TORONTO — One mighty swing of the axe. A truly clean slate.
The chance to reimagine what the Toronto Maple Leafs are, and can be, at the dawning of the most important off-season in the organization’s history.
There will be a new general manager, coaching staff and scouting staff in place come the fall, and really, could there be any other way? Sunday’s news that Dave Nonis, Peter Horachek, three assistant coaches and virtually all of the scouts had been “relieved” of their duties — emphasis on relieved — hardly ranked as a surprise.
Not only was this a team that completely imploded, it is an organization that has been stuck between its past and future since last summer.
Now the old guard is gone, and it’s up to Brendan Shanahan to solve a 48-year-old riddle: How do you get the words “Maple Leafs” etched into the rounded edges of the Stanley Cup again?
It says here that stability must become the most important priority at the top level of the organization. There has been a constant reshuffling of seats in the executive suite and it’s failed to produce a coherent plan for roster building.
As one rival general manager recently put it: “They have no foundation there. It’s always change, change, change.
This is where it gets tricky. Shanahan has added three key members to the front office in the last year — Kyle Dubas and Mark Hunter are now serving as interim GMs, with Brandon Pridham continuing to manage the salary cap — so the new full-time GM is going to have to be comfortable working with that group.
The setup might not appeal to everyone, particularly candidates with an established track record like Ray Shero or Peter Chiarelli (assuming he is let go in Boston).
However, it should be noted that titles aren’t what they once were, especially since Shanahan will likely continue having the final say on hockey decisions. NHL front offices are more collaborative than ever before.
The clock has been ticking on Nonis since the day Shanahan was hired last April, an occasion that saw both men take the stage with MLSE boss Tim Leiweke for an awkward press conference. Leiweke railed against the culture inside the organization.
“I’m not sure the Leafs have it,” he said. “I definitely sense that we lack identity, and right now, we’re a team that lacks direction.”
It was hard to see those words as anything but an indictment on Nonis, who joined the front office in December 2008 as Brian Burke’s right-hand man and got bumped into the GM’s chair when Burke was fired at the conclusion of the 2013 lockout.
That first season proved to be his undoing, with a playoff berth at the end of a 48-game schedule providing false hope about the core of the team. Massive contracts were handed out to players the new GM will spend the summer trying to trade and David Clarkson was brought in on a $36.75-million, seven-year deal — arguably the worst of the NHL’s salary cap era.
The reverberations of those decisions echoed into this season, and ultimately led to coach Randy Carlyle’s firing in early January with belief that a new voice could squeeze more out of a flawed dressing room.
It didn’t happen.
Horachek was always going to be a placeholder until this summer, but even he couldn’t have imagined a finish that would see the Leafs win just nine of 42 games under his stewardship. Following a season-ending loss to Montreal on Saturday, he spoke of a group of players that were unwilling to change their game and play a more responsible two-way style.
We will get a clearer picture about how Shanahan plans to rebuild a broken organization when he meets the media on Monday afternoon. Almost certainly there will be a renewed focus on drafting and developing, which is about the only way to get it right in today’s NHL, along with the new coaching staff and GM.
On the bright side, this is the perfect time to conduct a search for off-ice talent. There is expected to be an unprecedented amount of turnover around the NHL in the coming weeks, with several high-pedigree coaches likely to be fired and Mike Babcock set to become a free agent.
The Leafs will be a major player, with more money and a unique opportunity to offer coveted candidates. Even when down and out, this organization still holds cache in the sport.
It has been a traumatic few months down at the Air Canada Centre.
The Leafs entered this season with playoff aspirations and delivered arguably the most embarrassing performance in franchise history. A lot of employees had to pay the price for the collective failure on a bloody Sunday.
And so they start again, trying to build a structure capable of weathering the storm. Something strong and a little more permanent.