VANCOUVER – More than five years after he was fired as the ninth (and youngest) general manager in Canucks history, Dave Nonis is back home in B.C. at the helm of the top team in the Eastern Conference.
His tenure as the GM in Vancouver was all too brief. Though he led the Canucks to what was then a franchise record-shattering campaign in just his second season, Nonis was gone and replaced one year later. He had not been hired by new ownership, didn't align with their philosophies ultimately and paid the price for it.
But did the man who helped construct a future Stanley Cup finalist, someone who pulled the trigger on a franchise-altering swap for Roberto Luongo, get a fair shake in Vancouver?
"I don't think you can do that," said Nonis with no hint of bitterness amid a conversation with the Leaf Report on Friday afternoon.
"Whether that's the case or not, I look back and say that the pieces that we left in place were very important pieces to the success of the team. If you look at how they did for a long period after we were there they were very successful. So you take some pride in that. In terms of not getting a fair shake, I think there's a lot of people in our business that can say that. For me, I'd rather look at what we left and how well they performed."
Nonis was promoted to the top job with the Canucks in 2004 – he was 37 at the time – replacing boss and close friend Brian Burke for the first time. Building on the foundations he and Burke had already worked to establish in years prior, Nonis would draft future All-Star Alex Edler and future No. 1 goalie Cory Schneider. He would hire future Jack Adams winner Alain Vigneault. He'd add Willie Mitchell via free agency, a looming mainstay on the blue-line. He would sign the Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler and Sami Salo to respectable, cap-friendly deals. And most notable of all, he would complete one of the most lopsided trades in NHL history, snatching Luongo from Florida.
"I think that we felt we were going in the right direction," the Burnaby, B.C. native said.
Though they would fall just shy of the playoffs in his first season – he was actually promoted prior to the 2004-05 lockout – the Canucks would shatter franchise records the next year, totaling 49 wins and 105 points. They were ousted in the second round by the eventual Cup champion Ducks, a squad led by current Leafs coach Randy Carlyle, but were clearly moving in the right direction.
Year No. 3 though brought with it much frustration for Nonis and the Vancouver faithful.
Ravaged by injuries, most notably on defence, the Canucks would limp to the finish line and miss out on the postseason by three points for the second time in three seasons. Rather than salvage the season (and ultimately his job) with short-term fixes via trade, Nonis declined, refusing to mortgage the foundations of what would be a prized future.
It is believed that a trade for then-Lightning star Brad Richards was there to be had, a deal that would have cost Vancouver an embarrassment of young riches, Schneider prominently among them. Nonis refused to comment on the matter, but it's evident from history that he declined, unwilling to hurt the team's future for the sake of his own job.
"If you would've moved pieces, good young pieces, just to try and squeak in, that team never would've had a chance to win," he said. "If your ultimate goal is to try to win you have to be able to be patient and not have knee-jerk reactions to problems."
Nonis would be fired for his efforts nine days after the season concluded. Springing for a leader of his own choosing, new owner Francesco Aquilini would select Mike Gillis nine days after his predecessor had been let go.
Just as he predicted in the hours after his firing, the Canucks would go on to great things in the years that followed. They would finish with 100-plus points in four straight seasons after his dismissal, reaching the Cup Final in 2011.
"The pieces that were there were young and stable and improving and then if things went well they would have a chance and that's how it played out," Nonis said.
Now holding his second general manager gig in Toronto – he signed a new five-year deal in the summer at the urging of MLSE President Tim Leiweke – Nonis says the experience in Vancouver, which began in 1990, ultimately proved beneficial.
"You're never going to make all the right decisions – I definitely didn't make all the right ones when I was in Vancouver," he said. "But I think you learn [that] if you think you're going in the right direction, that the blueprint you have in place makes sense, then you have to have the will to follow it through. I believe that's the case for all teams that are competitive. Very few teams that are competitive in our league just fall on the GM's lap."
Struck by the patience of his first boss with the Canucks, Pat Quinn, Nonis would glean additional tips of the trade from those around him in the ensuing years – "there's a lot of people in this league that are very good at what they do and have done a better job than I've ever done" – including Burke during stints in Anaheim and Toronto. He would take note of what others around the league had done, how contenders in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago and St. Louis were built. He saw how they'd establish a foundation of core players and then allow that core to grow and eventually win together.
"You can count a lot of Stanley Cups on those teams," Nonis said.
Though the Leafs have the early blocks of such a core – after trades for Phaneuf, Kessel, van Riemsdyk, Lupul, Bernier and Gardiner as well as the drafting of Kadri and Rielly among others – the team has not yet reached Nonis's preferred destination.
What he wants is continued progress in a positive direction, with his Leafs leading the Eastern Conference entering a Saturday affair with the Canucks.
"We think it's going the right way," said Nonis, at the helm when the club snapped a nine-year playoff drought last spring.
"We're not where we need to be, but we're a lot better than we were. The reserve list is stronger than it was. Our farm team is younger and still remaining competitive. There's a lot of good things happening, but there's still a lot of room for improvement. I don't think we could stand up and said that we're close to done. We have a lot of work yet to do and if we want to get to be one of those elite teams. I wouldn't say we're a long way away, but we definitely need to continue to improve and add the pieces that those upper-echelon teams have."
The early returns from his first offseason as Leafs general manager have been positive, most notably in the performance of 27-year-old Dave Bolland and 25-year-old Jonathan Bernier, both acquired via trade this past summer. David Clarkson, Nonis's pricey first free agent signing, has played just four games – after serving a 10-game suspension – but has offered hints of the edge and personality he promised to bring after years in New Jersey.
For whatever success the Leafs achieve this season you can be sure that Nonis will not attempt to fast-forward the process with short-sighted, short-term fixes. It's why he's not inclined to move first round picks or young players for aging talent. His blueprint features a young core that will take steps together, progressing as the Canucks eventually did after his dismissal.
"If you're a deep enough team you can trade away a top prospect and not even feel it then you've done a really good job of building your reserve list and your farm system and you can move those prospects for pieces that might put you over the top," said Nonis.
"We're not there yet. We need to continue to add those pieces so I wouldn't say we would never move a first round pick or a young player, but if we do at least at this stage of our development it'll be for another young player; it's not going to be for an older player."
Nonis will enter Rogers Arena on Saturday afternoon full of pride, both for what was eventually accomplished in Vancouver and the promise on the horizon in Toronto.
"Progress is the most important word," Nonis said. "If you continue to show progress year after year eventually you're going to put yourself in a pretty good position."