Shanahan facing challenge of Maple Leafs turnaround head on

Nikita Soshnikov scored the game-deciding goal in the shootout and the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the New York Islanders.

TORONTO – The challenge of turning around the Toronto Maple Leafs is unavoidable even on the occasional good day for the organization.

For president Brendan Shanahan can’t even appear before reporters to discuss the announcement of the "Centennial Classic" outdoor game – which will pit Detroit and Toronto at BMO Field on Jan. 1, 2017 – without then being asked about the fact the team’s Stanley Cup drought will hit 50 years during its centennial season.

His answer suggested that it’s a topic he’s spent some time ruminating on.

"We’re all well aware – all of the people that have come to Toronto in the last couple years knew what we were taking on and why we were coming," Shanahan replied during Wednesday’s 4-3 shootout win over the Islanders. "It’s to eradicate that story at some point, knowing full well how hard it is in this league to win. That’s why we’re here; we’re here to take on that challenge.

"So we don’t run away from that date, as you see we don’t run away or hide from the men who have played here and won Cups here. I think you want to draw inspiration from it."

This has been a long, difficult season. The worst for the franchise in more than three decades.

There is an occasional glimpse of sunshine through the clouds, like a night where Zach Hyman scores and William Nylander ties it with 73 seconds to play and Nikita Soshnikov wins you a game with a dazzling shootout move, but the larger picture is never far from view for the man in charge of hockey operations.

The Leafs are stuck in 30th place even with the two points banked on Wednesday. They’re likely to finish in dead last for the first time since the 1984-85 season.

"We want to be better," said Shanahan. "We’re laying down a foundation this year and obviously there was some moves that we made (at the trade deadline) that gave some of our younger players an opportunity to play. We created some space for them, we created some (cap) space for ourselves going forward, so it’s been a bit of a year of growing and a bit of a year of also changing.

"Look, we’re all competitive people; without deviating from what our overall plan is, we want to be good as soon as we can."

The plan, in a nutshell, is patience.

Shanahan is well aware that it will be tested even more next season than it is right now. This was the honeymoon year, the teardown year, and the fanbase will anticipate a correlating bounce forward – especially with some of the youngsters making a measurable impact a little more than a week after their first call-ups.

However, those who have been around the game a long while know better than to make such assumptions. And it was notable how measured Shanahan was when asked what he had seen from Nylander, Hyman, Soshnikov and Co.

"They’ve shown a lot of promise," he said. "Our fans have enjoyed watching them and even our veteran players have enjoyed seeing them come up. … They want these young players to get a little bit of a taste of the NHL, whether it’s five, 10, 20 games, and give themselves a real measuring tool to be able to go back this summer and prepare for just how hard it is to be successful at the NHL level.

"That’s the big thing that I think that we’re getting from these young players getting an early look."

Down in the trenches, the view is a little bit different.

Mike Babcock allows his mind to wander to the big picture on days off, but when the coach is in the middle of the action his only thought is the here and now. And after ending a six-game losing against the Islanders, he had high praise for the Marlies.

"I thought this was Nylander’s best game by a mile," said Babcock. "Most competitive game, first time he’s skated since he’s been here, and obviously he’s a huge talent. Hyman and Sosh are here to stay. They’re real players; they’re just too good and too hard and too fast and too much work ethic (to go back to the AHL)."

There was excitement, real genuine excitement, to be found at Air Canada Centre. Both in the stands and inside the home dressing room.

High above in the executive suite, the wider lens remained fixed on a point somewhere beyond the edges of the map. A destination that hasn’t been charted here in generations.

That reality is unavoidable now and will become even more pronounced during the 2016-17 season – when the Leafs celebrate their 100th year of existence by introducing a new/old sweater and staging tributes galore and holding an outdoor game before 35,000 fans on Jan. 1.

You see, birthdays can be complicated.

At once a time of reflection and of hope.

"It’s not all going to be about just looking back," said Shanahan. "A lot of it’s going to be about looking forward. We’re trying to strike that balance between respecting the past, but also showing our fans and our alumni and our team, what we plan to do going forward."

It’s about time.