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Intrigue in Toronto

If you are a fan of the Anaheim Ducks, you might think the Toronto Maple Leafs are a scheming, almost diabolical organization intent on getting General Manager Brian Burke over to their cause even when they've been denied permission to speak to him.

If you happen to side with the usually inept Maple Leafs, you might argue they suddenly have become very clever almost to the point of brilliance.

According to a report that surfaced Wednesday on TSN -- a reputable all-sports network in Canada -- the Maple Leafs have asked the Vancouver Canucks for permission to speak to recently fired GM Dave Nonis, who has time left on his deal. (As long as he is still being paid by Vancouver, he is their property.)

Normally, that would hardly be big news, given that Nonis has a track record, the Leafs are looking for a new GM, and it behooves both sides to at least have a conversation. However, the network took it one step farther and argued that the Leafs plan is to hire Nonis and have him serve as something of a temporary GM until Burke finishes his contractual obligation in Anaheim and joins the Leafs.

Stop laughing!

As strange as it sounds -- and as very Leafs-like as might appear -- it makes some sense.

For starters, Nonis and Burke, through much of their NHL careers, were a team. Nonis was Burke's right-hand man when Burke was the NHL's Executive Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations. When Burke left that job to become GM of the Canucks, he took Nonis with him, and when Burke left Vancouver (in part because of a power struggle with ownership), he helped Nonis secure the role as his successor, a gig that Nonis described as his "dream job", maklng a point of publically thanking Burke for helping him get it.

The two are said to have discussed working together again and that is where the intrigue begins. For starters, no one at Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment has denied the request-for-permission story, and sources today told SI.com that there will be no denial.

One source went so far as to suggest that the story might have some legs in that the Leafs have been following league rules to the letter, but could not be responsible if Anaheim's ownership sensed that Burke was so enamored with the idea of hooking up with Nonis in the so-called Center of the Hockey Universe that he couldn't possibly devote all of his interest and attention to the Ducks and therefore would be released from his obligation.

Is it unlikely? Sure. Foolhardy thinking? Hardly.

For starters, all the Leafs are doing is asking to talk to Nonis. No one is saying on or off the record that he is being considered for the GM job, and there are hints that he will be asked about being an assistant to interim GM Cliff Fletcher. So, if Burke doesn't get out of his Ducks contract, or even if he doesn't want to get out and signs the extension that has been in the air longer than Gary Bettman's decision about how much money the New York Islanders owe their hired-and-dismissed-in-an-eyeblink GM Neil Smith, so what?

Though just 41, Nonis is a highly regarded hockey man with a long resume in all kinds of hockey jobs. He is good at what he does and having a good hockey man in your organization never hurts. Truth is, it would help the Leafs simply because, for the longest time, they haven't had enough good hockey men in their operation, a fact borne out by their missing the playoffs the last three seasons and by not winning the Stanley Cup since the last days of the Original Six.

Fletcher is a good hockey man, and though he carries the interim label, he has an extension in his contract as a consultant. He could easily stay on and handle some of the GM duties while parceling off others to Nonis. If Burke never does get free or opts not to come to Toronto, well, the Leafs would not be in desperate straits with a budding talent like Nonis mentoring with Fletcher, There are many organizations in the NHL today that don't have it nearly that good.

I can assure you that this is not the only scenario in the Leafs offseason playbook. They might not get permission to talk to Nonis. They might not like the way the interview or even their somewhat Machiavellian plan unfolds. They might like some of other candidate who becomes available as the playoff season winds toward a conclusion. They might find that at the last moment a man thought to be untouchable suddenly has a change of circumstance and is willing to join their operation, or at least get permission to talk about it.

"They are still looking at all candidates," the source said. "Nothing and no one has been ruled out."

It will be interesting to see how or even if the NHL reacts to a Nonis hiring. We told you last week that there was intense speculation that the league had a hand in advising the Ducks about Burke and the Leafs' presumed interest. Both the NHL and the Leafs denied it, but SI.com has learned that the Ducks did indeed seek out Bettman's thoughts on to handle the Burke situation.

Exactly what Bettman said is unknown at this time, but it was shortly after those discussions that the Ducks opted to call Burke in and "remind him" that he was under contract and expected to honor it.

Just hours after that conversation, Burke issued a statement saying he would indeed honor the final year of his deal. He made no mention of the contract extension and his words indicate that next season may well be his last in Anaheim.

Given that the Leafs will have done nothing wrong, should they receive permission to talk to Nonis and, eventually, sign him, there isn't much the league can do or say. That said, however, the NHL won't be happy with a season-long "Burke Watch" in the media capital of hockey. A situation like that would be closely watched by the league as well as the media and might prompt someone to start a dialogue that would result in a resolution of the matter.

Recently fired Leafs coach Paul Maurice had a simple and simply great answer about how he might be perceived by a future employer given that his overall record has more losses than wins and only three playoff appearances. Maurice, who is 344-356 with 99 ties and 38 overtime losses, said he believes that hockey people will look at his teams overall and what he got out of what he had. He also said, "My teams never quit."

Hockey players are pros and aren't supposed to quit, but some do and Maurice made a strong point. His two-year term with the Leafs will be best known for his piloting a largely talentless team under a dysfunctional management system that created more problems than it solved. Maurice has been fired in both Carolina and Toronto, but it's safe to assume there is at least one more head-coaching job in his future.

Two more coaches have booked hotseats.

Ron Wilson didn't exactly need to win the Stanley Cup in San Jose to keep his job, but not getting past the second around again is sure to give GM Doug Wilson pause. The Sharks played hard against Calgary and Dallas, and should the Stars go on to the Stanley Cup Final, Ron Wilson will be able to say that his team lost to a darn good one.

However, more was expected from this edition and the fact that it often had to play from behind and dig out of deep holes is not something the GM will want to see repeated next time around.

Coach Wilson was in trouble last season. He got a reprieve, but was expected to do better. He didn't and that doesn't sit well in GM Wilson's office.

With new GM Mike Gillis in Vancouver, how safe is coach Alain Vigneault?

Not very, according to several sources who claim that Gillis, a former player and player agent, would like to get his career as a GM off with the confidence that comes from knowing his coach is his own hand-picked man. It's not a given that Vigneault is gone because the betting is that Gillis will try to get a few of his former clients, who are about to become unrestricted free agents, to sign with the Canucks. Doing so will take up a great deal of his time. However, if the new GM isn't overly successful on the free-agent market, well, what better way to renew interest in the franchise than to announce a new coach?

There are continuing rumors that John Tortorella of the Tampa Bay Lightning will be on shaky ice once new ownership takes over there. The sale to Oren Koules' OK Hockey (OK Oren Koules, get it?) is said to be in the due diligence phase. Once new ownership is in, it's expected that there will be a review of the hockey operations department. GM Jay Feaster is thought to be safe, but there is some concern as to whether Tortorella has the right touch with what should be a younger team with a heavily marketed first-round draft pick expected to contribute right away.

Tortorella is a good coach, maybe great, but he's a tough taskmaster and his ability to handle young players is something that will be questioned.

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