Just about the best team in hockey and just about the worst team in hockey were built by the very same people.
That is the exasperating circumstance for Maple Leafs fans.
They see the Stanley Cup contending, maybe Stanley Cup favourite, Vancouver Canucks built by Brian Burke and Dave Nonis and find it hard to envision their Maple Leafs being anywhere other than where they are.
Only Nonis doesn’t see it that way.
“We had an awful lot of growing pains in Vancouver, believe me,” said Nonis, the Leafs senior vice-president and director of hockey operations. “What we’re going through here isn’t a lot different to me. You have to remember, people were all over Daniel and Henrik (Sedin) in the early years. They were drafted in 1999. That’s a long time to get to now.
“And a lot of people in Vancouver thought we should have taken the second-round pick (as compensation) for Ryan Kesler (when Philadelphia made a restricted free agent offer at what was considered a very high price). A lot of people said that. He was only being used as checker for us and a lot of people said he wasn’t going to put up any numbers. The fact is, he was a young guy developing, and the reason we call it development is because it takes time.
“I understand the impatience of being a fan. They want a winning team. Believe me, so do we. But we have a blueprint, and I believe it’s a proven blueprint, and we can’t be impatient.”
That’s the slight contradiction of where the Maple Leafs find themselves. Nonis pleads for patience but he was part of the management team that showed impatience with the Phil Kessel trade. Sometimes, the frustration for Leafs fans is management says one thing and does the other. But the Canucks model, more than anything, shows how very long it can take to build a complete team.
The Sedin brothers were drafted 12 years ago. As the second and third picks in the draft, it took them five years and a lockout to find their NHL legs and become stars. Kesler was selected in the 2003 draft. This is his second big season. Nonis traded for Roberto Luongo in 2006. Kevin Bieksa was drafted a decade ago. Defenceman Alexander Edler, the on-ice time leader with the Canucks, was selected seven years ago.
Some truth about team building: Burke has been gone from Vancouver for seven years and Nonis has been gone for three seasons and together they were responsible for 12 of the best Canuck players today. It’s their players that general manager Mike Gillis now benefits from, having added a Mikael Samuelsson here, a Dan Hamhuis there, to deepen the roster. Gillis may, in fact, may wind up with the kind of Stanley Cup Stan Bowman won last May: The team wasn’t really his but he ended up holding up the Cup on mostly someone’s else work.
“We’re trying to do things we’ve done before,” said Nonis, talking about the Leafs not Vancouver. “It doesn’t happen in 12 months. It doesn’t happen quicky.
“You want to have a young core you can believe in and you need that core to grow together. We do have some good young players here. Do we have enough of them? No. But I’m very happy with the competitive level of our group. These guys compete.”
The biggest difference between then and now may be how the salary cap has changed the market. The kind of trade Nonis made for Luongo seems slightly impossible now. The cap space the Leafs will inherit when J-S Giguere and Tomas Kaberle are gone is nice, but the free agent market is pencil thin coming towards June. It’s never been more difficult to find players, move players, deal players.
So, how long before the Leafs are a) a playoff team and b) a contender?
“How long?” Nonis repeated the question. “I don’t have an answer. Those are things that are hard to put a time frame on.
“But if I didn’t think this was possible, I wouldn’t be here. None of us would. No one wants to be at the bottom of the standings. That doesn’t feel good. We still feel we have a chance to move up (this year). I believe we do.
“And I don’t look at Vancouver (in the standings) and say ‘I wish I was there.’
“I’m here. Those days are gone .”