The Toronto Maple Leafs need Brendan Shanahan the player, not Brendan Shanahan the president.
In his 21 years as a power forward with a scoring touch that took him to The Hockey Hall of Fame, Shanahan spent a lot of time pounding bodies in those areas Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle said, in increasingly wistful terms as this lost season wound down, he would like his players to venture – along the boards and in front of the net. He really was a hard man to play against, something the current crop of Leafs like to talk about but rarely are.
The biggest problem with the Maple Leafs is they remind anyone of a certain age of the Maple Leafs from the Harold Ballard-Gerry McNamara era of the late 1980s. That team had some talented players such as Russ Courtnall, Gary Leeman and Wendel Clark. Gerry’s Kids, as they were called, since McNamara the general manager drafted most of them and insisted they were all terrific.
But Clark was one of the few with a competitive streak and that team was notorious for how quickly the players stopped working, much to the fury of head coach John Brophy. As he said, approximately, after one particularly galling loss when the acid-tongued coach set a modern-day NHL record for the use of the f-word and all its variations in a postgame interview (Lance Hornby of The Toronto Sun counted 72): “Bunch of people here trying to get people fired all the time. Who are these guys anyway? Who do they think they’re kidding? Win a game and get all happy and that’s good enough for a month.”
And so it goes for Carlyle, another Leafs coach who suddenly finds himself labelled as old school and unsuitable to coach this group of young players. You could not help but hear an echo of Brophy’s words from 1988 on Friday after Leafs practice when Carlyle hinted the current players work hard and stick to the game plan only when things are going well.
“Our message has been that our level of compete has to be displayed in a very trying situation for [our team],” Carlyle said. “The emotions for people, to reach big and dig and compete, that’s what we’re asking of our guys. We have not been able to do that specifically in the last two games.
“We did a lot of good things in the Tampa game and we still lost. That’s what’s been affecting our hockey club – when we’ve played well enough to win, we’re not winning. Earlier in the season when we were playing well enough to win we were winning. It’s just one of those things in sports that we can’t put our finger on right now.”
Presumably, one of the reasons Shanahan was hired was to put his finger on the reason. He is expected to get to this when the Leafs’ season concludes Saturday night against the Ottawa Senators.
If Shanahan doesn’t want to dive in the deep end right away, he can start his review of the Leafs on the business side of the operation – Brendan, look at that spreadsheet that says $90-million at the bottom beside the word profit. Okay, now it’s time for the hockey operation.
As noted, the biggest problem is the roster. Not enough heart, grit, dedication, competitiveness, all those words that go into winning teams. The first job might be taking the captain’s job away from Dion Phaneuf and telling him to worry strictly about getting his game in order.
But those things are usually the purview of the general manager and head coach. So Shanahan will start there.
The obvious candidate to be the first of many changes is Carlyle. This is hardly fair because if most of the players had put in even some of the hard work Carlyle and his staff did this season the Leafs would be in the playoffs and the latest sideshow would not be in full swing.
Since professional hockey is essentially a village, Carlyle and Shanahan have crossed paths before, as the coach jokingly admitted. It was at the 1989 world championships in Sweden when a 20-year-old Shanahan landed Carlyle, 12 years his senior, as his roommate.
“I remember that I had to show him only once how to fold the clothes properly and make sure that I had the remote,” Carlyle said.
If Shanahan should give his old acquaintance the chop, Carlyle appears prepared.
“Well, I’m just trying to live my life as a hockey coach and do the things that you do: Come to work and try to be positive and put an honest day’s work in for an honest day’s pay,” he said. “Obviously, the situation that we’re in makes it more difficult but you still have to come to work and you have to live. The sun did come up today, didn’t it? You’re here.”
At this point, it looks like general manager David Nonis will survive albeit with an extra pair of eyes looking over his shoulder. It is noteworthy that Nonis will be on the dias with Shanahan and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president Tim Leiweke at Shanahan’s first media event on Monday.
But nothing is certain these days.