Brendan Shanahan didn’t mince his words, at least on this particular subject.
After a first month of carefully studying the Toronto Maple Leafs and speaking with just about everyone in the organization, the NHL disciplinarian turned team president now has some firm ideas when it comes to what the troubled franchise needs and what it doesn’t.
And he firmly believes he can make use of at least some of what’s there, rather than tearing the roster down to the studs as part of a full-scale rebuild around youth and draft picks.
So that won’t be happening.
“This is not a gut job,” Shanahan told The Globe and Mail as part of a wide-ranging series of interviews he did with several Toronto media outlets on Wednesday.
“There are good pieces. I think the team is maybe not as good as some of their best months and not as bad as some of their worst months. But there are definitely pieces I’m comfortable with.”
One of those appears to be captain Dion Phaneuf.
The defenceman’s name has been circling in trade rumours of various quality of late and there’s been plenty of water cooler talk about a change in the captaincy, but Shanahan said what he actually saw in Phaneuf’s struggles late in the year was someone who cared a great deal.
More than anything, Shanahan said, he was trying to do too much.
A long-time former player and Hall of Famer – Shanahan was also a captain briefly for the Hartford Whalers midway through his career – added that he believes he can come in next season and support Phaneuf and help him shoulder that particular load.
Step 1 on that front will be offering some advice on how to handle the leadership role.
Secondarily, he can acquire him some reinforcements – particularly on the blueline, which Shanahan specifically picked out as an area where the Leafs need to get more mobile.
“No not at all,” Shanahan said when asked about contemplating a change with the Leafs captaincy. “As a matter of fact, I hope to help Dion be a better captain. He’s got a lot of want and desire.
“[He’s] somebody that I can meet with, consult with, give some of my experience to. I would like to enhance his leadership qualities. And also surround him with more leaders.
“I think it’s an impossible task in any market, especially in Toronto, to put all that responsibility on any one guy.”
Shanahan’s most compelling comments on Wednesday were likely on the team’s controversial coaching changes, which involved the Leafs firing all three assistants but giving embattled head coach Randy Carlyle a contract extension last week.
Shanahan explained that the decision to turf the assistants but not Carlyle was born out of lengthy conversations with both general manager Dave Nonis and the Leafs players, some of whom expressed to him frustration with the system the team was playing – especially in its own zone.
What Shanahan determined more than anything the past few weeks was that the status quo couldn’t continue and that the Leafs will need to play a dramatically different style next fall.
A lot of the onus for that will fall on the yet-to-be-hired assistant coaches and on Carlyle reinventing himself, something Shanahan said will be a must.
“I agree with many of the fans that… to be outshot that often, there’s something wrong,” Shanahan said of the Leafs terrible defensive track record, which saw them concede a league high 36 shots per game. “There are some things about the system that were identified where the message wasn’t getting through. That to me will be an important adjustment that needs to be made.
“I think that Randy is a talented coach and I think he – like a lot of our players – has to look in the mirror and figure out how they can all come back and be better. I think that’s part of any winning organization. That has to happen from everyone.”
It was not much of an endorsement for a coach that had been just given a two-year extension, adding to the curious beginnings to the Shanahan era in Toronto.
But he explained that there will be changes beyond those behind the bench.
Shanahan said, for one, that he expects the organization to find a way to incorporate analytics into what it does, noting that he had already spoken with several other management types around the league about how they use data to make decisions.
And he remains adamant that he will not fall into the trap that befell some of those in his position previously, where kneejerk moves were made to try and speed up the process of getting better.
He is in this for the long haul – and he’s been warned by his friends in similar positions that it likely won’t be easy.
“When we made the announcement about Randy, a lot of people said ‘oh okay so that’s it, we’re coming back with the exact same group,’ ” Shanahan said. “Well, no, we’re not. But the pressure to make decisions won’t be dictated by a timeline.
“It’ll be when we feel that we’ve got well informed and good decisions to make. When those aren’t available, we’re not just going to just make what we think is a bad decision because we have to make one.
“I’d love to have everything in place and be ready to go when we drop the puck in October. But if there are certain personnel that we’re still looking for and waiting to develop, we’ll do that.”
What follows is an edited transcript of the interview with Brendan Shanahan. It was conducted by sportswriters Cathal Kelly, James Mirtle and David Shoalts:
Q. [In response to Shanahan meeting with so many media organizations in person in Toronto on Wednesday] So much of your job it seems will be messaging…
“I saw it was a responsibility, especially as a player. I thought it was part of the package. For me, now, I think as you guys have noticed, there will be times where I feel there’s a need to come out and talk but for the most part I didn’t come here to grandstand or make lots of speeches or things like that.
“Quite frankly I don’t think there’s always the ability to be up front and I don’t want to be in the position where I have to lie to people. I just think there are some questions that people ask me that especially going forward the honest answer is I can’t tell you. I have no intention of telling you.
“I think if you are constantly throwing yourself out there and out there and saying here I am and this is what I do… then when they want something back and your answer is I don’t want to tell you. It’s sort of not fair.”
Q. The metaphor I thought of for when you or anybody new comes in is you’re presented with a game of Jenga midway through. The structure might be solid, it might be shaky – you’re not sure and there’s two ways you can go: You can start pulling out blocks and trying to switch things in or you just knock the whole thing over. Philosophically, which camp would you fall into?
“Not even to be philosophical but to be specific, I think with this one here, I don’t think with this one here there’s a need to knock it down and build it up again. That’s not because I feel external pressure that there’s no time to do that. I just think my initial assessment of the team is that there are changes that need to be made, but this is not a gut job. There are good pieces. I think the team is maybe not as good as some of their best months and not as bad as some of their worst months.
“But there are definitely pieces I’m comfortable with, as you use the analogy, with the Jenga [block] that Dave Nonis has created. He’s often quoted as saying on his long-term contracts, they don’t include immovable contracts, so there’s flexibility I still think. And I also think walking into this situation some people offer their opinions to me about what they think but I guess in the first 30 days [on the job] I do think there’s some flexibility with this team and some good pieces. I think some of the pieces are in the wrong place. And I think there are some pieces that are needed here.”
Q. You said pieces in the wrong place – are you talking about the captain?
“No not at all. As a matter of fact, I hope to help Dion be a better captain. I think he’s got a lot of want and desire and I think if there’s somebody that I can meet with, consult with, give some of my experience to, I would like to enhance his leadership qualities. And also surround him with more leaders. I think it’s an impossible task in any market, especially in Toronto, to put all that responsibility on any one guy… “I’ve been on lots of teams where the guy that wore the C had lots of other captains in the room with him. At the end of the day, someone’s got to wear the C. My experience with him, it’s not something I’m looking at or considering at this moment, I’m telling you that.”
Q. Has the past month been a crash course in going over video and breaking down a lot of Leafs games to get a better handle on what you’re dealing with?
“Some games but for the most part I think with the amount of hockey that I’ve watched over the last few years I’ve got a pretty good feel. So like I said, what I was saying about pieces in place, I think sometimes, the game evolves and a player’s game evolves over his career and throughout a season. That’s more what I meant.
“I would say, Dion, I saw a tremendous amount of desire from him and if anything it hurt him toward the end of the season, I thought he was trying to do too much. That’s maybe not the best way to go about it but it’s an admirable quality in his game that he has that kind of care. But I think that’s again something that can be fixed. I think there are certain things that are difficult to fix. Lack of care [is one]. But I think there are certain qualities about players, I’ve said it in the other interviews, I’ll say it here – to me, I want guys that have talent, I want guys that above all else that compete, and I want mental toughness.
“We’re not all going to get that on Day 1. I think some of those things can be developed. I think first recognition is that some of the failures that have occurred over the past couple years would indicate that the team’s not mentally tough right now. But historically some championship teams have had collapses. And ugly collapses. Sweeps in finals. [He mentions a story about the Oilers when they kept losing in the finals back in the early 1980s.] “What do you do when you fail? What’s your next step? While you’re trying to prove that, you learn from it and you evolve from it. You’re going to read and hear until you have playoff success that you can’t win and you’re not mentally tough.”
Q. What do you do after you fail?
“You come back more determined and more experienced and more resilient. It’s an easy thing to say. If we come back next year and we’re having a great October, November – it’s not going to matter. Until we prove it. These reputations, I’ve just seen too many times in my life, teams described as not capable of winning the big game and then suddenly they win the big game and the perception changes. I’ve seen it with individuals. You can’t win with this guy as your No. 1 goalie or this guy as your captain until they do it and they’re perceived to be these great leaders.
“The reality is you have to do that in the playoffs. And no amount of success in the regular season is going to – reputations are made in the playoffs. You have to get there and you have to earn it.”
Q. I remember those Detroit teams you played on, they had great mental toughness –
“That’s not what they said about them in ‘95 when they got swept in the final. What were they saying about them?”
Q. Did that change by the addition of the right personalities or how did that happen?
“Well they made a key trade [to bring him in]… “No all kidding aside when I arrived there at the start of the 1996-97 season… I honestly remember seeing a team that was so fiercely determined to change the narrative. So there were additions that were made. Larry Murphy was a big addition at the trade deadline. [Adds that Tomas Sandstrom helped as well.] … “There was such a sense of fear, even when we got to the finals that year, that we’re not there yet. It was almost more frightening for that group. They held their breath when we were up 3-0. Anyway, I don’t want to just talk about my hockey career… I was trying to speak more generally. I guess overall my experience in watching other teams, even since I’ve retired… I’ve seen perceived weak teams or perceived weak people change their story.”
Q. Can you talk about the decision to keep Randy Carlyle? It’s been highly polarizing among the fan base – can you give us your reasons why that was the decision and not making a change.
“Well Dave and I talked about all of our options and we felt that was the best option going forward. The feedback I got from last year and maybe the last couple years was that the coaching staff, there needed to be some changes. So we discussed what changes we were going to make and what other options there were.
“At the end of the day, we felt that as a head coach, Randy is still a respected, talented head coach, but for whatever reason, the mix was not working and the message wasn’t necessarily [getting through] – not due to any one person’s fault.
“Sometimes the mix and the freshness of maybe some new people working with Randy and some different personalities, guys with different personalities from Randy, might complement what he is more. Our hope is that the success that he has had as a coach, he’s won a Stanley Cup, you look around at the different people are available, but Dave and I made the decision that Randy deserved [a shot] to give us the best chance to have success.”
Q. Is that a stylistic thing at all? Do you like the way the Leafs played?
“I think there’s some changes [needed]. I think Randy also recognizes there are some changes to the system that need to occur. Specifically in our defensive zone. Whether the Leafs manage to get into the playoffs this year or not, I agree with many of the fans that – and I don’t think I’m saying anything shocking, it’s not a revelation – to be outshot that often, there’s something wrong.
“There are some things about the system that were identified, applications of who was on the bench and like I said the mix, where the message wasn’t getting through. That to me will be an important adjustment that needs to be made.”
Q. Have you talked to any of the players about that? Was that part of what informed you about what was happening with the assistants?
“Yeah. The players supported the coaching staff. I think a lot of them felt confused and not confident with the – there’s a defensive style they played I guess last year called The Swarm that has been successful with certain other teams and wasn’t successful here. That’s something that the players felt – I think with five games to go [the coaches] tried to switch to more traditional defensive zone coverage, but it was probably a little bit too late by then.
“So I think that Randy is a talented coach and I think he – like a lot of our players – has to look in the mirror and figure out how they can all come back and be better. I think that’s part of any winning organization. That has to happen from everyone at the end of the season. Even in successful seasons.”
Q. One of the things that raised a red flag is that Randy continually said he wasn’t sure what the problem was or how to fix it, and publicly there were mixed messages and confusion coming from the coaching staff. It didn’t seem like he was coming to the table with a lot of answers towards the end of the season.
“I think some of the things that are said in internal meetings are said a lot more clearly than some of the messaging to the media. I think there were maybe some unfortunate remarks over the course of the season but, look, to me the focus isn’t on words that were used. I can say that Randy, there are some things that frustrated him, and he and I met, and there were some things that as far as having a plan and wanting to follow through with the plan. I think he’s pretty clear on what he wants to do there.
“Right now we’re at a search for new assistant coaches. He’ll be a part of that. Dave and I will consult and be a part of that. And we’re hoping that we’ve got a mix that can enhance his coaching ability. I think he’s a good coach. I think he can be a good coach again.”
Q. What do you see happening with the assistants on the management side [Claude Loiselle, Dave Poulin, etc.]? Will there be changes there?
“That’s not something I’ve really discussed yet. I think organizationally there were certain priorities [first]. I’ve discovered the role that they have in the organization, and I’ll just leave it at that. I think that Dave Poulin does a lot of work with the team and with the Marlies. I can say that developmentally I think our development system is always going to be very important to me.
“Claude has another role, he does a lot of the cap counting and number crunching, but my focus has been on other areas up until now.”
Q. Is there a team around that you look at or you watch play and say that’s what I want our team to play like?
“Yeah. Whoever win the Cup this year. To a certain degree.
“No all joking aside, you can chase and try and copy a lot of different teams and get into trouble. Let’s face it, I think we have certain strengths here. One of them is speed and an ability to counterattack. But in my own opinion it’s not where it needs to be. It’s not as complete as it needs to be. I think we have to have more mobility on the back end. I think we need to make more simple passes and clean exits. There needs to be more tape-to-tape passes coming out of our zone for the type of forwards we have.
“While the ability to score on the rush is unique and a great asset to have, to be able to counterattack, we need more compete level and time in the offensive zone. That’s not a formula that’s really all that foreign to a lot of teams. It’s a matter of applying it. So I think we’ve got some good pieces but I don’t think we’ve got all of them in the proper place right now. We have some personnel changes to make.
“But again, the timing of those decisions – when we made the announcement about Randy, a lot of people said oh okay so that’s it, we’re coming back with the exact same group. Well, no, we’re not. But the pressure to make decisions won’t be dictated by a timeline. It’ll be when we feel that we’ve got well informed and good decisions to make. When those aren’t available, we’re not just going to just make what we think is a bad decision because we have to make one.
“I’d love to have everything in place and be ready to go when we drop the puck in October but if there are certain personnel that we’re still looking for and waiting to develop we’ll do that.”
Q. What were you warned about the most about coming here and taking the Leafs job?
“Probably a little bit of what I just talked about. The pressure sometimes to have instant success or the pressure to deviate from what your plan is. I do think that your plan for all 30 teams whether you’re in Toronto or a smaller market, your plan evolves throughout the season because things happen… “But I think what most people gave me the heads up on is the pressure here that can sometimes lead certain people to deviate from the plan and what their core values are.”
Q. Isn’t some of that pressure is self-imposed as well? As a former player, you want to be successful as quick as possible?
“You talk about advice I got from other people and some of the people whose opinions that I really value in this league who’ve built great teams talked about their realistic expectations to just make small improvements. That this is not a job that can get done overnight. In any market really….
“That’s the one bit of advice that a lot of them said. You make improvements when you have the opportunity to make improvements and to not chase sort of things that aren’t there.”
Q. You were asked a couple times when you were introduced last month about analytics – have you looked at that side of the game any more? The Leafs are seen as an organization –
“I know where you’re going with this... [laugh]
Q. They are seen as anti-analytics or at the very least not interested in incorporating them into what they do and Dave [Nonis] hasn’t always used that part of his budget. Is that something you think you’re going to use?
“It is. It is something that I’m going to use. I do have some thoughts and I have some meetings with some people about that. But to the extent and how we’re going to use it – “Some of the clubs that I know that do use it – every club uses it for a certain purpose or has a certain statistic that they value. So it’s not just like ‘we’ll make all of the decisions in our organization based on Corsi or Fenwick or the entire sum of it.’ But there are pieces of it that they may value that they use to support some of their decisions.
“I think some of the people that I’ve talked to said they still feel that it’s something that you can use in conjunction with other information, not by themselves. I understand the concern and some of the trends that I’ve seen and read up on.
“But all we can do is try to come out and have success and if we don’t, like I said, the seasons evolve, the game evolves and the decisions evolve. That’s something we all have to be prepared to do.”