Sports Hockey


Shanny has plan, but Leafs must 'stick to it'

By Lance Hornby, Toronto Sun

Now that Brendan Shanahan has everyone’s attention — having dramatically cleared office space throughout the Air Canada Centre — the Maple Leafs rebuild can truly begin.

Yet, the club president said the project’s simplicity might surprise a lot of cynics who are convinced that conditions in this hockey market mean the Leafs can never turn the corner to becoming a consistent contender.

“People ask me about ‘The Plan’ in Toronto,” Shanahan told a media crowd a day after a slew of executives, coaches and scouts jobs were whacked. “The plan is not something unique. Twenty-nine other teams do what they have to, which is draft, develop, (show) patience and make good choices. The challenge in Toronto is not to come up with ‘The Plan’, the challenge is to stick to it.

“There can be no short-cuts. Short-cuts have got this organization in trouble in the past. This has to be one we’re committed to, and don’t stray from.”

That starts with finding the right general manager — Shanahan is hopeful by the draft in late June — and having that man get a coach who can get the underwhelming high-priced help now on the roster to play ball. If not, swing the axe again and bring in players who can.

But here’s the tricky part: Not to get discouraged by poor early returns or become giddy with any initial success. Remember what happened the previous couple of times the team, fans and media were ready to ride out rough seas? Cliff Fletcher and Pat Burns came in and a team that had missed the playoffs for two years made the Stanley Cup semifinal. The Leafs sold the farm for years later in a futile bid to get back to the top.

Same with 1998. Out of the playoffs for two springs and Pat Quinn’s arrival turned things around and brought Toronto to the final four the first year. But continued Cup pursuit, without homegrown depth, had no steam. That’s part of the reason the Leafs are in 27th place today and lamenting the firing of GM Dave Nonis, the coaching staff and a legion of full- and part-time scouts.

And everyone in the dressing room knows who is going to be targeted next.

“You can only shoot so many generals before the soldiers have to go,” said centre Peter Holland.

Yet, as the players gathered at the ACC for exit meetings before Shanahan’s address, none spoke of life as a Leaf in the past tense. Not Dion Phaneuf, who not only re-affirmed he wanted to return, but said he wasn’t interested in giving up his captaincy. Not fallen star Phil Kessel, who claimed to still “love Toronto,” despite the abuse of the past season.

“At times this year, we did good things, but not consistently enough,” said winger James van Riemsdyk.

Shanahan’s swath of destruction — coming the day after his first anniversary on the job — leaves assistant GM Kyle Dubas and player personnel boss Mark Hunter in control of day-to-day operations and, most importantly, attendance at the lottery draft on Saturday. The Leafs have a 9.5% chance of landing Connor McDavid with the first pick, which Shanahan mused “would speed things up a little”.

But picking fourth overall would be more than an acceptable runner-up prize.

Leading to the draft, Shanahan said the dismissal of so many scouts this late in the year would not hinder Dubas, Hunter and amateur scouting director Dave Morrison from running a leaner, though no less sharp a draft table in Sunrise, Fla. Hunter made the call on dismissing many long-time scouts,including ex-Leafs Peter Ihnacak and Mike Palmateer.

“Mark wouldn’t hurt our chances at the table,” Shanahan said. “He has the people that he trusts and likes. We think it will be a less-crowded room but more effective as we approach the draft.

“The plan may change week-to-week because it’s pro sports. But you have to have the stomach for the vision to get through it. I have that stomach and I think everyone who is coming in here will, too.

“Our vision is to draft and develop and, if a player needs more time to reach his full potential, we’ll leave him down there (with the Marlies). That’s how we develop a winning organization that can sustain itself, year after year after year through the draft.

“(But) sometimes the right way takes a while.”

With Nonis, interim coach Peter Horachek and assistant Steve Spott gone, Shanahan conducted some one-on-ones with the players and will do more of them on Tuesday.

“He’s certainly made his footprint felt right away,” said Holland.

“When he comes in and speaks, you want to jump on his back and follow wherever he’s going. He’s leading this calvary now. I’m excited and hope to be part of it.”


Brendan Shanahan was handed a giant broom upon arrival at the Air Canada Centre.

Why did he go through the closet only now to get it and starting sweeping?

“Coming in here then and making the kind of changes I made yesterday would have been a guess for me,” the team president explained on Monday. “I had to see things for myself.

“During this difficult season, I recognized there would be changes. As we came down to the end, it became clearer and clearer exactly how far we had to go. We went out and signed players who we thought would make us better and they didn’t.”

To his credit, Shanahan tried to be pro-active in the summer, flying to Prince Edward Island for a meeting with captain Dion Phaneuf (neither man ever elaborated on it), talking up Phil Kessel’s potential in positive terms. He kept the incumbent coach and general manager, — though he picked their new assistants — before eventually firing both Randy Carlyle in January and Dave Nonis, along with Carlyle’s replacement, Peter Horachek, on Sunday.

The big weekend house-cleaning came less than 24 hours after the Leafs lost their final game of the season.

“The only real reason to come here and do this job is if we are committed to building a team that will win the Cup,” Shanahan said. “Yesterday was a hard day, but one where we needed to be decisive, take action. It was unfair to keep people waiting.”

The surviving Leafs players, conditioned for weeks that there would be a summer of radical change, were stunned to see it happen so quickly.

“I was having breakfast with James Reimer and (the firings) started coming in on my Twitter feed,” said centre Peter Holland. “But we have to look at ourselves in here and take that responsibility (for a terrible season and its consequences) on ourselves. To not let that happen again.”


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