Brendan Shanahan is the new sheriff in town, but he will arrive preaching culture, not law and order.
Culture, culture, culture.
You are going to be sick of that word, but don’t blame MLSE president and chief executive officer Tim Leiweke or Shanahan, who served as the NHL’s director of player safety for the last three years. In a league with a hard salary cap, “culture change” is about the only tool they have. There’s no choice but to pull it out whether you need to turn a screw or bang a nail or chop some dead wood.
Shanahan never skated for the Toronto Maple Leafs—his three Stanley Cup rings are proof—but now it’s his job to save them. His title might be president but his role will be chief culture officer.
Are the Leafs a disaster? No, although they might be better off if they were.
Do they have a losing culture? You can’t say that; it’s not a Mickey Mouse shop. The Leafs have invested heavily in amateur and professional scouting under general manager Dave Nonis—who will be staying on in the role, as reported by Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston. They have 23 scouts, full time, which is at the very high end among NHL teams.
Similarly, having their AHL team share the same practice facility is another advantage that should pay dividends over time.
But there is some low-hanging fruit for Shanahan to munch on once he gets past semantics. Why does the richest organization in hockey not have a single staff member devoted to the emerging field of hockey analytics when a bunch of numerate hockey hobbyists were predicting the Leafs’ demise for free, on Twitter, for months?
For that matter, why didn’t the richest organization in hockey invent hockey analytics? Why don’t they already have 20 of the smartest, geekiest hockey fans in the world locked in a warehouse somewhere with a wall of computer equipment and video archives inventing cutting-edge ways to understand the game?
Having the means to measure player performance better than any hockey organization anywhere would seem to be an area that could provide a competitive edge, so why doesn’t Toronto have it?
For that matter, why stop at 23 scouts? Why not 123 scouts each armed with a half-dozen GoPro cameras sending video images back to home base that can be logged and analyzed every time an NHL-calibre prospect so much as ties up skates?
Have the Leafs pursued every conceivable idea under the broad sun of sports science? Do the Leafs have a private jet on call to whisk their injured players to Germany for crazy blood-spinning therapies?
Are the Toronto Marlies the second-best organization—after the parent club—to develop as a professional hockey player on the planet? And if not, why aren’t they?
The point is if Brendan Shanahan or Tim Leiweke or anyone else wants to talk about changing the culture around the Toronto Maple Leafs, no ideas should be off limits. And given that the Leafs can’t spend a penny more than the Phoenix Coyotes on NHL players, any savings should be plowed into every aspect of hockey development not governed by the NHL’s salary cap.
But what comes first—the ability to impart a winning culture on a losing organization? Or gathering up winning players?
This is where Leiweke’s splashy hiring could crash on the shoals of reality.
The Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t have a winning culture when they drafted Sidney Crosby in 2005—they had won 23 games the season before and were in bankruptcy protection.
The Chicago Blackhawks were arguably the worst-run franchise in the NHL—ESPN called them the worst franchise in sports in 2004—when they were drafting the core of their Stanley Cup winning teams, culminating with getting Jonathan Toews No. 3 in 2006 and Patrick Kane No. 1 overall in 2007.
Good teams draft great, and that’s easier to do when drafting high—can Shanahan sell another rebuilding project at MLSE after Brian Burke and Dave Nonis’s failed rapid renovation?
The next move isn’t obvious. When you have a core of under-achieving players with relatively thin NHL resumes signed to long-term contracts when they were at the peak of their market value, your hands are tied.
So good luck to Shanahan—he’s absolutely going to need it. Fixing the Leafs? The deck is stacked.
Here you have an iconic brand whose origin myth was forged in a league where only five teams didn’t win the Stanley Cup every season. They won four Cups in the 1960s alone. Then, through all kinds of bad luck—mostly deserved—they failed to win a Stanley Cup for 47 years.
In that time the obstacles in the way of ever winning a Cup again grew ever larger, the tool box ever smaller.
Now 29 teams fail to win the Stanley Cup every year.
Now being the richest hockey team on Earth matters almost not at all.
The New York Yankees are an iconic franchise. Barcelona FC is an iconic franchise. But they differ from the Leafs in one significant respect: They can spend what it takes to feed their fans’ habits. The Leafs are an iconic franchise that has to spend like a sunbelt team yet get scrutinized for every stumble of every fourth-round pick.
Solving that from the top down doesn’t require a new sheriff. It doesn’t require a new culture. It requires a saviour.
Hire one? I guess the Leafs feel they have no choice, but most teams draft them.