This, ladies and gentlemen, is not Brendan Shanahan’s fault.
But soon, it will be.
It will be if Shanahan, like so many before him, chooses not to take this current Maple Leaf situation for precisely what it is and instead rationalizes his way to the same partial rebuilds or reconstructs or renovations that have kept this team so far removed from the upper echelons of the sport for so long.
Shanahan, you see, is at a crossroads, and just nine months after he was hired.
He can boldly try to aggressively build this hockey team from the foundation up in the way that others, from Floyd Smith to Cliff Fletcher to Ken Dryden to Pat Quinn to John Ferguson Jr. to Brian Burke, refused to do. Or weren’t allowed to do. Or chose not to do.
Or he can pretend that there’s upside here to simply staying the course and trying to build upon the flawed foundation that currently exists.
The guess from here, folks, is that Shanahan knows he’s at a crossroads, understands there’s no easy way out and that there’s little or no real choice in what must be done.
Tear this thing right down and start over.
Start over? START OVER?? Again? You can hear the groaning of Leaf Nation when that’s even suggested.
But there’s really no choice, and to think otherwise is to pretend.
Shanahan has a core group of players that isn’t good enough or strong enough or committed enough to take this team anywhere meaningful. As Sportsnet colleague Jeff Blair recently pointed out, that core group also isn’t particularly likeable to the public.
The team appears to own one young player, Morgan Rielly, who has the earmarks of both stardom and leadership, and that’s it. Outside of Rielly, there are young promising players, but not enough of them.
This isn’t a franchise that owns Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick, Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar and just needs Justin Williams and Mike Richards to join in and point the way to a championship.
So to build a championship team with the Leafs, priority No. 1 has to be to find other players similar to Rielly, or better.
That will take time. It could be achieved partly through clever trades, but for the most part it will require those kinds of athletes to be drafted and developed the way Doughty, Quick, Brown and Kopitar were by the L.A. Kings.
Keeping the current core will, really, just make it impossible to do that by keeping the Leafs in the mushy middle of the NHL standings. Instead of getting John Tavares, they’ll draft Nazem Kadri. Instead of Nathan MacKinnon, they’ll get Frederik Gauthier.
All of this, of course, means that 6 1/2 years after Burke came to Toronto, the Leafs need to again tear down what has been built and start again.
That will take someone to admit these have been 6 1/2 wasted years, 6 1/2 years filled with expensive decisions that didn’t work out. That’s not an easy thing for any sports organization to admit.
But that’s what must be done.
It’s what Shanahan appears to have the political capital to do if he so chooses.
The fact that Shanahan authorized the axing of Randy Carlyle as head coach when the Leafs were in possession of an Eastern Conference playoff berth is promising, for it demonstrates he not only knows the difference between being competitive and being a real contender, he wants no part of the former if it stops his team from becoming the latter.
He’s undoubtedly figured out Phaneuf and Kessel can’t lead an NHL team, this one or any other. Both are good NHL players who might and probably will find success as support players with other teams, but they can’t provide the combination of leadership and performance necessary for this Toronto team in this difficult market. He gave both a chance to prove him wrong this season, but they haven’t been able to do so, and the team’s getting worse.
The Leafs, 0-2 in California without scoring a goal this week, might win in San Jose tonight, maybe even in St. Louis on Saturday. It’s unlikely, but not beyond the realm of possibility, that this team might even find a way to scratch and claw its way back into the fight for one of the wild card berths in the east.
But that, really, would only take the Leafs further away from where they need to go, not closer. They need to be much nearer to the McDavid sweepstakes, not hoping to get back in the fight for a playoff spot.
Tearing down this roster won’t be easy and it will likely be very costly. Moreover, it will have to be followed up by hiring all the necessary coaching and management personnel needed to begin to build again.
It would probably be easier for Shanahan to keep drawing his paycheque, say he’s trying to win, periodically make changes that don’t really change much and dodge reality until the next upheaval sends him out the door. It would be a cynical approach, but a lucrative one.
Or, he can do what nobody, really has ever tried to do in Toronto.
Take it down to the wood and try to build with excellence, the kind of process teams like Vancouver and Ottawa are resisting because they know how painful it will be and don’t have the stomach for it.
Burke could have done it for the Leafs starting in November, 2008, but he chose another course for a variety of reasons, then was fired before he could see whether his vision would have worked out or not.
Now Shanahan is in exactly that same position Burke was in November, 2008.
Three years from now, he won’t be able to order the kind of massive change of direction we’re talking about. By then, more mediocrity will have exhausted his political capital.
This opportunity to do it correctly is, as Burke found out, limited.
For Toronto hockey bosses, you only arrive at a crossroads once. The next one always belongs to the next guy.