Brendan Shanahan wants to make one thing clear: He’s not celebrating the season that was.
No backslapping. No big pronouncements. Not really much of anything from the Toronto Maple Leafs president, who insists he hopes to remain a man behind the scenes as much as possible, allowing his high-profile hires to do the talking.
But two years after Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment made a controversial bet on Shanahan – who had never worked for an NHL team in any capacity – what he will say is that he feels the Leafs are ahead of where he expected them to be.
He has a top coach in Mike Babcock, with a Stanley Cup and Olympic-gold pedigree. He has an experienced general manager in his 73-year-old mentor Lou Lamoriello, working on transactions. He has an up-and-coming executive in Kyle Dubas, managing the minor leagues (where the Toronto Marlies finished at the top of the standings), a renowned bird dog in director of player personnel in Mark Hunter and a cap guru in Brandon Pridham.
After the weekend, Shanahan also has 18-year-old wunderkind Auston Matthews, the projected star centre the Leafs selected first overall at the entry draft in Buffalo.
It’s a start.
“I had an idea before I even accepted the job of what needed to happen in Toronto,” Shanahan said in a wide-ranging conversation with The Globe and Mail about the rebuild the Leaf organization is undergoing. “But because I’ve gotten support [from ownership], things have fallen into place a little bit quicker. Other people have bought into it and come aboard.
“In each of my [hiring] meetings – whether it’s been with Mike Babcock or Lou Lamoriello or Kyle Dubas, Mark Hunter, Brandon Pridham – my approach has been honesty. ‘This is who we are. We need your help. We have a long way to go.’ But I like some of the early signs. And we’ve had some luck, obviously, with the lottery draft. It was nice to have a little bit of luck on our side, as well.”
Shanahan also liked the symbolism. When the Leafs won the lottery in April, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly turned over “a new leaf” – literally, in the form of the team’s new logo – to reveal the results. The league had asked Shanahan which emblem the club wanted to use on the card and, superstitiously, he chose the one that borrows heavily from the Leafs distant glory years.
As far as Shanahan is concerned, the revamped leaf is 1-for-1 in big moments.
“There’s a part of me that felt like the new leaf was a championship leaf, from when good things happened to the organization,” Shanahan said. “It was a little bit of good luck coming from some old Leafs ghosts.”
Luck isn’t a term anyone has applied to the Leafs in decades. After yet another last-place finish in 2015-16, the organization has more wins than only Edmonton since the NHL introduced a salary cap more than a decade ago, one of the longest stretches of futility in a franchise history littered with them.
The difference of late is that the losing is part of what’s become known as “The Shanaplan.” Ever since Shanahan sold the MLSE board on the idea of a scorched-earth rebuild in January of 2015, management was upfront with fans and media that the roster wasn’t going to be pretty. Key veterans – led by top scorer Phil Kessel and captain Dion Phaneuf – were dealt away, and the focus shifted to a youth movement.
Shanahan invested in new ideas, too, adding an analytics department, a new scouting staff and a sports-science team, trying to use MLSE’s massive wealth to modernize a franchise that had relied on old-school hockey truisms for years.
The change is unlike anything the Leafs have attempted in the past, which has prompted both skepticism and support, depending on whom you ask.
“Shanahan did a great job setting fan and media expectations [at a low level],” said Richard Peddie, the former president of MLSE who presided over some lean years before retiring in 2011. “And adding to the Leafs hockey IQ. Lou has been a great choice. Time will tell if they turn out to be a Chicago or an Edmonton.”
Wendel Clark, the Leafs last No. 1 overall pick in the bleak 1980s, is optimistic. “A lot of it reminds me of when Cliff Fletcher came. There’s a confidence about the guys that are doing the job. It wasn’t a cap world when Cliff came in [as general manager in 1991] so you could spend. Today, you can’t just spend and you have to use four or five ways of building a team. But I think any good organization has stability at the top first. That’s what everybody [among the alumni] feels – a good stability from Brendan down.”
Shanahan professes he doesn’t know why he felt the Leafs needed to be torn apart and rebuilt, brick by brick. It could be that, as a kid who grew up “living and dying with the team” in nearby Mimico, he had a good handle on the historic incompetence at work and the fans’ frustration with quick fixes and poor finishes.
After all, Shanahan was 10 years old when the Leafs inexplicably shunted fan favourite Lanny McDonald off to the Colorado Rockies, a move that started the franchise down a path of 13 years without a winning season. Lamoriello drafted Shanahan second overall in 1987, and he left Southern Ontario in the midst of that oblivion, starting a Hall of Fame NHL career that wound through New Jersey, St. Louis, Hartford, Detroit and New York.
When he finally returned to Toronto and the Leafs 27 years later, they were once again a mess, run into the ground by years of poor management and short-term thinking. He took nine months to evaluate what was there, but the thought was always in the back of his mind that what was there wouldn’t work.
Shanahan believed he knew what to do. He had to start over.
“I just felt like the people in Toronto not only wanted to hear it but they needed to hear it,” Shanahan said of the brutally honest press conference he gave after the 2014-15 season. “They needed to hear that the people who were going to be making the decisions with the Leafs saw what they were seeing and were going to try to do something about it.
“They were things that they wouldn’t necessarily encourage you, at executive school, to say to a fan base.”
Shanahan told the fans, essentially, that they were in for a lot more losing. It wasn’t going to be easy, and it would take patience from everyone, as they waited for young players to develop and their work to pay off.
Two years after he was hired, the Leafs have one of the better prospect pools in hockey, bolstered considerably by getting Matthews, who projects to become their No. 1 centre within a few years. They also have Canadian junior hockey’s top player in Mitch Marner, who was drafted fourth overall in 2015, and 22-year-old defenceman Morgan Rielly, a fifth overall pick four years ago.
In all, Toronto could have as many as 12 players under 25 years old on the roster full-time next season, the franchise’s largest youth movement ever.
There are signs the Leafs don’t intend to suffer through another last-place season, too. Last week, Toronto acquired goaltender Frederik Andersen from Anaheim for two high draft picks and immediately signed him to a five-year, $25-million deal.
That potential stability in goal, combined with a second full season under Babcock, the arrival of Matthews and another year of development for the kids who excelled with the Marlies, should mean they improve.
Shanahan, however, is quick to dismiss the idea that the Leafs are accelerating their timeline, falling into the familiar trap of believing they’re ready before they are.
“Someone’s going to say ‘Oh okay, somebody’s got to them – they’re changing their plan,’ ” Shanahan said. “ [But trading for Andersen] is part of us trying to get better. We’re not trying to do this slowly. All we’ve said is if history tells us anything, this tends to happen slowly. But we are not purposefully trying to do it slowly. When a good player is available that we think fits our team and fits what we want to do – which is grow each year – then we’re going to do it.
“We have a vision. The vision is to make the Toronto Maple Leafs a Stanley Cup contender for a long period of time, build an organization that can sustain itself over time. The plan in how you get there changes daily. It really does. But I can assure people this: Whatever moves we make, no one’s getting to us. There’s no pressure [from MLSE].”
While he appreciates the optimism he can feel from the fan base and ownership, Shanahan added that he realizes where the Leafs are at is merely the beginning. Hiring the right people, scouting and development is foundation work.
Now they need to build up. Now they need to try to win, at least a little.
Now comes the hard part.
“Let’s get straight: We’re still not good,” Shanahan said. “If I got fired today, it’s not a record that a lot of people would love to have on their résumé. So I’m not jumping ahead here… You’re never going to see me take a victory lap until – maybe – we actually have a victory.”Report Typo/Error