY IMAGES FILE PHOTO

Wil­liam Ny­lan­der of the Toronto Maple Leafs con­tin­ues to sit out with­out a new con­tract.

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