By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Aug. 21) – As training camp for the 2014-15 National Hockey League season approaches, the Toronto Maple Leafs are changing in an unprecedented way. Any such transformation on the ice would naturally be welcomed by fans of the club after eight playoff misses in the past nine years, though I might advise against holding one’s breath for immediacy. Elsewhere, however, the team is doing things – under Brendan Shanahan – it either hasn’t done before or hasn’t bothered with in many years.
Change, of course, is relative. One can argue the Leafs have been in constant flux for nearly half-a-century. Lack of accomplishment has been the lone thread since 1967. But, the past two years have brought some earth-shattering change off the ice – beginning at the very top.
You would, as an example, have to look far and wide for another pro sports team owned by the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s. Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE) and Rogers Communications are bitter rivals that decided to co-exist in order to keep lucrative hockey content out of the other’s sole domain (oh, to be a fly on the wall during board meetings at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment). This improbable union brought forth a convulsive change just prior to the lockout-abbreviated schedule in January 2013 when president and general manager Brian Burke was abruptly shown the door. It then appointed Tim Leiweke – one year removed from a Stanley Cup title with the Los Angeles Kings – as CEO.
Further change will occur after the coming season when Leiweke steps down – a scoop by Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet earlier this week being confirmed today by MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum. A number of candidates will be interviewed, including Shanahan, as Leiweke was clearly planning for his departure when he hired the Leaf president on Apr. 14. Leiweke is headed back to southern California (his wife’s preferred destination) in another capacity, perhaps to begin his own business (he implies he no longer wishes to run a sports conglomerate).
DAY OF CHANGE: SOON-TO-BE OUTGOING CEO TIM LEIWEKE (LEFT) INTRODUCES BRENDAN SHANAHAN AS PRESIDENT OF THE LEAFS ON APR. 14, 2014.
After a brutal, late-season collapse by the Maple Leafs took with it another playoff spot, Shanahan came aboard as Grand Poobah and sequential change hasn’t stopped. Though a two-year contract extension for coach Randy Carlyle appeared to indicate status-quo comfort, Carlyle’s assistants (Scott Gordon, Dave Farrish and Greg Cronin) were jettisoned. Steve Spott (Toronto Marlies) and Peter Horachek came aboard as replacements. Shanahan began to embrace the analytics movement by hiring young Kyle Dubas from Sault Ste. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League as assistant general manager at the expense of long-time executives Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle (who arrived during the Burke regime). Shanahan enlisted Brandon Pridham (of the NHL office) as a salary cap and Collective Bargaining Agreement interpreter (Loiselle’s former purview) and has reportedly secured the Internet advanced-stats trio of Darryl Metcalf, Cam Charron and Rob Pettapiece to form a Department of Analytics under Dubas.
Shanahan then turned his attention to the Leafs media relations wing – presided over by Pat Park since Bob Stellick’s departure in 1998. Though the club has made no formal announcement, Park was either dismissed or asked to remain in another role last week while one of his assistants – Craig Downey – was re-assigned to the American Hockey League Marlies in favor of that club’s coordinator of media relations Ian Meagher. Since 1976, when Howard Starkman left to join the Toronto Blue Jays, the Leafs have had only three directors in their media department: Stan Obodiac (until his death in 1984), Stellick and Park.
The biggest change of all has been philosophical. Rather than pursuing measures for the ever-elusive “quick fix,” Shanahan wisely chose to retain the organization’s top prospects and to exercise restraint on the open market in July. Though he did speak at length with veteran defenseman Dan Boyle about joining the club as an unrestricted free agent (Boyle chose the New York Rangers), Shanahan urged management to re-shuffle modestly for the coming season. Rather than Boyle, 37-year-old Stephane Robidas was signed to provide stability on the blue-line. Steady Carl Gunnarsson was swapped to St. Louis for the more aggressive Roman Polak. Leo Komarov (via free agency) and Matt Frattin (in a trade with Columbus) were brought back from the 2013 club that busted the franchise-record seven-year playoff drought. Lower-tier free agents Mike Santorelli, David Booth (from Vancouver); Daniel Winnick (from Anaheim) and Finnish native Petri Kontiola (from Traktor-Chelyabinsk of the Kontinental Hockey League) were signed to fill holes created by the departures of Jay McClement (Carolina), David Bolland (Florida), Mason Raymond (Calgary) and Jerry D’Amigo (Columbus).
Though Shanahan would be loathe to admit the Leafs are viewing 2014-15 as a bridge to the future, off-season transactions have been largely cosmetic. They could slightly change the face of a team still dominated by the nucleus of Carlyle, Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel. But, not considerably so. The unspoken truth: If the Leafs unexpectedly prosper, then fine. If the club takes a further step toward the bottom of the NHL in one of the richest draft years in recent memory, then even better.
No matter what happens, however, the Maple Leafs have never undergone such sweeping change – from top to bottom – in a two-year span. And, you get the impression that Shanahan is far from finished.
NAMES IN LIGHT BLUE HAVE BEEN INVOLVED IN CHANGE WITH THE LEAFS THE PAST TWO YEARS
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