April 12, 2015 will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the boldest statements in the history of the storied Toronto Maple Leafs franchise. Although the final tally has yet to come down, in all, it is expected that over 20 members of the staff directly responsible for the on-ice product will be let go. Included in that group are general manager Dave Nonis, interim coach Peter Horacheck and his assistant coaching staff, director of pro scouting Steve Kasper (who would have had a hands on the disastrous David Clarkson signing), and player development director Jim Hughes. Ironically, Sunday also marked the premiere for Season Five of Game of Thrones, arguably the bloodiest show of all time. Although some have panned Brendan Shanahan's moves, it cannot be denied that the core of the franchise needed a significant overhaul.
As Shanahan answered questions during Monday's press conference, he displayed the poise of a man who is ready to withstand the scrutiny attached to his position as president (and face) of the Leafs. The character Shanahan displayed during his playing career will be one of the key elements in the promised overhaul that calls for a vision to "draft and develop our own players" -- a simple concept that has not stuck in Toronto over the course of multiple iterations of "a new day" for the franchise. If you listen closely, you can still hear the ghost of Andrew Raycroft haunting the Air Canada Centre.
This poise was the most notable aspect of the press conference, outside of the absence of the words pugnacity, truculence and belligerence. Shanahan avoided setting timelines or speculating otherwise and stuck to his script despite the consistent efforts of the media to get him to take the bait. It would seem that for the first time in over a decade the Leafs have a leader that has a long-term vision and more importantly the wherewithal to see it through. Shanahan stressed "a team with more character", which anyone who watched a Leafs game this year can attest to the current lack thereof. Unlike his predecessors, then, it appears that Shanahan is adamant about building a team with players who possess the intangibles to succeed and to overcome when things aren't going well in the hockey-crazed market that is Toronto.
What does this mean for the front office? Although Shanahan has been adamant that he does not see himself in the position of general manager, this would seemingly be the most logical move. Make no mistake, this is now Brendan Shanahan's team. The members of the front office that were handpicked by Shanahan (Kyle Dubas, Brandon Pridham and Mark Hunter) remain on staff. With Dubas handling analytics, Pridham managing the salary cap and Hunter acting as the elder statesman without being handed the keys, a "rule by committee" approach is taking form. Shanahan has structured the committee and it follows that he should lead it.
Another logical solution could involve sweetening the pot for Mike Babcock to make the move away from the Red Wings. The rumors have been circling for months and adding a layer of control for the Ontario native could prove to be incentive he needs to leave the most stable franchise in hockey for what is currently the league's biggest mess. With Shanahan's committee in place, Babcock would not be put in a position where he would assume all the duties customarily demanded of a general manager and thus he could focus on righting the ship on the ice while maintaining a significant influence on piecing together the details of the long-term plan. Babcock receives more control, Shanahan maintains his, and the group acts as a cohesive unit -- it could work. Objectively, however, this is still a long shot. It is tough to imagine the Red Wings letting him go, and as the most tenured coach in the NHL it is even tougher to imagine him deciding to leave. The lifelong Leafs fan in me says otherwise.
Dreaming aside, Leafs fans should not expect an immediate turn around. The long-term plan can only be properly effectuated with the patience to properly develop players and make the right moves to build, not consistently provide a Band-Aid solution. The time it will take to achieve the turnaround is compounded by the fact that collectively the current front office has a combined five minutes of experience running an NHL team. There will be mistakes. But as Shanahan said "the challenge is not coming up with the plan but sticking to the plan." Hopefully the board agrees.
This plan will undoubtedly see some of the notable faces on the ice shipped off for greener pastures. Phil Kessel cannot survive another year in Toronto. In order to succeed as the Toronto's most talented, most notable and highest paid player, Kessel needed to do better. His poor conditioning was always apparent and inevitably as the team started to regress he began to unravel. Kessel is an incredible talent that will thrive in a smaller market and/or as a complimentary player, but his days in Toronto are numbered. Other names have consistently been thrown in the mix and the roster next year will be drastically altered. Whoever those players are is anyone's guess, but expect the same approach in the on ice alteration as was seen on Sunday -- changing the core of the team.
And so the uphill battle begins. A new front office, new coaching and scouting staff, a new approach and certainly a lot of new players are just the beginning. As the next few weeks and months unfold, additional clarity into the future of the franchise will arise. Regardless of the new look, the Leafs have found their man and the future of the franchise will be shaped by his sword.
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