Brendan Shanahan could have reminisced about growing up in Mimico, a suburb of Toronto. He could have flashed one of his Stanley Cup rings and crowed about his qualifications as a Hall of Fame player and an NHL executive. He could have outlined his vision for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
He did none of that Monday as he was introduced as the Leafs’ new president. This team has not won the Cup since 1967 and has made the playoffs once in the past nine years in the Centre of the Hockey Universe, and this job has been held before by men with impressive resumes and colorful personalities – Ken Dryden, Brian Burke. If this smacked of PR, his first move was to tone down the PR part.
“I’m not here today for big speeches, big words, big proclamations,” said Shanahan, in stark contrast to Burke, who burst onto the scene in November 2008 talking about “pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence.” “Today is my first day at work, and there’s a lot of work to be done.”
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Shanahan is a savvy politician. That’s one reason he’s a good fit. But to have any chance of success, he will have to bring substance.
Though he has full authority over the Leafs’ business and hockey operations, he is not a chief financial officer, general manager or player personnel director. He did not come to Toronto to negotiate contracts, manage the salary cap, make trades or run the draft. He came to look at the big picture.
It would have been nice to know what type of team he wants the Leafs to be. He offered no specifics, no blueprint, no model. He said only that he had confidence in GM Dave Nonis, and that they would take a step back and evaluate every aspect of the organization. “We’re going to talk about how we see the best way to play for our team going forward,” he said.
This is the key. The 2013-14 Leafs were billed as a referendum on analytics in hockey, and that is exactly what they became. They did not use the money earmarked for analytics in their immense budget and thumbed their noses at them in public at times – when they got off to a strong start, even when they hit the regression that the stats folks said was inevitable. They were one of the worst possession teams in the league under coach Randy Carlyle – allowing a league-high 35.9 shots per game – and it caught up with them.
“Generally speaking, I think that if there is information out there for you and you choose to ignore it, then that’s a mistake by you,” Shanahan said. “I think that certainly any time you have an opportunity to get more information, decide what’s good about it, how you can gain something from it. I’m all for that. I’m open to all of those things.”
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Shanahan didn’t commit to anything with that comment. But consider that he won three Cups with the Detroit Red Wings, who played a puck-possession style before the rise of analytics, and Shanahan has always been a mix of old school and cutting edge. He wore ancient barely-there shoulder pads but was a power forward. He admired his Original Six sweater in the mirror before his first warm-up with the Wings but played a big role in the game’s evolution.
He hosted the “Shanahan Summit,” the gathering of hockey minds in Toronto during the 2004-05 lockout that brainstormed ways to improve the product, leading to rule changes that opened up the action. After he retired, he ran the NHL’s research and development camp. The whole goal was to provide data for potential changes. He revamped the all-star game format. He built the department of player safety and became the first disciplinarian to explain suspensions via video. He helped institute the illegal check to the head rule and tweak it twice, preaching patience, saying culture change would take time.
“I have a sense of tradition and history about me,” Shanahan said. “But for those of you who know me, I’m open to new ideas, new ways to look at things and always open for anything that might improve our chances of winning.”
Shanahan needs to do the same things with the Leafs. He needs to bring together bright people and brainstorm, using some ideas, discarding others. He needs to be progressive but patient. He needs to take charge but delegate. He will be only as good as the people with whom he surrounds himself.
Nonis seems like an odd start. This is the same GM who parted with two of the Leafs’ better possession players last summer, buying out Mikhail Grabovski and letting Clarke MacArthur leave in free agency, while acquiring David Bolland and signing David Clarkson. Bolland missed most of the season because of injury. Clarkson produced only five goals and 11 points in the first year of a seven-year, $36.75 million contract.
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Tim Leiweke, the president of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, said he and Nonis agreed to the idea of adding a team president last summer when Nonis signed a five-year contract extension fresh off the Leafs’ first playoff appearance since 2004 and those off-season moves. He said Shanahan’s hiring was not an assessment of Nonis’ performance, not a knee-jerk reaction to the Leafs’ epic collapse down the stretch this season.
“This isn’t going to tear the organization apart,” Leiweke said. “This is going to make the organization a better place.”
Leiweke and Nonis spent a lot of time talking about how the media would spin this negatively, which, of course, sounded like spin. Why did Leiweke sign Nonis to that extension? Why didn’t they go after Shanahan last summer? Why shouldn’t this be an assessment of Nonis? Why wouldn’t tearing apart the organization make it a better place? Leiweke said he sensed a lack of “identity” and “direction.” Whose fault is that?
But remember that Nonis once helped build a skilled possession team with the Vancouver Canucks, first as an assistant GM, then as a GM. That team came within a game of the Cup after he left. And again, Shanahan did not come to Toronto to be the GM. Shanahan has to set the right course. Nonis has to follow that course – or be replaced. Same for everyone else.
“I have a boss,” Nonis said. “It’s Brendan. At the end of the day, the boss always has the final say in anything. Any organization I’ve been a part of that has had any success, you’ve had consensus. You’ve worked together. You’ve had to find a way to answer any questions or concerns one side or the other might have.”
“I’m not a micromanager,” Shanahan said. “I see myself as an addition to this team and an important voice with this team. That includes the entire management team.”
Nonis said he thought Carlyle was a “good coach” but left it at that. Carlyle needs to go. The Leafs need to possess the puck more, and they need coaches and players to fit that philosophy. Shanahan said the Leafs had some good pieces but declined to go into specifics, and he talked about going step by step. They need help down the middle and on the back end especially, and they need more depth.
“Winning is just a very simple solution,” Shanahan said. “We’re not going to win a game sitting up here today. We have to get results. When you don’t win, you have to answer a lot of questions about a lot of things that are distractions, a lot of side issues.”
Winning isn’t simple, though, and Shanahan knows it.
“I understand the difficulty in it,” he said. “There are a lot of really astute hockey people that I have a lot of respect for in the hockey world that have called me to offer me some advice, and what they say is that it’s a humbling job and it’s a very difficult job to improve your team in small increments. Every once in a while someone will hit a home run, but I think that their advice to me was just to continue to look for ways to improve.”
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