SUNRISE, Fla. – The first thing you need to know about Brendan Shanahan’s hiring by the Toronto Maple Leafs is that it is the first of many significant changes that will be made to the organization in the coming months.
The second is that Dave Nonis is expected to continue in his role as general manager under Shanahan while maintaining control of hockey decisions, according to those in the know – although Nonis wouldn’t confirm that fact when approached by Sportsnet following Thursday’s Leafs-Panthers game at BB&T Center.
After spending 10 months as president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, Tim Leiweke determined that the hockey side of the organization was in need of more leadership. It is believed that he was looking to add a president above Nonis even before the team went into the recent tailspin that saw it plummet out of a playoff spot.
What that losing slide did more than anything was confirm to Leiweke that changes needed to be made. This is the third consecutive season this team has collapsed in spectacular fashion and he is determined to keep it from happening again in the future.
Shanahan brings a winning pedigree to Toronto’s front office. He lifted the Stanley Cup three times as a player and won a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2002 Olympics. Since retiring, he has earned respect while overseeing the creation of the NHL’s department of player safety – a highly demanding position that required him to work long hours.
While many Hockey Hall of Famers slip into more ceremonial executive roles once they hang up their skates, Shanahan rolled up his sleeves and went to work. There’s every reason to believe that the Toronto native will continue to do so in his new position with MLSE.
His duties are expected to be wide-ranging and include involvement in business, marketing and other league-related matters. In other words, he won’t be negotiating contracts or helping manage the salary cap.
Those duties will continue to be performed by Nonis. It is unclear what impact, if any, Shanahan’s hiring will have on senior vice-president of hockey operations Dave Poulin and assistant general manager Claude Loiselle. It is believed that they remained in the dark about their futures as of Thursday night.
All three of those men accompanied the team on its recent trip through Florida and were in attendance for Tuesday’s 3-0 loss in Tampa Bay that officially eliminated the Leafs from playoff contention. Toronto has now reached the post-season just once in the last nine seasons.
Rumours and speculation about impending organizational changes began to swirl in recent days, reaching a fever pitch when Sportsnet’s Nick Kypreos reported Wednesday that Leiweke was interested in bringing Shanahan aboard. His hiring was first confirmed by Sportsnet’s Damien Cox late Thursday afternoon.
The MLSE president is known for making bold moves and he’s already made significant changes to the operation of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and MLS’ Toronto FC since being hired. Now he will turn his attention to the Maple Leafs.
Last summer, Leiweke gave Nonis a five-year contract extension and has expressed faith in his ability to ice a winning hockey team in the months since. The 47-year-old saw the Leafs qualify for the playoffs in his first year on the job and believed that they were poised to take another step forward this season.
That failed to materialize.
A reorganized hockey department led by Shanahan is in line with other team structures around the league. Earlier this week, Trevor Linden was hired as president of the Vancouver Canucks and the Colorado Avalanche (Joe Sakic), Columbus Blue Jackets (John Davidson), Edmonton Oilers (Kevin Lowe) and Boston Bruins (Cam Neely) are all among those who have hired a respected former player to fill a role above the general manager in recent years.
For the Leafs, the attention now turns to the future of head coach Randy Carlyle and his staff. Carlyle, a veteran hockey man, once described this as his dream job and has taken all of the recent losing extremely hard.
With Thursday’s 4-2 defeat to the Panthers, Toronto has dropped 11 of its last 13 games – squandering a nine-point playoff cushion in the process. It has been a stunning decline and neither Carlyle, nor his players, have been able to provide much of an explanation for why it occurred.
“In the situation we’re in, we’re not happy about it,” Carlyle said before Thursday’s game. “We’re not going to make any grand statement that we are. We’re disappointed, we’re embarrassed and we’re going to have a lot of soul-searching when this is over.”
The soul-searching at the top levels of the organization is already underway. Leiweke is as determined as they come and isn’t believed to be viewing Shanahan’s hiring as any sort of magical solution to a problem – rather than one big step in the process to getting better.
Buckle up: There is more to come.