Actually, the Leafs Did It Right

TORONTO (May 10) — After the Maple Leafs fired Sheldon Keefe on Thursday, the headline to my blog read ALWAYS THE EASIEST PATH FOR MLSE. I would therefore consider myself an insufferable hypocrite if I began this column by piling on Brendan Shanahan. For nothing in Toronto professional sport, right now, is easier and more fashionable than wondering how the beleaguered president of the Leafs still has a job. This opinion, therefore, may leave you scratching your head, for it goes against the grain of virtually everything my website has stood for since the playoff collapse, in 2021, against Montreal. Still, it needs to be said: Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment acted appropriately by retaining Shanahan for the final year of the contract extension he signed in June 2019. To toss him overboard with only that season remaining — even if sorely desired by those that follow the club — would have been shabby treatment for an otherwise good soldier. Brendan has not excelled where it most matters to Maple Leaf fans, but neither has he been a disaster for the company. Far from it, in fact.

Given everything I’ve been told through the years, Shanahan brought the Maple Leafs truly into the 21st century by modernizing the hockey department and repairing all bridges within the club’s hallowed alumni. For more than 40 years, Dave Keon religiously stood clear of any event organized by the Maple Leafs; his distaste for the franchise engendered by the cavalier manner in which Harold Ballard discarded him after the 1975 playoffs. So entrenched was Keon in his position that he rebuffed all attempts at coercion prior to the historic final National Hockey League game at Maple Leaf Gardens (Feb. 13, 1999 against Chicago). Practically all surviving Leafs from the earliest days of the franchise were introduced, one–by–one, in a lavish, post–game ceremony. But, even an appeal from Keon’s captain during the Leafs Stanley Cup dynasty of the 1960’s fell on deaf ears. Yes, even the Chief, George Armstrong, failed to convince his ex–running mate to show up for the last draw on Carlton St.

And, though Keon finally did attend a team–sponsored event — a 40th anniversary reunion of the 1967 Cup champs prior to a home game against Edmonton in February 2007 — he would not consent for his banner to hang among all the other Leaf luminaries at Scotiabank Arena. Or, to be immortalized along Legends Row on the west plaza of the building. Before any of that could happen, all jersey numbers of those being “honored” by the franchise had to be officially retired. Even if, for example, no other Leafs player wore No. 17 after Wendel Clark, that numeral, along with Keon’s 14, had not been removed ceremoniously. Then, along came Shanahan for the 100th anniversary celebration of the club (in 2016)… and Keon was suddenly at a podium, smiling broadly. Had Brendan cast a spell over his fellow Hall of Famer? How did he impress upon Keon, whereas even such a revered teammate as Armstrong could not? For an occasion in which the four–time Stanley Cup winner would be named the greatest player in the first century of the franchise. Whatever Shanahan said prompted Keon to re–think his interminable position. All “honored” numbers were retired and Keon’s banner–image finally rose to the girders of SBA.

To this day, the Leafs alumni swears by Shanahan. None will be disappointed that he’s staying on.

From the perspective of the almighty bottom line, Shanahan clearly came through for MLSE. His initial plot — nicknamed the Shanaplan — would see the club fall backward in the standings to make a huge leap later on. With the procurement of young, cheap talent from the early juncture of the NHL draft. As a blueprint, it worked to near–perfection. Even if it required the most–contemptible season of the post–Ballard era (2014–15), when Dion Phaneuf, Phil Kessel and Co. played Randy Carlyle out of a job before quitting on Carlyle’s replacement behind the bench, Peter Horachek. After an initial triumph over Columbus, the Maple Leafs plummeted to a 1–14–2 record in 17 games under Horachek. The following year was nearly a double–disaster — first, the Leafs performing abysmally enough to rank among the favorites for the NHL draft lottery; then, irrationally calling up several fresh legs from the American Hockey League to embark on a 6–2–1 hot streak through the middle of March. Thereby threatening the draft odds… and the Shanaplan, itself. Saner heads prevailed. The young gams went back to the minors and the Leafs, to the delirium of their fans, began another freefall. It surprised no one when Toronto’s logo came up for first choice in the 2016 lottery. Thereby securing Auston Matthews. That, after two lousy seasons netted the Maple Leafs William Nylander (eighth overall in 2014) and Mitch Marner (fourth in 2015).

So, yes, the Shanaplan was a huge, initial success.

As the years progressed, and to this day, the Maple Leafs provided their fans — shelling out the league’s most–expensive tickets — an upbeat, entertaining brand of hockey; the Big 3 draft picks ensuring the club would excel through the 82–game regular schedule. Whereas a 100–point season had not been achieved until 1999–2000 (under Pat Quinn), now the Leafs were routinely rattling off triple figures (a minimum 100 points in the past five 82–game seasons). Matthews, as indicated by his initial hour in the NHL (a four–goal eruption against Ottawa), rose to become the greatest scorer in franchise history, amassing seasons of 69, 60, 47, 41 and 40 goals (the latter, twice). The run–up to Matthews breaking Rick Vaive’s team mark of 54 goals; then the almost mythical race toward 70 in the waning weeks of this season, ranked among the truly thrilling events in recent club annals. So, to suggest Shanahan’s decade–long term as president of the Leafs has been a failure is both unfair and inaccurate.

Of course, there’s a rather large elephant in the room. Which inexplicably stomps on regular–season brilliance once the playoffs begin. From that perspective, there was no justification in firing Keefe and retaining Shanahan. The move was made because something had to be done… and it wasn’t going to involve Shanahan or general manager Brad Treliving. That left the club’s medical staff… and Keefe. As per usual, the coach took the bullet.

When Shanahan began to speak earlier today at the MLSE press conference, I thought he was on the verge of resigning. He kept mentioning a positive about his reign, only to spike it with “but…”. In the end, however, Brendan somewhat hollowly accepted “responsibility” for the club’s playoff ineptness. Which, many agree, should be a firing offense after eight unfulfilling ventures. Especially given that Keefe was turfed after five–such shortfalls.

Why didn’t it happen? I’ve provided you the best answer I can. I believe Keith Pelley, the new Chief Executive Officer (undoubtedly with the outright nudge from someone in ownership), looked at Shanahan with one year left on his contract and figured it would be degrading to cut him loose. And, honestly, what would it prove, other than as a sacrifice for the baying hounds? Especially given that the Leafs cannot make new tracks in the pavement until after next season, when Marner and John Tavares (a combined $21.9 million) come off the books.

There was no talk, amid the executive bafflegab, of an extension for Shanahan. Neither do I contend he would have stayed on if his contract had expired. In my view, providing Shanahan a mulligan was gratitude for his entire body of work at MLSE over the past decade. If that’s the case, I can live with it. Quite easily. Far too often, loyal employees in the work force are treated shoddily. You may be among them. This decision hardly thwarts long–term progress for the Leafs. Barring a miracle 2024–25 campaign, Shanahan will complete his obligation to MLSE… and the company to him. Then, presumably, the club will start a semi rebuild around goaltending and defense. So, the stay of execution was a legacy reward for Shanahan. All within the maelstrom that surrounds him.

I’m not defending the move. But, perhaps I’ve explained it.


13 comments on “Actually, the Leafs Did It Right

  1. Looking forward to talking about the off season and what should happen. Lots of contracts coming up for the Leafs. They are at the 50 contract limit. 13 players are ufas, 8 rfas. It will be disappointing if they re-sign Domi and/or Bertuzzi. Leafs have lots of good young forwards who need to play, and also young prospects at forward. Domi has established himself as centre more than a winger, though he was brought in to play wing. He’s not bad, but they already are committed to Tavares for one more year. Bertuzzi got 21 goals but could have had, should have had 40 or 50. Never saw someone so clumsy with the puck, weather handling it or shooting it. Not a bad passer at times, though. Can’t have Robertson, Dewar, or Holmberg as healthy scratches. Was disappointing to hear Friedman say he couldn’t imagine the Leafs not bringing back Domi. Domi and Bert earned 8.5 millioin dollars and the Leafs need to invest that money elsewhere, not at forward. Would be nice if they could stay under the cap, too. However, they need a bottom six right wing, a two way guy that can play well defensively and chip in some goals. In goal, Samsonov has proven he’s not a number one. Brian Hayes says he won’t be coming back. But Sammy can be a number two. He’s still a young guy and can still learn to be better, so he’s worth retaining at the right price and term. If they let Matt Murray and Martin Jones go, they can sign another goalie by free agency. Woll is young and good but injury prone. On defense, lots of help needed. Lyubushkin and Edmonson were pretty good there. Wouldn’t mind seeing them back but again, at the right price and term. Lots of ufa defencemen available league wide this summer. Morgan Rielly is a concern. Hope the new coach will get him playing better. Tavares, he’s also a big concern. Such a decline in his play and production. After five years of Keefe, hopefully the new guy can get him going again. Tavares is an island. Not a playmaker, he’s a goal scorer that can’t seem to play well with any line mates. He and Nylander have been oil and water for at least the last four seasons. Tavares doesn’t need to play with other stars. He needs someone to find him and set him up for shot opportunities and he needs someone to cover for him defensively because Tavares is not a good defensive forward. Also, the powerplay units need to be broken up and Tavares has to come off the top unit. They need to park someone in front of the net to screen goalies and allow players to shoot the puck more. So, go with youth. Don’t need to be at the contract limit or at the salary cap limit. Leave some room to work with in case opportunities arise. Such as the waiver wire, or a player becomes available for trade. Maple Leafs are a playoff team but that’s all, not a Cup contender yet. There is much work to do and it won’t be done in one summer. It will take a long time. Build and grow, and don’t stop building and growing. Keep the draft picks and prospects. Can’t improve otherwise. Can’t build a winner solely through unrestricted free agency. See how the good teams do it. They develop from within, manage the cap and make good trades. Can’t rent your way to a Stanley Cup. Florida, Boston, Tampa Bay, Colorado, Carolina provide good templates.

    Here are the Leafs minus the ufas:

    Knies Matthews Marner
    Holmberg Tavares Jarnkrok
    Robertson Kampf Nylander
    McMann Dewar Reaves

    The forward group is almost complete without retaining Domi and Bertuzzi. Alex Steeves is available from the Marlies for promotion as a two way centre or left wing.

    Rielly Liljegren
    McCabe Timmins
    Yikes! Help the defence!


    Treliving didn’t do too well in year one. Hope he does not insist on hanging on to the guys he brought in. Move on. Make progress.

    Thanks for the opportunity to express opinions on this blog.

  2. Not buying the PR spin. Shanny was great in the playing of hockey. Shannahan was a great disappointment in the business of hockey. And it’s sadly ruined the legacy of a great player. Won a few cups on the ice and lost many more off it.

    1. Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas built a great team. Full stop. Shanahan was patient and the players failed to deliver. It took a long time for Detroit to win with Yzerman and I believe that’s what he’s been thinking. Hopefully, Marner stays and a new coach can help make changes.

  3. I didn’t have much trust in Leafs’ management to get it right previously but now I have none. No faith, no trust. Only a building resentment from a fan/team relationship in which MLSE has always and continues to squeeze more from fans than they ever give. Leeches.

    1. Although they didn’t fire him he’s a figure head at best remember Kelly said it was his show now. To be honest I’m more curious to who the coach might be and what changes are coming on the ice. How will Tre aquire that top goalie what defenders has he targeted. I’ll be watching in the next what six weeks until Hockey’s Christmas Free Agency and who Tre manages to aquire and what of his own ufa’s he signs. One thing I do wonder is how will this core react with their new coach. The system they’ve been playing under Sheldon doesn’t have much structure. How will they handle a structured game with defensive responsibilities. It wouldn’t surprise me if Tre wanted to cut ties with Lilygren or Rielly neither are the type of defenders that he covets both bring next to nothing physically both have no shot from the blue line and not the greatest defensively either. Well it’s another long summer being knocked out so early. Cheerz ?

      1. Agreed. The lack of a booming shot from the point and a Dman to move the puck up the ice has been the Achilles to this Leafs incantation.
        What team is dumb enough to trade away to trade away a top defender? The free agent market is a Vegas crap shoot. IMO The only free agent defenseman that’s worth rolling the dice for is Klingberg in the hopes that he’d take the league minimum……assuming the doctor-man was able to glue his hips back together.

  4. I’m sorry, Shanny’s biggest mistake was hiring Kyle Dubas, a rookie executive, an inexperienced GM, which only set back the Leafs’ progress several years. For that, he has to accept blame and should be fired.

  5. I almost buy it Howard and often agree with your position, particularly in the last four years. That said, I was immediately taken aback when Pelley said that Shanahan is still the man. Shanahan was known as a self-serving guy before he joined the Leafs, stayed hidden for most of his tenure here and was both prickly and guarded when called on in public. He was also the man who changed the direction of the big rebuild fairly early in the process and handed the reins to Dubas almost cart blanche. Then he stubbornly stuck by Dubas until Kyle forced his hand a second time and then fired him out of anger. It has always been his judgement and the master he serves (himself) that made me realize that he was the problem. For him to survive without any checks and balances makes me sick to my stomach. Even though Pelley sees to committed guys, I’m not convinced that neither he nor Treliving have the skills it takes to build a Champion.

    1. I’m not defending Shanahan’s record with the Leafs. Just trying to show that the company has valued him for his entire body of work. Which is actually kind of pleasant.

      1. I can’t argue that some of the things he’s done have merit. However, he was not hired to redesign the sweater (making sure there were 13 ribs) or to create Legends Row. Any capable marketing marketing person could have done that. His job was to restore dignity and a winning formula to the once storied Maple Leafs. Period.
        An honest look at the both the NHL and AHL hockey teams prove that throwing money at a problem is an easy shortcut but rarely produces results. We were sold on the idea of a painstaking but steady process that would ‘do it the right way’. Instead we got the Shanaplan. In this regard, he not only failed to deliver but also failed to honour the promise that was made to all of us.

        FYI Howard, the Old Prof is at it again. HIs pattern of waiting to read everyone elses article before he “creates” his own has held true and today he essentially rewrote your article for NHL Trade Talk. Without citations this is plagiarism, is it not? Why this guy is a hockey writer is beyond me.

  6. You make a great case for Shanahan being in the wrong role, he needs to head up the alumni association. But the most important point missed, Shanahan has to sign off on every major decision, meaning those decisions fall on him and the GM has no real power. In the past it has been reported when timely decisions had to be made and Shanahan wasn’t available, the deals didn’t get done. Is that any way to run an organization?

  7. Yes Howard, Shanahan’s good works and legacy for the Maple Leafs is off the ice. It’s time, though, for Shanahan should know better, for the Leafs to build and grow their team properly. Slow and sure and true. It can be done. The past seven years are complete failure. They’ve done nothing right since they drafted Auston Matthews. Start doing it right. Start now.

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