Leafs’ Best Performers Likely First to Leave

February 10, 2015 Updated: February 10, 2015

This year’s Maple Leafs are too wet to catch fire, too dried up to stay on the tree.

Toronto’s team can’t win for losing and when the time comes for change, it appears the team’s highest performing players will be the ones shown the door.

It was the one-year contracts that were signed in the offseason that provided hope for a team that took a step backward in 2013-14. Mike Santorelli, Daniel Winnik, and the extension of Cody Franson made the team deeper and more defensively sound. They are also the most likely to finish this season with another organization.

In an era when stars and role players alike balk on joining the Leafs—Josh Gorges nixed a trade, Rick Nash shunned the media attention—others look to boost their value with single-season stints. Kris Versteeg and Dave Bolland were Chicago Blackhawks castoffs only to find better work and bigger dollars outside the organization. Mason Raymond produced enough in his time with the Leafs that he got a deal and an uptick in ice time with the Calgary Flames in 2014-15.

Re-signing Winnik, Santorelli, and Franson, while tempting for those who have seen them thrive on a floundering hockey team, would be counterintuitive for a cap-strapped Leafs club. With long-term deals doled out to captain Dion Phaneuf, the recently scratched David Clarkson, and first-line centre Tyler Bozak—contracts that are the least movable—adding term and payroll is most certainly not an option.

So what happens when a team is stripped with no guarantees of a franchise-saving prospect or landing a free agent? Can Dave Nonis be a part of the rebuilding plan?

Whether Nonis will be the general manager next season is yet to be determined, making his role in developing the future for the franchise dubious (read: Dubas, Kyle).

Despite the grim outlook, Nonis—like Brian Burke before him—has a favourable trading record in Toronto. He brought in a 23-year-old Franson from Nashville for spare parts and swung a deal with the Los Angeles Kings for their budding backup, Jonathan Bernier. Now, he may be looking to trade away some of his better signings in the coming weeks.

Team president Brendan Shanahan has begun to build the Leafs in his image, hiring a young mind in Dubas and a proven talent-evaluator in Mark Hunter. If Nonis were to be a part of the tearing down of the team, his time would not likely be long for Toronto—a trap many Leafs managers have fallen victim to in the past.

Each GM comes to the job preaching optimism and ideals but ultimately, they want to win as a Leaf. Burke couldn’t commit to a long-term restructuring and now his protégé can see the writing on the wall—a missed opportunity to do what is best, not for his personal future and stake in the team’s legacy, but for the long-term health of the franchise.

Players have written their own tickets as well. Bernier, the goaltender Nonis hoped would establish himself as a bonafide starter, has hurt his value as a restricted free agent. He will likely sign with the Leafs for less than he might have given the genuine letdown that is this campaign.

Phaneuf for much of this year has been on the ice for more goals against than any other NHL defenceman. Still, rumours are that the Kings, Dallas Stars, and Anaheim Ducks have interest despite the large price tag and term-commitment. Clarkson now is having trouble cracking his own team’s lineup as a healthy scratch in two straight games, nevermind a desperate rival looking to boost their roster for a playoff push.

A mess of contradictions, the Leafs may be better off wiping the slate clean. Just try selling that to Nonis.

Joe Pack is a freelance writer in Toronto, covering sports and culture. Find him on Twitter @JoePack.