Intrigue in Toronto
If you are a fan of the Anaheim Ducks, you might think the Toronto Maple Leafs are a scheming, almost diabolical organization intent on getting General Manager Brian Burke over to their cause even when they've been denied permission to speak to him.
If you happen to side with the usually inept Maple Leafs, you might argue they suddenly have become very clever almost to the point of brilliance.
According to a report that surfaced Wednesday on TSN -- a reputable all-sports network in Canada -- the Maple Leafs have asked the Vancouver Canucks for permission to speak to recently fired GM Dave Nonis, who has time left on his deal. (As long as he is still being paid by Vancouver, he is their property.)
Normally, that would hardly be big news, given that Nonis has a track record, the Leafs are looking for a new GM, and it behooves both sides to at least have a conversation. However, the network took it one step farther and argued that the Leafs plan is to hire Nonis and have him serve as something of a temporary GM until Burke finishes his contractual obligation in Anaheim and joins the Leafs.
As strange as it sounds -- and as very Leafs-like as might appear -- it makes some sense.
For starters, Nonis and Burke, through much of their NHL careers, were a team. Nonis was Burke's right-hand man when Burke was the NHL's Executive Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations. When Burke left that job to become GM of the Canucks, he took Nonis with him, and when Burke left Vancouver (in part because of a power struggle with ownership), he helped Nonis secure the role as his successor, a gig that Nonis described as his "dream job", maklng a point of publically thanking Burke for helping him get it.
The two are said to have discussed working together again and that is where the intrigue begins. For starters, no one at Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment has denied the request-for-permission story, and sources today told SI.com that there will be no denial.
One source went so far as to suggest that the story might have some legs in that the Leafs have been following league rules to the letter, but could not be responsible if Anaheim's ownership sensed that Burke was so enamored with the idea of hooking up with Nonis in the so-called Center of the Hockey Universe that he couldn't possibly devote all of his interest and attention to the Ducks and therefore would be released from his obligation.
Is it unlikely? Sure. Foolhardy thinking? Hardly.
For starters, all the Leafs are doing is asking to talk to Nonis. No one is saying on or off the record that he is being considered for the GM job, and there are hints that he will be asked about being an assistant to interim GM Cliff Fletcher. So, if Burke doesn't get out of his Ducks contract, or even if he doesn't want to get out and signs the extension that has been in the air longer than Gary Bettman's decision about how much money the New York Islanders owe their hired-and-dismissed-in-an-eyeblink GM Neil Smith, so what?
Though just 41, Nonis is a highly regarded hockey man with a long resume in all kinds of hockey jobs. He is good at what he does and having a good hockey man in your organization never hurts. Truth is, it would help the Leafs simply because, for the longest time, they haven't had enough good hockey men in their operation, a fact borne out by their missing the playoffs the last three seasons and by not winning the Stanley Cup since the last days of the Original Six.
Fletcher is a good hockey man, and though he carries the interim label, he has an extension in his contract as a consultant. He could easily stay on and handle some of the GM duties while parceling off others to Nonis. If Burke never does get free or opts not to come to Toronto, well, the Leafs would not be in desperate straits with a budding talent like Nonis mentoring with Fletcher, There are many organizations in the NHL today that don't have it nearly that good.
I can assure you that this is not the only scenario in the Leafs offseason playbook. They might not get permission to talk to Nonis. They might not like the way the interview or even their somewhat Machiavellian plan unfolds. They might like some of other candidate who becomes available as the playoff season winds toward a conclusion. They might find that at the last moment a man thought to be untouchable suddenly has a change of circumstance and is willing to join their operation, or at least get permission to talk about it.
"They are still looking at all candidates," the source said. "Nothing and no one has been ruled out."