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GM Nonis looking to make a mark with Maple Leafs

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TSN.ca Staff
1/17/2013 6:18:08 PM
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It's a unique situation that new Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Dave Nonis finds himself in.

He's neither new to the club - having served in the Leafs front office as an assistant general manager since 2008 - nor new to being a general manager, having served as Vancouver Canucks GM from 2004 to 2008.

In fact, he's not even new to the Maple Leafs general manager's duties.

Speaking to TSN Hockey Insider Pierre LeBrun on ESPN.com, Nonis stated that not a lot has changed since taking over from his predecessor Brian Burke last week.

"It's not a lot different but it's more of it," Nonis said of his workload. "We had split a lot of the work up. Brian had delegated a lot of things to me. Obviously, now that I'm in the position myself, there's more to do. But it's not unfamiliar."

Nonis has been identified as a key player in a lot of the Leafs' biggest transactions since arriving in 2008, including apparent under-cover work in helping the Leafs acquire captain Dion Phaneuf from Calgary.

He has wasted little time in the past week putting his stamp on this year's team, dealing veteran forward Matthew Lombardi to Phoenix on Wednesday for a conditional draft pick and placing Tim Connolly on waivers earlier on Thursday.

The moves send a clear message to the Leafs players: There's opportunity to be had this season.

"At some point they have to be given an opportunity to sink or swim if they've earned that opportunity," Nonis told LeBrun of some of the younger players in camp. "Our farm team has performed to a high level for close to two years now. A lot of those players are young players. If they play better than some of the veterans, even for a short time, they have to be given an opportunity."

Players such as Nazem Kadri, Matt Frattin and Korbinian Holzer have been on the bubble for the past few years, splitting time between the Leafs and the Marlies of the American Hockey League.

With veteran bodies being moved aside, it may be time for the Leafs' youth – many of whom came into the system under Burke – to make the leap.

Nonis likens it to a similar shift he employed in Vancouver, developing youth in the minors and eventually establishing it as the team's young core. Between 2005 and 2007, Nonis leaned on Vancouver's farm team in Manitoba and called up players that have grown into the foundation of the Canucks' winning teams of the past few years including Ryan Kesler, Alexandre Burrows, Mason Raymond, Alexander Edler, Kevin Bieksa and Cory Schneider.

"We made a decision at a certain point there too, that we had to get younger and bring certain youth into the lineup," he said. "A lot of those players that we started to look at are still playing there. You have to give those players a chance to develop and grow."

The Leafs' organizational depth could, of course, also be used to augment the NHL roster via trade. The Leafs have very publicly been linked to a possible pursuit of Canucks keeper Roberto Luongo, but the total cost to the team's future may deter any such move in the near future.

"I'm not going to give up youth for older players," he said. "We would trade a young player for a young player. We might trade from strength. But we're not going to trade a bunch of young players or first-round picks for short-term gain. You can't build a club that way.

"There's a point in time where you're good enough and deep enough where you can look at doing some of those things -- we're not there," he added. "And if we start to do that, we're going to end up being severely hampered in the development process of our club."

That said, Nonis did admit that goaltending is one area he would like to improve.

"We would upgrade our goaltending by the weekend if we could do it without taking away significant pieces," Nonis said. "It's not that we wouldn't upgrade. But for what's out there right now, we would set our team back, especially in the long term."

The Leafs have a goaltending tandem of James Reimer and Ben Scrivens penciled in to start this season and while Nonis would not undercut their abilities, he does acknowledge the risks associated with leaning on a pair of goaltenders who have played a combined total of 83 career NHL games.

"We believe we have two capable goaltenders," he told LeBrun. "Do we think they're NHL-caliber? The answer is yes, there's no question about that. The only question we have, and that people have, is the experience factor. And that's fair. You can't sit there and say we have two experience goaltenders because we don't. That's one area we would like to improve -- an experienced goalie that can play. At this point, there hasn't been a price reasonable enough for us to act on it."

Nonis did acknowledge that he's under pressure to perform.

He had an opportunity as the new man in charge to plead for patience as he puts together his blueprint for success, but instead admitted that he doesn't expect patience out of one of hockey's most rabid fan bases.

"Am I asking the fans to be more patient? Not really, because I understand what they've gone through," he said. "We've got fantastic fans. I don't think you ask the fans to be patient. But we have to be. We have to be. It's up to us to try to put together a team that can win and win for a long time. Our ownership group has made it clear what they want: a winning team that can win for a very long time."

Nonis had a message of hope for Leafs fans that the NHL's longest playoff drought could soon come to an end and that better times could be not so far ahead. But he refuses to take short cuts to get to that point.

"We have everything we need here to try and put together a winning team," he told LeBrun. "But we're going to take the time that we need to allow these players to grow. If we can make moves that will fast-track it, we will, but not at the expense of first-round picks and good, young players."

Dave Nonis (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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