TORONTO — Brendan Shanahan was brought in to change the culture of the Toronto Maple Leafs. How the new team president plans to do that remains a mystery.
In introducing Shanahan on Monday, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment president Tim Leiweke made it clear that he wasn’t happy with the "character" and "culture" of the team.
"I’m not sure the Leafs have (the right culture)," Leiweke said. "I definitely sense that we lack an identity, and right now we’re a team that lacks a direction and we want to change that."
It’s up to Shanahan and general manager Dave Nonis to do it, but no clear direction for the organization was spelled out on Shanahan’s "first day at work." The 45-year-old Hall of Famer has a plan, and though he and Leiweke didn’t get into specifics, plenty of changes are expected.
"I have some ideas in my head about direction, but I think that at the same time … those are subject to change," Shanahan said. "I think that it’s very important for people, especially in sports, to have the ability to evolve and to make changes."
Change could come in the form of firing coach Randy Carlyle, whose vision for winning hockey didn’t seem to fit with the Toronto roster. And it could come in the form of many different players being on the ice opening night this fall than were around for Monday’s locker clean-out.
But Shanahan and Nonis insist the immediate job is to step back and make an assessment of where the organization is as a whole. Even though each man called Carlyle a "good coach," it’s difficult to point to things like identity, culture and character without at least considering the next step.
"You all saw the team this year, I think we didn’t have the identity," Leiweke said. "I think Randy tried to create the identity. To the guys’ credit last year, they bought into that, and they took on Randy’s identity, I don’t think that happened this year."
Shanahan, who grew up in the Toronto neighbourhood of Mimico and previously worked for the NHL as the director of player safety, is expected to shape this team’s identity. It’s just not clear how he intends to do that.
"Dave and I are going to talk about this thing or we’re going to talk about our team, we’re going to talk about how we see the best way to play for our team going forward," Shanahan said. "I think that it’s important for us to assess what we have here, what we have coming up, and I think that’s an organizational thing. It would be presumptuous, it would be premature for me to tell you right now where we’re going to go."
Leiweke would like Shanahan to have the same kind of success Masai Ujiri has enjoyed in his first season re-shaping the NBA’s Raptors. He’ll be given total authority to not only put his fingerprints on the team but completely revamp, if necessary.
"This is Brendan’s team, it’s his culture, and at the end of the day he makes all the decisions, and we’re going to support that 100 per cent," Leiweke said.
Of course with Shanahan as president, the Leafs’ power structure is different. All three men at Monday’s news conference insisted the working relationship between Nonis and his new boss would go smoothly.
"They will work well together and if we have disagreements, the disagreements will be resolved very quickly within the organization," Leiweke said. "This isn’t going to tear the organization apart. This is going to make the organization a better place."
While Shanahan has the final say, it remains to be seen how the decision-making process will be handled.
"Your boss has the final say," Nonis said. "That’s just common sense and it’s the way things have worked. This isn’t a relationship that’s going to work that way. This is going to work the way it should work, which is we’re going to work together to try to find the right answers together."
Nonis made sure to point out that, at the end of the day, Shanahan is the boss. And Leiweke made sure to point out that this move was first agreed to last summer and not a "knee-jerk" reaction to the Leafs’ eight-game slide that caused them to miss the playoffs.
This is Shanahan’s team. And while he’s a Hall of Famer with three Stanley Cup rings who spent the past five years working in the league office, it’s difficult to pin down his philosophy, other than to figure general managers like Ken Holland of the Detroit Red Wings and Lou Lamoriello of the New Jersey Devils have influenced him over the years.
Shanahan sounded like a Holland disciple on Monday.
"You have to hire good people and you have to let them do their job," he said. "I think you need to step in and help them when they need help. … It’s a great feeling to be a player and be a part of a team, I view management as the same thing. You’ve got your hierarchy and your leadership and things like that, but it’s certainly a team."
The team Shanahan is taking over finished the season 2-12-0 to go from a playoff shoo-in to locker clean-out two days after a final loss in Ottawa. Major changes could be coming, but Shanahan wasn’t tipping his hand.
"I do like a lot about this group," he said. "From an outsider looking in, there’s some really good pieces that a lot of teams would covet. … You start by looking for ways to improve in small increments, and if you have an opportunity to make improvements, you make them."
That seems to be Nonis’s philosophy, too, even while saying the team isn’t where it needs to be. Last year’s trip to the playoffs may have masked some bigger issues, but falling apart so spectacularly isn’t likely to lead to blowing up the roster.
"When you look back if we’re taking the appropriate time, we’re going to see some things that we’re happy with in this group, too, and you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water," Nonis said. "There’s quality people and quality players here, and if we want to get better, we’re going to do a good job of assessing those pieces and keeping the ones that we think can help us long-term."
Building a contending team for the long-term seems to be the goal for Shanahan and the Leafs. Leiweke, whose earlier talk about a Stanley Cup parade drew plenty of criticism, talked instead Monday about building a group that’ll be in the mix.
"To me the most outstanding statistic, if you look at (Shanahan’s) career, is not the three Stanley Cup rings but in 21 years he made the playoffs 18 times," Leiweke said. "He is a guy that’s not just a student of the game and a fan of the game, but he’s an architect of the game, and that’s what we needed here."