5-Step Plan for Dave Nonis to Make Toronto Maple Leafs a Cup Finalist in 3 Years

Nicholas GossCorrespondent IJanuary 9, 2013

5-Step Plan for Dave Nonis to Make Toronto Maple Leafs a Cup Finalist in 3 Years

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    The surprising decision made by the Toronto Maple Leafs to fire general manager Brian Burke (via TSN's Bob McKenzie) right before the 2012-13 NHL season has put his successor, Dave Nonis, under a lot of pressure to build on the progress that Burke made over the last few years.

    Nonis appointment as GM and senior VP is not interim.

    — Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) January 9, 2013

    Leafs fans are starving for success, and after so many failed roster moves over the last few years, many of them think that the team is still a long ways away from contending in the Eastern Conference. 

    Let's examine a five-point plan for Nonis to follow as he attempts to build the Leafs into a Stanley Cup contender.

     

    Note: All salary information courtesy of Capgeek.com.

Make a Trade for Roberto Luongo

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    Goaltending is the most obvious area of need for Toronto, and a weakness that has to be turned into a strength for the team to contend for a championship.

    Even though James Reimer is a promising young player with good talent, he's not a goaltender who can lead the Leafs on a deep playoff run.

    Nonis has to make a deal for Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo to ensure immediate and future success. Mark Spector of Sportsnet offers one possible scenario with Nonis in charge:

    If Dave Nonis is getting the job, as we suspect he is, then you can count on a Luongo to Leafs trade tout suite.

    — Mark Spector Sports (@SportsnetSpec) January 9, 2013

    Luongo is one of the most reliable goaltenders in the NHL and is a lock to win 30 games in a normal 82-game season.

    He keeps himself in good shape and is still one of the top goalies in the NHL. He has plenty of prime years remaining and is used to being in a hockey-crazed market with a rabid fanbase and a relentless media.

    No matter how many goals a team scores (and the Leafs ranked 10th in scoring last season), if it doesn't have strong goaltending on a consistent basis, there isn't much of a chance for playoff success. The Leafs have ranked last or near the bottom of the league in GAA many times since the 2004-05 lockout.

    Year GAA SV%
    2011-12 29th 29th
    2010-11 24th T-20th
    2009-10 29th 30th
    2008-09 30th 30th
    2007-08 27th 29th
    2006-07 25th 27th
    2005-06 21st 19th

    Luongo's playoff failures are a concern and probably the main reason why his future in Vancouver is uncertain, but he did win a gold medal with Canada at the 2010 Winter Olympics and led the Canucks to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. 

    With the offensive talent and improving defensive depth that the Leafs have, adding a goaltender of Luongo's caliber can be the move that catapults the team into yearly playoff contention.

No. 1 Center Must Be Acquired

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    When Brian Burke came to the Leafs, one of his top priorities was to find a No. 1 center that can lead the team's first line.

    He never addressed this weakness, and now Nonis has to acquire this type of player before the Leafs become a top contender in the Eastern Conference.

    The Leafs don't have a top-line center that can impact games physically, score goals and excel in a playmaking role. 

    There are three top-tier centers eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer, and they are Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks), Stephen Weiss (Florida Panthers) and Travis Zajac (New Jersey Devils).

    Getzlaf is the only legitimate No. 1 center in this group, but if the Leafs cannot sign the Ducks star, they must go after Weiss or Zajac.

    It's very hard to win in the playoffs when you don't have a lot of talent and depth at the center position. The last two Stanley Cup champions, the Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings, had amazing depth at center, and it really helped them make a championship run.

    After strengthening the team's goaltending, Nonis' next task must be to find an elite center to bolster the team's performance at both ends of the ice.

Do Not Give Up on Top Prospects, Let Them Develop

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    One of the worst decisions you can make as a general manager is to trade away draft picks and top prospects in order to build a Stanley Cup contender quickly. 

    The best way to build a championship team is to draft and develop the majority of your star players. With a salary cap system in place, teams cannot build championship teams by just trading for and signing major stars.

    The last three Stanley Cup champions were built with a solid foundation of young talent that was drafted and developed.

    Year Team Franchise Players Drafted
    2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook
    2010-11 Boston Bruins Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, Tyler Seguin
    2011-12 Los Angeles Kings Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty

    Burke tried to build a winner too quickly when he traded two first-round picks and a second-round pick to the Boston Bruins for star winger Phil Kessel, who is a top goal scorer, but not a cornerstone player.

    Nonis cannot make that same mistake. Top prospects and young players such as Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly shouldn't be traded until they earn enough NHL experience to make a fair determination on how they can handle playing in Toronto.

    Toronto has quite a few talented young prospects and NHLers who should be given the proper time needed to develop and reach their full potential.

More Size and Strength on All 4 Lines

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    "Truculence" was a popular word during Burke's tenure as general manager, and one problem for Nonis as he begins to build a better roster is that the Leafs don't have enough toughness on all four lines.

    It's hard to win in the playoffs without the proper amount of size and strength throughout your roster, and even highly skilled Stanley Cup champions such as the Detroit Red Wings had enough physical players to succeed in the postseason.

    Trading for James Van Riemsdyk was a good step forward in adding some physicality to the top-six forward group, but Nonis still needs to add more toughness, especially at the center position on the top two lines.

    The Leafs play in an Eastern Conference with many teams that play a physical style of hockey, such as the Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers, and to have the success playing against these types of teams, Toronto must have a stronger forward group.

    Last season's 8-0 loss to the Boston Bruins at TD Garden helped show the gap in toughness between the Leafs and the top teams in the East.

Add Another Top-2 Defenseman

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    Part of the reason why the Leafs allow so many goals is because they don't have enough top-tier talent on the blue line. Goaltending isn't the only issue.

    Dion Phaneuf is a top-two defenseman who plays well at both ends of the ice, but a team cannot win a Stanley Cup when Phaneuf and a 22-year-old player in Jake Gardiner are its two best defensemen.

    The Leafs' defensive corps is one of the weakest in the league, and teams cannot win in the playoffs unless they defend well. We saw in last year's playoffs how crucial defense is to winning in May and June.

    The problem for Nonis is that there aren't any franchise-type defensemen eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer, unless you consider Vancouver Canucks star Alexander Edler this type of star, but he's not a defensive-minded player.

    However, there are a few restricted free-agent defensemen in the 2013 class that Toronto must be willing to extend an offer sheet to, and that list includes Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Zach Bogosian.

    Ekman-Larsson, in particular, is one player the Leafs should pursue because the Phoenix Coyotes are one of the most financially troubled franchises in the league. According to Forbes, the Coyotes lost over $20 million during the 2011-12 season. 

    Burke doesn't like offer sheets and chose not to use this method to sign free agents during his tenure in Toronto, but for the Leafs to be successful long term, they have to use all the options available to them when improving their roster.

    It's not easy to acquire a No. 1 or 2 defenseman through trades, and if Morgan Rielly and/or Jake Gardiner don't become this type of player, then offer sheets may be the best way to acquire a top blueliner.

     

    Nicholas Goss is an NHL Columnist at Bleacher Report, follow him on Twitter.