TORONTO (Sep. 23) — Interesting, this week, how Brendan Shanahan, president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, promised no security after the coming season to his hand–picked general manager, Kyle Dubas, who later met with reporters and took the bullet like a man. Which begs the question: Is Shanahan — comfortably midway through his own six–year contract extension — devoid of culpability within Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment?
The Hall–of–Fame forward has been at the helm since April 2014 and shares the same number of playoff–round victories as Dubas, now entering his fifth season with the club. If Kyle’s crew bows out in the opening round again next spring, a fourth GM in nine years will work under Shanahan (after David Nonis, Lou Lamoriello and Dubas). For perspective, the Leafs employed four managers — Punch Imlach (twice), Jim Gregory, Gerry McNamara and Gord Stellick — in a 31–season span between 1958–59 and 1988–89, winning four Stanley Cups and 18 series.
How many underlings will MLSE permit Shanahan before it begins to gaze higher in the executive chain?
Not that I necessarily disagree with Brendan’s decision to hold off on a contract renewal for Dubas, who is capable of improving the Leaf playoff fortunes, yet too emotionally wed to the nucleus that has toiled on his watch. Had a different person; someone inherently neutral, been summoned after the club’s sixth opening–round ouster last spring, I’m convinced that William Nylander would have been moved to rattle the club from its Stanley Cup lethargy. Instead, Dubas went back to the well yet again, hoping there somehow remains a drip or two of playoff magic. Presumably with Shanahan’s approval, for it was the president that now–famously uttered the words “we will get this done” after the post–season humiliation against Montreal 16 months ago. If anything has shaken Shanahan’s confidence in Dubas, it would be the interminable goaltending carousel. Kyle, as you know, elected to move away from the subject of his best trade as Leafs GM: allowing Jack Campbell’s 51–14–9 regular–season record with Toronto to flee westward. Precisely how any stopper can improve on those numbers is colossally confounding. Particularly amid replacements Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov — the football equivalent of two injury prone, back–up quarterbacks. Entering the 2022–23 schedule unaware if either can assume the No. 1 goalie mantle on Bay St. cannot be more comforting to Shanahan than to the Nervous Nellies of Leafs Nation.
LEAFS PRESIDENT BRENDAN SHANAHAN — COFFEE CUP IN HAND — OBSERVES AN EARLY TRAINING CAMP WORKOUT WITH LEUTENANTS KYLE DUBAS (LEFT) AND JASON SPEZZA. JACK BOLAND PHOTO
Still, the so–called Shanaplan is fast approaching the one decade mark with not a smidgen of playoff prosperity. The bean counters at MLSE must cringe at the springtime revenue unaccounted for. After tanking — disgracefully so in the latter half of the 2014–15 season — the Leafs couldn’t help but improve while drafting Nylander and Marner; then striking gold when their lottery number camp up prior to Matthews’ NHL conscription. It has amounted to historic franchise achievement in the lengthy warm–up to Stanley Cup competition… but absolutely nothing beyond. Harold Ballard, for Gawd’s sake, had a superior playoff resume in his first eight years of post–penitentiary rule. So, we wonder, does another playoff flop take down the entire hockey structure; president included? Or, will Shanahan minimally survive his six–year pact no matter how much pain the ticket buyers endure?
If there isn’t enough anxiety, witness how The Hockey News, in its 75th anniversary yearbook, has chosen survivors for the 2023 Stanley Cup — merely teams that deploy the last two Maple Leaf starters between the pipes:
Can you spell OUCH!!
OLD SCRIBES, SAME AS THE NEW SCRIBES: If you are wondering, there is no change amid those covering the Maple Leafs this season in the mainstream media. Veterans Lance Hornby, Terry Koshan, Steve Simmons and Michael Traikos will return at the Toronto Sun; Kevin McGran, Mark Zwolinski and Chris Johnston (with occasional contributions from Dave Feschuk and Bruce Arthur) at the Toronto Star; Marty Klinkenberg and Cathal Kelly at the Globe and Mail. Luke Fox (Sportsnet) and Mark Masters (TSN) will sadly again be required to provide puff and pom–poms on behalf of the club’s majority owners: Rogers and Bell. Both are capable of more. Masters will again pull double–duty at TSN as on–air Leafs reporter and website contributor. Bell, unsurprisingly, chose to go cheap upon Kristen Shilton’s departure last year (“cheap” referring to finances, not Masters). Among those mentioned, above, Kelly provides the best example of unfiltered Leafs observation; Simmons, when refraining from poetry, also tells it straight, as does Feschuk. Traikos has grown to contribute without fear of retribution from players and management. The beat–writers (Hornby, Koshan, McGran, Zwolinski, Klinkenberg) are solid, though there is too much flag waving at the Star, compounded by Johnston’s side–gig as analyst on club–owned TSN.
Fox, as Leaf rooters are all–too aware, goes way overboard in his affection for the Blue and White; undoubtedly keeping his bosses happy, but undermining his own journalistic skill. Tragically, every remark on television is today followed by a betting percentage (“Matt Murray is plus–1500 to make the first save in 7 p.m. home starts against Atlantic Division opponents, but drops to minus–1200 in 7:30 p.m. starts on the road against Alberta teams”). This is ridiculous and beyond annoying, but inevitable given the ca$h flow generated by legalized gambling. I find it disappointing that former Leaf winger Mike Johnson, among the best hockey commentators in Canada, is compelled to offer such wagering odds after virtually every sentence. We remain, however, in the Millennium of Overkill.
Speaking of my old pal, Simmons, his memoir (below) will be released in November. Given the number of sporting events, alone, that I attended with Steve during my radio career, this should be a special read.
PAUL RHYMES WITH HALL: Next Wednesday, Sep. 28, will mark the 50th anniversary of the now–mythical goal scored by Paul Henderson in Game 8 at Moscow, allowing Canada to prevail over the former Soviet Union by the slimmest margin in the 1972 Summit Series. Too bad the Hockey Hall of NHL Statistics cannot look beyond its cast–in–stone induction criteria and include Henderson for his unparalleled moment of FAME.
I treasure the cover of this 1973 book, signed to me by the now–79–year–old national hero: