Until this week, there were five key people in the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey operation.
They still have the two most important ones, namely president Brendan Shanahan and head coach Mike Babcock. The authority held by those two men remains clear and unchanged by the personnel moves this week.
Shanahan has demonstrated that, more than ever, he is totally in charge and unchallenged, ready and willing to make the most difficult decisions. These are not like the days when Ken Dryden was president and Pat Quinn was GM/head coach and the two were such rivals they barely communicated. The story of a candidate for the GM position – John Ferguson Jr. ultimately got the job – having to wander the halls of the Air Canada Centre searching for Quinn’s office after meeting with Dryden because Dryden didn’t want to provide an escort remains a classic.
These days, Shanahan runs the show with the Leafs. Period. End of conversation.
Babcock, meanwhile, is unquestioned as head coach, although theoretically, the influence of star centre Auston Matthews is growing, something Babcock seemed to recognize by his decision to head to Arizona after the season to visit with Matthews and try to smooth out and differences the two may have had in the post-season.
One day, if Matthews no longer wants Babcock to be the coach, he may have gained the power to push for that kind of change. But not now, not with Babcock still with five years left on his eight-year contract as the highest paid coach in hockey.
Shanahan and Babcock were the two people the Leafs could least afford to lose. Shanahan is the architect of the master plan that has lifted this club out of the doldrums. Babcock is the person most responsible for executing that plan on a daily basis, and the person most responsible for moving this team to sixth place overall from 30th in just two years.
So in that light, the Leafs haven’t been weakened one iota this week. They kept their most important people.
It is in that next level, middle management, where the team has suffered losses, or at least, experienced change. Shanahan always knew he was going to lose two of Lou Lamoriello, Mark Hunter and Kyle Dubas no matter what decision he made on which of them should fill the GM’s office going forward.
That Dubas emerged as the winner in this power struggle should be no surprise to anyone. Heck, Lamoriello himself prophesied that Dubas would succeed him when he was hired three years ago, and Dubas has done nothing that would negatively impact that plan. Given responsibility to run the AHL Marlies, he showed great insight by believing Sheldon Keefe could coach at the minor pro level, and the Marlies have done a very good job supplying the parent club with useful talent.
Lamoriello was scheduled to step down at this time. Hunter, meanwhile, couldn’t dislodge Dubas from the inside lane in the race to succeed Lamoriello. It’s tough for a scout to do that simply because the results of their work require so many years to be fully understood, appreciated and critiqued.
Shanahan was the one who pushed for William Nylander. Hunter gets credit for believing that Mitch Marner was the right pick. Matthews was an obvious choice. Beyond that, players like Morgan Rielly, Connor Brown and Andreas Johnsson preceded Hunter, while we’ll have to wait and see how Hunter picks like Travis Dermott, Joseph Woll, Carl Brunstrom, Yegor Korshkov and Timothy Liljegren turn out.
Hunter has an excellent reputation in hockey. But it was nearly impossible for him to show results in the same way Dubas could with the high-flying Marlies, who are on the verge of qualifying for the Calder Cup final. They could become the first Toronto-based hockey team to win a championship since the Leafs in ’67.
In terms of long-term planning, it had to be either Hunter or Dubas that would stay, not the 75-year-old Lamoriello, and Dubas always had the inside track.
You could argue of the five people who sat atop the Leafs organization last week, this week the three top ones are still in place. Dubas has clear authority over the entire hockey operation. He reports to Shanahan and no longer has any rival inside the organization. He promoted Brandon Pridham to assistant GM, and on Thursday hired former Vancouver executive Laurence Gilman to replace himself in the Leaf front office.
Things are actually a lot clearer for the Leafs. Traditionalists won’t be impressed since none of Dubas, Pridham, Gilman or even Babcock, for that matter, ever played an NHL game. Babcock is the only one who has been part of a Stanley Cup-winning organization. That was part of the reason there was a groundswell of anonymous support in the hockey world for Hunter in his bid to become the next GM. Many former players are simply more comfortable with other ex-players, and less impressed with the so-called “geeks” who have infiltrated the sport in the past decade.
It’s worth mentioning that the closest the Leafs have themselves come to returning to the Stanley Cup Final was back in 1993 when the team was run by GM Cliff Fletcher, assistant GM Bill Watters, head coach Pat Burns and chief scout Pierre Dorion, none of whom played a single game in the NHL. So being different can work.
More than ever now, the Leafs are a franchise on the cutting edge of the game, with Shanahan eschewing conventional wisdom to build a hockey office filled with young, bright talent and a different way of looking at the industry than those who played at the highest levels.
They lost a lot of institutional knowledge in Lamoriello and Hunter this week that won’t be easy to replace. But Shanahan has managed to put a fresh face on his hockey department, and both Dubas and Pridham are regarded as two of the up-and-comers in the NHL’s executive corner.
Something has been lost, and something has been gained. As the Leafs surge into a new era of massively heightened expectations, they’re certainly not doing it on the backs of the old boys network.