Tim Leiweke had seen enough.
Earlier in the season, Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment’s green president had been hopeful that the crown jewel of his new empire, the Toronto Maple Leafs, was turning a corner, building on a rare playoff appearance a year ago and aiming higher.
He talked a tough game, whenever possible, about supporting the group currently in charge, as one would expect after giving general manager Dave Nonis an inexplicable five-year extension last summer.
But Leiweke had his doubts, and they crystalized quickly when the Leafs embarrassingly plummeted in the standings the last four weeks.
He knew he had a problem on his hands, potentially a big one, and his answer was Brendan Shanahan.
Whether it will work depends on what comes next.
A Hall of Famer with a sparkling, lengthy resume on the ice, Shanahan is expected to be named president of the Leafs as soon as Monday, with the only hurdle remaining getting a contract done with Leiweke, which is expected to be a mere formality in the coming days.
Shanahan had been courted by multiple NHL teams in the past year – including the Calgary Flames last June – and talk in league circles was, after three tough-but-productive years, he had wanted out of the difficult disciplinarian job before next season.
Coming home to Toronto, where he grew up in the small community of Mimico, was too good of an opportunity to pass up, especially considering he will be given the final say in all high-level hockey decisions made in the richest organization in the league.
Where Shanahan’s hiring leaves the Leafs current front office, led by Nonis, is unclear, but it’s expected major changes are coming to the management group underneath the newly created position.
Nonis received a big vote of confidence from Leiweke last July, with the extension coming mere months after being named GM and seemingly tied to the franchise’s first playoff berth in nine years. But after a tumultuous season that’s featured both a three-wins-in-15 games nose dive – including Thursday’s 4-2 loss to the Florida Panthers in Sunrise – and a brutal first year from $37-million free agent David Clarkson, he is on a shorter leash than ever.
Shanahan’s hiring follows the recent trend of NHL teams putting former stars into the front office, although unlike Joe Sakic in Colorado, and much like Steve Yzerman in Tampa, he has no real ties to the Leafs organization.
What Shanahan, 45, did have is a remarkable 21-year and 1,500-plus game career that included three Stanley Cups and multiple appearances with Team Canada. He’s widely respected, has a reputation as a hard worker and played under some brilliant executives, including Lou Lamoriello in New Jersey and Ken Holland in Detroit.
The x-factor is the fact he doesn’t have any management experience since leaving the ice in 2009, making him an unknown commodity on the team-building side.
What he walks into in Toronto is a bit of a mess. While Leiweke has quickly instituted an impressive culture change with MLSE’s two other teams – the Toronto Raptors and Toronto FC – since being hired last June, the Leafs are a whole different story, with a much longer record of futility and road to being a contender.
Not to mention attempting to do it in a fishbowl unlike any other in the game.
It’s the type of challenge that would be a difficult situation for any executive to handle, let alone a first timer, and opinions around the NHL are currently split on how fitting a candidate Shanahan is for the job.
In a best-case scenario, Shanahan will follow the lead of a former Red Wings teammate. Yzerman had the added benefit of apprenticing in the Detroit organization for four years before going to Tampa, but what he did well was make great hires – such as assistant GM Julien BriseBois and coach of the year candidate Jon Cooper – to support his decisions and embrace new ways of doing things.
It hasn’t been a perfect rise, but Yzerman’s shown potential to become something special.
The Leafs also have to hope the competitiveness Shanahan brought as a player and the work ethic and ingenuity he had as a league executive translates into his new role, as blue and white disease is still rampant in the Air Canada Centre hallways and needs to be wiped out in order for the franchise to make real progress.
At this point, any change is welcome. More than anything, what the Leafs' ugly finish to the season highlighted was the desperate need for a shakeup, one that rids the organization of so many holdovers from the unsuccessful-yet-entitled Brian Burke era and ends the notion such prolonged mediocrity is even remotely acceptable.
It now falls to Shanahan to create the kind of quick culture change Yzerman did when he took over a badly damaged organization four years ago in Tampa, and he will have endless resources at his disposal to do so.
Only with the Leafs, the task will be far tougher and the potential pitfalls more numerous.
It’ll be out of one snake pit and into another, too, and the Mimico lads haven’t fared too well with the homecomings of late.