Skip to main content

Phil Kessel arrives as the Toronto Maple Leafs hold a player availability at Toronto's Air Canada Centre on Monday, April 13 2015.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The Toronto Maple Leafs have bred dysfunction for so long that it's not surprising that's all many see.It feels like Groundhog Day: a losing organization going through another round of firing and hiring that will ultimately beget more losing.

So when Leafs president Brendan Shanahan steps to a podium and speaks the way he did on Monday, outlining his vision and the grand plan for fixing the mess, the skepticism is understandable.

But a lot of it is misplaced.

There has been considerable hand-wringing the past year over the unique organizational structure the Leafs are putting in place, including the fact there is now no general manager and that whoever takes that role has to fit into the existing front office.

(What's left of it, anyway.)

The new hire will effectively be an assistant GM, one who slides into a hierarchy that already includes Mark Hunter and Kyle Dubas in high-ranking roles.

And it's clear who'll be in charge.

"The one statement I don't like to say too much is 'This is how it's always been done,'" Shanahan said. "That doesn't really make much sense to me. I believe we are building a very capable, dedicated staff of people. The type of GM that I want to bring to Toronto is someone who recognizes that and wants to be a part of that team."

What's far more important than job titles for the Leafs right now is that smart and innovative people are hired to replace the 20 or so staffers let go in Sunday's purge. For too long, the richest team in hockey has lost games not because of a lack of effort or heart or leadership on the ice, but because they've simply been outmanaged in the front office, with franchises such as the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings lapping them several times in the competence department.

That's not to say the Leafs don't have character issues; after the no-show of the past few months, they clearly do. But many were foreseeable when this core was acquired and anointed, and they were made far more pronounced by how weak the Leafs are from a talent standpoint.

That's on management – and it's why so many were shown the door on the weekend.

Now it's on Shanahan to fix it.

Of course, this new path is not guaranteed to work. Team captain Dion Phaneuf pointed out – when asked about how much change he expected in the off-season – that would be "kind of like trying to predict the future."

While Shanahan is often criticized for his lack of experience, others have come into Toronto with loads of it, misread the market and the roster and ended up guilty of the impatience that has landed them in the league's basement year after year.

If we evaluate Shanahan solely on what he has done to date, and not merely his résumé, there are things to like. He has made some shrewd, outside-the-box hires (Hunter, Dubas and capologist Brandon Pridham) and smart fires, even if they came a bit late. He has kept out of the limelight and has not made grand pronouncements about what's to come.

When he does speak, he appears to say the right things.

And he insists he has "that stomach" to not be swayed by anxious owners, fans or media the way some have in the past.

"Sometimes people here suggest the reason this can't be done is because the fans of Toronto don't have the stomach to endure what truly needs to be done," Shanahan said at one point Monday, as he talked about the need to draft and develop to eventual success. "I don't believe that. I believe they are dying for it to be done."

They are. Ownership appears to finally appreciate the situation, too, and is fully on board, ready to hand the keys over to Shanahan with few questions asked.

If they stay there, and if he continues to make more good decisions than bad, the Leafs should finally begin their long road to the kind of sustained success that has eluded them for so many years.

They are big ifs – but there are always big ifs when you're at the bottom looking for a way up.

"The challenge here in Toronto is not to come up with 'the plan,'" Shanahan said. "The challenge in Toronto is to stick to it. That is the hard part.

"I think we have an incredible, loyal, resilient fan base. We need to have an incredibly resilient group of players that love to play in Toronto. We need to have an incredibly resilient group of managers – from top to bottom – that are committed to doing this in Toronto in spite of any difficulties or perceived difficulties that this is a harder market than other markets. I don't believe [in] that. I think that the rewards are great here, and the pressure is great. But I think there are a lot of individuals that want to take on challenges like that."

When he was later pressed for a timeline for the Leafs' return to respectability, Shanahan wasn't budging.

"It will take as long as it takes," he said.

The solutions in Toronto are not sexy. They won't get flashy headlines and they won't instantly convert the skeptics, not with the incompetence that's come before.

Only winning can do that – and winning is a long way off.

Interact with The Globe