By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Mar. 2) — There is nothing that resembles full disclosure when the general manager of a bad team meets with reporters after the annual National Hockey League trade deadline. As such, whatever David Nonis provided late Monday afternoon at the Air Canada Centre should be taken ambivalently. Everything, that is, but a cringe–worthy market assessment of “un–named” players Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf.
When asked about the singularly horrifying concept of his big–money men (Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul included) returning for next season, Nonis replied: “Sure. The notion that the players we have here aren’t quality players — or aren’t wanted by other teams — is nonsense. I know from the number of calls and discussions I’ve had that [the notion] only lives in print and on radio and television. It’s not [within] the NHL and [among] other clubs. Could we see a number of Leaf players back? No question. Would we move some of them [in order] to accomplish some of our goals? Yes. But, it’s not a situation where everyone has to go. There is not a time–frame or date where things have to be completed by.”
Ummm, two pieces of friendly advice, Dave… a) everyone does have to go. And b) preferably before the start of training camp in September.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS GENERAL MANAGER DAVID NONIS.
In my humble opinion — and I’m surely not alone — there is no plausible scenario whereby Kessel or Phaneuf can return for the 2015–16 season. One or the other should have been moved last summer (as I wrote to death in this space) and neither can be components of a different Maple Leafs team or “culture” (as much as I despise the word). Bozak and Lupul are lesser components and could return in the absence of Kessel and Phaneuf. In fact, they might prosper in a reformed circumstance. But, the franchise figureheads have to be toiling elsewhere before the puck drops next season. Otherwise, the now–for–later deals made by Nonis in the past couple of weeks will be nothing but window dressing.
It is therefore incumbent upon the Toronto GM to be careful making comments about Kessel and Phaneuf, even while coyly dodging them by name. If not, tormented fans of the Maple Leafs — forever wishing upon a star — could be thoroughly betrayed. Suggesting that his top–moneyed players are desired by other clubs will only heighten the expectation of return. And, I have no confidence in far–ranging market appeal for either Kessel or Phaneuf. When you think of it, how could there be?
Kessel has performed with glaring indifference throughout the club’s nosedive since mid–December. Yes, when somehow motivated, he can score goals but Kessel hasn’t improved the Maple Leafs one iota in nearly six seasons. As former Toronto coach Ron Wilson so aptly asserted, Fast Phil is not a player to be “relied upon” — particularly with an $8 million cap hit for six more years. Same applies to Phaneuf: a $4.5 to $5–million, second–pair defenseman earning Norris Trophy money. Phaneuf is an honest worker who can adequately manage big minutes. But, he’s too indecisive and mistake–prone to justify such a lofty stipend. Other scouts and GM’s see the same things we do here in Toronto. Therefore, fans deluding themselves that Nonis can wrangle a big–time return for either player will be profoundly disappointed.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Nonis should have “given away” Kessel or Phaneuf before the trade deadline to elevate his team’s draft–lottery potential. He still has to try and maximize the assets he overpaid a year ago. Which apparently could not be done prior to 3 p.m. on Monday.
It is likely to be no–less of a chore during the off–season.
In my view, the Toronto GM should think hard before implying that his foundered nucleus can be liberally and prolifically exchanged.
AILING LEGENDS ON THE MEND
Had an enjoyable time chatting with a couple of my hockey heroes at lunch on Monday. Former Maple Leafs GM Jim Gregory (above) and NHL referee Ron Wicks (below) have battled long and hard against cancer. Happily, both now are prevailing. Gregory is one of hockey’s most beloved figures and still an executive with the NHL. As Toronto manager from 1969 to 1979, he was responsible for drafting and signing such legendary players as Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Borje Salming, Dave (Tiger) Williams and Mike Palmateer. I figure any person that withstood a decade of Harold Ballard’s nonsense can stare down illness. As Jim has done, so spectacularly. Wicks distinguished himself as the longest–serving referee in NHL history — 27 seasons — between 1960 and 1986. He recently underwent a perilous operation to remove half of his cancerous liver, followed by more than 20 rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. Not that you’d know it by looking at Ron on Monday. Though “feeling a bit rough,” he had his usual flair for storytelling and — somewhat surprisingly — a full crown of hair maintained throughout treatment. Gregory and Wicks are credits to their families and to the game of hockey. We wish them nothing but continued health.
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