NHL

Siegel: No bold promises from Shanahan on day one with Leafs

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Jonas Siegel
4/14/2014 9:53:39 PM
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TORONTO - He didn't talk about the Vatican of hockey. He didn't mention the centre of the hockey universe. He shied away from dream job talk. He didn't wax on about pugnacity, testosterone, truculence, or belligerence. He didn't lay out his vision for how his Toronto Maple Leafs would play or what ailed them this past season and in seasons before.

"I'm not here today for big speeches, big words, big proclamations," Brendan Shanahan said Monday morning from the Air Canada Centre. "Today is my first day at work and there's a lot of work to be done."

It was more than five and a half years ago that the Maple Leafs hired Brian Burke to change the "culture" of an organization which had veered further and further off the rails toward an eventual Stanley Cup. But unlike the bombastic Burke on that excitable day in Nov. 2008, the new President and alternate governor in Toronto made few bold statements or declarations.

"This is the time for me to start learning about the organization from top to bottom," he said. "It's a time for me to listen, to learn and get to work and that's all that's really worked for me in my career. It's what's worked for me when I was done playing hockey and that's what I intend to do here."

Tim Leiweke, the President and CEO of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, says he hired the 45-year-old to become the leader of the hockey team in Toronto - a presence he was unfit to fill - to instill an identity, to become the culture, heart, soul and character of the organization. He spoke glowingly of Shanahan's track record - both as a player and in the league office - his leadership skills as a player for 21 seasons, his first-hand familiarity with winning cultures in Detroit and New Jersey, his passion, his work ethic, his analytical skills and his knowledge of the game.

And with that full faith came final authority on all hockey and business matters. "I couldn't find anyone to say anything bad about him," Leiweke said of fact-finding conversations which came to include Ken Holland, Lou Lamiorello and Luc Robitaille.

"…what everyone talks about is the man fights," Leiweke said, selling his new management piece with vigour. "He fought as a player. He fought for the union (during the second NHL lockout). He fought for the game. And now he fights for the integrity of the league. Now he comes here to fight for the Leafs. And the one thing I know about Shanny is he's going to fight for us every day. He may be analytical, he may be patient, he may not knee-jerk, but in that heart beats a man that is extremely committed to winning and doing whatever is necessary."
 
Whatever credentials Shanahan may boast as a former player (three Stanley Cups) and league disciplinarian, he lacks the same in actual front office experience - an obvious source of skepticism for the hiring.

A growing trend in the NHL has seen teams sweep up former star players for management roles to only middling success. Maybe the most recent example of disappointment saw local legend Pat Lafontaine plucked for a senior position in Buffalo only to depart less than four months later. Brett Hull, also of limited experience, was brought back to Dallas and eventually named co-general manager. He lasted less than two seasons and now works in St. Louis.

Those that found success in the transition typically gained experience before eventually ascending to the type of role Shanahan has inherited in Toronto.

Steve Yzerman toiled in the Red Wings front office, also managing Team Canada at the Worlds and Olympics before becoming the Lightning GM. Cam Neely was a vice-president for a few years before he was promoted to team president. Joe Sakic, now the overseer of all hockey matters in Colorado, joined the club initially as an advisor and alternate governor.

Because of that inexperience it's difficult to project which direction Shanahan will take the Leafs. Will he try to follow Holland's philosophy in Detroit - skill over brawn - or lean in the direction of what Lamiorello built in New Jersey - a stifling defensive system - or try something different entirely?

Above all, he said he'd be open to new ideas, even spending his flight to Toronto reading all about the merits of Corsi and Fenwick (analytical tools for measuring the game). Learning the business side of the game under the tutelage of Gary Bettman in his past business role with the NHL, Shanahan also was keen as a player, claiming to have picked the brains of superiors like Holland, Lamoriello, Glen Sather and Jim Rutherford. "I was always curious from their perspective, the difficulties and the challenges of operating and running a team," he said.

"He was like a sponge and he took it all in," Leiweke claimed.

Shanahan's more recent gig as the league's head of discipline offered opportunity, additionally, at the centre of controversy - something he'll become familiar with in a hurry with the Leafs. "I had a job in which everyone questioned my decisions, everybody thought they knew better than us, they second-guessed everything we did and didn't like us," Shanahan said. "So now I get to come do this."
  
Leiweke was blunt that the Leafs pre-Shanahan were lacking in direction, lacking in identity and lacking the culture of a winner - damning with Dave Nonis seated just a short distance to his left. He wanted someone to change that, much in the way, he said, that Masai Ujiri has quickly altered the course of the Raptors - though he failed to mention good fortune in that case, notably with the unexpected post Rudy Gay-trade ascension and emphatic growth of Kyle Lowry.

Burke, too, talked about culture when he first landed from Anaheim, harshly critical of a "blue and white disease" that he felt had infected the club. He tried to change that and ran out of time. He also could not deliver the nasty, black and blue squad he imagined on the day of his arrival all too long ago.

Shanahan wouldn't stray down a similar path as far as bold proclamations and statements were concerned on this day. If anything, it seems he aimed to undersell and over-deliver. He wouldn't get into what his vision for the club would be, wouldn't say what went wrong this year - he didn't feel it was his place - detailing instead his immediate plans, which included a full review of the coaching staff, roster, management team, and farm system, all to be done with his standing general manager, Nonis.

"It would be premature for me to tell you right now where we're going to go," Shanahan said.
 
"We're going to work together to try to find the right answers together," Nonis added. "If we have questions or concerns we're going to work them out, but at the end of the day Brendan's the boss. He runs this team."

How the dynamic between Shanahan and Nonis plays out remains of some intrigue and uncertainty. It's uncertain how much of a say Shanahan will have in the day-to-day operations of the team and more broadly speaking, how strong an influence he'll exert over the bigger picture and to what effect. What direction he wants to take the Leafs wasn't immediately clear nor was how that approach will jive with that of Nonis, who helped build the current group, formerly as the No. 2 under Burke and eventual No. 1 until Monday's present.

In terms of shifting the identity and culture of the Leafs, Shanahan will have to start with Randy Carlyle, quickly determining whether he is, in fact, the right head coach to guide the push forward. Though Carlyle found some success with the group in the lockout-shortened 2013, his message never seemed to hit home this season, culminating in all too familiar collapse.

Both Shanahan and Nonis said all the right things as to Carlyle's prowess as a coach, but neither would rightly commit to his future.

Beyond the urgent matter of coaching - and who might be a suitable replacement - is a roster full of questions - be it with the core group and bundle of free agents - and a draft and development system that needs refreshment and considerable improvement.

A lot, quite simply, lies on the plate of the new boss with little time to learn on the job.
 
"Winning is just a very simple solution," he said. "We're not going to win a game sitting up here today. We have to get results."

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