Leafs coaching change thrusts Brendan Shanahan back into spotlight

Brendan Shanahan talks with the media following the Toronto Maple Leafs firing Mike Babcock.

It was the crisis that finally smoked out Brendan Shanahan, who in his six-plus years as Toronto Maple Leafs president hasn’t been as out-front publicly over a 24-hour period the way he was on Wednesday and Thursday.

The guess here is that many of the details surrounding the firing of Mike Babcock as Leafs head coach will remain murky for some time. That it will take some kind of diligence to come up with a breakdown of the timing and events in the hours leading up to Babcock being fired an hour after running an off-day practice in a city that is two time zones away from Toronto – an hour after some subtle joshing with media members covering the team.

In the end, it is the firing of Babcock and hiring of Sheldon Keefe that is, of course, the story. The attention, now, will return to the ice. But it became apparent as the Leafs took on the Arizona Coyotes that the process of tea-leaf reading had begun, with the obvious first step being the question, "Whose job is on the line now?"

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Since conventional wisdom is that the Leafs cannot make a significant player move due to their salary-cap crunch, the notion that general manager Kyle Dubas and his boss Shanahan can look to the template provided by their championship peer down the hallway at Scotiabank Arena is, well, fanciful. A couple of weeks ago, I wondered whether there wouldn’t be a whiff of familiarity between what Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri did when he fired Dwane Casey, turning what ended up to be an NBA champion over to Nick Nurse, and what the Leafs did when or if they pulled the plug on Babcock.

Casey, like Babcock, deserves an inordinate amount of credit for bringing stability to his team. He was in charge when Toronto went from an NBA outpost to a city capable of keeping its all-atars (DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry). It was the early stages of the Raptors becoming a cool franchise in terms of league-wide recognition, something more than the place that Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh needed to leave.

Remember LeBron James shouting out the fans of Toronto – this city and country? Alas, he did it after eliminating Casey’s team from the playoffs and that was the rub: for all the good Casey did, he was LeBron’d out of a job, unable to beat King James in the playoffs.

Were the Boston Bruins Babcock’s version of LeBron? I mean, you could probably play around with that narrative had Babcock been fired after last year’s playoff elimination. But as my Writers Bloc colleague Stephen Brunt points out: as much as we all loved Casey, he wasn’t Babcock – the latter considered one of the great coaches of his generation and among the highest-paid ever.

The other thing Ujiri did, of course, was trade DeRozan and bench depth to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. He went all in not just emotionally but in personnel terms as well. There is no apparent similar scenario for the Leafs. For this to follow the path set by Ujiri, Shanahan and Dubas would need to add a transcendent performer and they’re supposed to have three or four of those already. To really set this roster aflame the way Ujiri did would take the addition of an all-star stud defenceman and the financial hocus-pocus needed to pull that off would best be exercised around the draft, not in-season.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

The guess here is we will see that happen this off-season if the Leafs don’t find any playoff joy this spring. Dubas’s future is now inextricably tied to that of Keefe, and that makes me wonder if he won’t feel more inclined to make a bold transaction to back up his hand-picked coach at some point the way Ujiri did with Nurse; that he won’t aim a little higher to bring in defensive help for Keefe than he would for Babcock.

I admit that might be an example of trying to bend reality to fit a narrative, but again: for the first time in the history of this city, the NHL team owned by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment is playing catchup to the NBA team owned by MLSE, and that has quietly put more pressure on Shanahan as much as anybody.

Think about it. Bobby Webster is the Raptors GM, and while there has been a subtle move to have him assume a higher public profile while Ujiri slides a little into the background, the sense is the really big stuff still lands on Ujiri’s doorstep. That is certainly the impression left by national U.S.-based media and that will be the case as long as Ujiri is still here (which, by the way, is another story for another day and one that hasn’t received as much attention as it deserves. But I digress …)

Shanahan doesn’t create as much media churn as Ujiri. It is Dubas who is the front-facing person when it comes to player moves or signings. Yet there we were, Shanahan handling media responsibilities on Wednesday when Babcock was fired; Shanahan’s name all over the press release announcing his firing and Shanahan acknowledging he felt as if he had to fly out to Arizona to do the deed because he was the one who hired Babcock in the first place (remember: Dubas’s hiring came after.) Shanahan was out-front again Thursday morning, sharing the dais with Dubas just before Keefe took charge of the morning skate.

Two Shanahan news conferences in 18 hours? Haven’t seen that before.

Some of this, of course, can be explained by logistics. Firing a coach in the middle of a road trip (and keeping it quiet) can’t be the easiest thing to do. But for a president who has more or less stood out of the way publicly while his GM and now former head coach engaged in a passive-aggressive tug of war – Shanahan surely must have been active behind the scenes and is at practice and games and likely has ways of ensuring his thoughts get plopped into the public discourse, but he was a benign figure in the light of most days – this was a lot of wagon hitching.

He left no doubt that he and Dubas are in lock-step philosophically and stylistically and that, by extension, so is the MLSE board. He took umbrage at the suggestion this was, essentially, the last big "bullet" he and Dubas had to fire, which meant the two of them were next up if this thing doesn’t right itself. "That’s not how I or management view it," Shanahan said.

This whole thing was for body language. Dubas sat next to Keefe during his first formal news conference as Leafs coach. I’m not sure how often we got to see him and Babcock look that comfortable side by side.

Brian Burke, who knows how this stuff looks, smells and works, joked on Hockey Central that Shanahan was still third in line for the "blindfold and cigarette." That may be the case and the focus will still be on Dubas right now, but make no mistake: over the course of 48 hours, Brendan Shanahan found himself thrust into the forefront in a manner unlike anything we’ve seen in his tenure, certainly not since the hiring of Babcock. Stuff just got real for one of the top 100 players in NHL history.

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