Two weeks ago, the management team of the Toronto Maple Leafs met with several members of the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment board on the 15th floor of the corporation’s head office at 50 Bay St.
These informal meetings had been ongoing since the start of the National Hockey League calendar. New Leafs president Brendan Shanahan was hired with a mandate to remake the team. From very early on, he’d realized that if the club aspired to be a Stanley Cup contender, it required a major overhaul.
But he needed the evidence of the season to persuade his employers fully. After the Leafs’ recent slide out of contention, the club’s given him that.
Then he needed the board to endorse his vision of a barren short term in the interests of a competitive future. In that meeting, he got that as well.
Mr. Shanahan and his lieutenants have now finally received a broad mandate from ownership to scorch as much earth as they see fit in order to return the Leafs to contention, according to two sources familiar with that meeting. It will mean a new philosophy on building slowly through the draft and long-term projects, rather than quick fixes via trades for established players. It will mean at least three more years of pain for fans, and as many as five.
When you’re living in or looking on at the day-to-day chaos of Leafland, all you see are small, constant and usually inconsequential crises. It creates the disastrous habit of thinking the next game or the next month is all that matters. That tendency has repeatedly infected previous regimes, drawing them into terrible, short-term decision-making.
In hindsight, that’s what may make that meeting two weeks ago so consequential. It was the first time in a long while that everyone involved agreed hockey’s Rome could not be rebuilt in a day.
Currently, the team is sliding into a standings abyss. The roster lurches nightly between despair and befuddlement. After only a month on the job, the interim coach, Peter Horachek, appears days from blowing a gasket in public.
It may not feel like it right now, but this is a good thing. This, right here, may be the most realistically hopeful time to be a Toronto Maple Leafs fan in a generation.
From that perspective, the season could not have played out better.
Mr. Shanahan arrived never intending to fiddle with the roster. His predecessors had begun tinkering in small and large ways, nearly from the get-go.
Some had been given the same informal board approval to make sweeping changes (the presidents of MLSE clubs only require full board approval to fire coaches and general managers, and to substantially alter their budgets). Former general manager Brian Burke talked constantly about “a five-year plan.” But none had followed through. There is too much temptation in hockey’s most hysterical market to patch the hull right now, then set off to sail round the world. All those voyages were lost.
Instead, Mr. Shanahan and GM Dave Nonis put roughly the same team on the ice. They stuck with coach Randy Carlyle, long after he’d been compromised. The goal was to give the board a steady target. “This is what we have.” There were few significant injuries to significant players. For a time at least, stars such as Phil Kessel played as though they were stars. The offence was among the league’s best. The defence was intermittently awful, but adequate to needs. This was the Leafs being as good as they could be. And, just as Mr. Nonis and Mr. Shanahan had suspected, it was unsustainable. The wheels didn’t just fall off. They caromed through the windshield and sheared off the roof.
So, what now?
First, a new, intense focus on the draft. Everyone in the league talks a good game about drafting your way to success, but there are still more than a few who don’t really believe it. They prefer to trade, which brings instant gratification and, if it works, ends up making you look smarter.
This was the point of hiring former London Knights GM Mark Hunter as an executive. Most took it as a challenge to Mr. Nonis. Instead, Mr. Hunter brings something few top people in the NHL can claim – a deep and nuanced understanding of the best 14-, 15- and 16-year-old players in the world. Along with assistant GM Kyle Dubas, Mr. Hunter is here to mine the draft over the next three years.
Second, Connor McDavid. The Leafs sit sixth from the bottom. If the season ended today, that would represent a 7.5-per-cent draft-lotto shot at the generational talent from Newmarket, Ont. A few days ago, Mr. McDavid told The Toronto Sun’s Mike Zeisberger that ending up on the Leafs “would be a dream come true.”
It’s not at all likely, but until it’s certain one way or the other, Mr. McDavid will haunt the Leafs’ dreams.
You can’t ask a team to tank. Professional athletes aren’t built to do it. But no one in management is bothered by the roster’s decline into despair. Quite the opposite. Having taken the decision to start fresh, this is spinning out swimmingly.
Then, Mike Babcock. The best coach in the NHL still hasn’t re-signed with Detroit. People who know Mr. Babcock say one important thing about him – he badly wants to succeed in the most difficult, high-stakes circumstances. That would be Toronto. He could probably win now in a city such as San Jose. But why would he care?
There’s also the allegiance he feels to fellow coaches. Moving to hockey’s most lucrative market would make Mr. Babcock far and away the highest-paid coach in league history, a rising tide that floats all salary boats.
Next, the teardown. This is a controlled demolition, and it won’t happen quickly. The most likely players to leave before the March 2 trade deadline are Daniel Winnik and Mike Santorelli. They’re cheap, durable and many teams want them as playoff rentals. Removing that pair also has the salutary side effect of making the Leafs worse, aiding their dive into a deep draft. You could trade Dion Phaneuf tomorrow, but there’s a sizable risk of getting back someone who makes you better right now. That would be counterproductive.
This season has allowed management to identify a new core of players it wants to keep – Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Jonathan Bernier, William Nylander. Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk are still considered valuable because of their youth. There are some favourites, but no one – not even a budding star such as Mr. Rielly – is untouchable.
It won’t happen until summer, but Mr. Phaneuf and Mr. Kessel are not in the plan. The goal now is extracting as much value as possible for them. That translates either to young players who are high-ceiling projects and draft picks.
It’s still a risk. The Edmonton Oilers haven’t been able to manage it. Chicago suffered through several miserable years before the Blackhawks could make it work.
Starting over is no guarantee of success. But everyone at every level has finally accepted that the other way – the way the Leafs have been trying for more than a decade – only promises mediocrity and disappointment. The real difficulty is in keeping on the hard road down, which eventually leads back up.
Cathal Kelly hosted a Facebook Q&A on Feb. 13. You can read the recap here.Report Typo/Error
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