Part of Dave Nonis felt he was meeting with President Brendan Shanahan to discuss the next phase of their rebuilding plan when the two met on April 12 – the day after the regular season ended.
Speaking for the first time since his firing, Nonis tells the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons part of him also felt change was coming.
“He told me he was making a change,” Nonis said of the conversation with Shanahan. “I pretty much knew what he was thinking … I understand the reasons behind it. I’m not mad at Brendan. He’s still a friend of mine. But still, I was disappointed.
“There’s no hard feelings or ill will. I understand why he decided to make the change. I was hoping it wouldn’t happen. I thought we got along very well throughout the year. But I’ve been in the game a long time. I understand why you do this.”
Nonis along with interim head coach Peter Horachek and several scouts were let go at the conclusion of the Leafs’ season, which saw Toronto finish 30-44-8 – good for 27th overall.
“It’s a combination of everything,” said Nonis of the Leafs’ struggles. “I wish I could pinpoint all the reasons of what went wrong. I know people put the collapses together. But I don’t. The last three were different. There’s a lot of blame to go around. But I still don’t think this is a bottom-four roster. There are a lot of assets here. And with the draft picks we’ve accumulated, hopefully a lot of assets going forward.”
Under Nonis’ leadership the Leafs qualified for the playoffs in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season snapping a seven-year drought. It was Nonis’ first season as GM of the club and it earned him a five-year contract extension, which will earn him a reported $6 million over the next three years.
One of Nonis’ biggest failures in his tenure as Leafs’ GM was the signing of David Clarkson to a seven-year, $36.75 million contract. Nonis dealt Clarkson ahead of the March trade deadline to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Nathan Horton, who will likely never play again.
The 48-year-old confirmed he had deals in place for other Leafs’ veterans at the deadline as well.
“I could have traded Dion (Phaneuf) at the deadline,” said Nonis. “We had a deal, it wasn’t a great one, but it was a deal. I look at Phil and Dion and I still think they’re elite, upper-end players. They both could be traded, but it’s not like the Leafs are stuck with them if they’re back. I think they can come back and help them.”
When it comes to Phil Kessel, Nonis doesn’t believe moving the forward should be a top priority.
“I don’t think they have to move Phil Kessel,” said Nonis. “You only move him if you decide the return is worth it. If you don’t get value for him, you’re only hurting your team. I believe the baggage that comes with Phil is overblown. Are there things he has to change? Absolutely. But I can assure you of this: Whatever team wins the Stanley Cup this year will have a Phil Kessel in the lineup. I can guarantee that.
“Does he have things to work on? Yes. But he has something other players don’t have. He does have pride and he does want to win. He has to learn to focus some of those characteristics and do a better job. But he’s not a player they have to move.”
As for what’s next? Nonis doesn’t plan on sitting around and collecting his checks from the Leafs.
“I want to get back in the game as quickly as possible,” he said. “That’s the plan.”
Related: Shanahan promises more changes — ‘yesterday was just the beginning’