Brendan Shanahan’s six-year contract extension with the Maple Leafs was announced this week with little fanfare.
Not that he’d want it any different. He prefers being part of the wallpaper, letting his top hockey people handle the limelight.
So here’s why it matters that he’s staying.
It’s another victory over the forces of instability that have plagued this franchise since the last time it lifted the Stanley Cup.
Change, often abrupt and poorly considered, has been the tradition of the post-1967 Leaf hockey operations. The notion that one man could be GM for 22 years, like David Poile has done in Nashville, or that one man could coach the team for 11 years, as Joel Quenneville did in Chicago with the Blackhawks, have been entirely alien concepts in Toronto.
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It became a cultural thing around these parts, sucking in those surrounding the team, the media and the fans. Look at the utterly ridiculous calls for Mike Babcock’s head after the Leafs lost in the first round to Boston — a strong Bruins team, it turns out, that will now have home-ice advantage in the Cup final.
Babcock was hired for eight years. These people wanted him gone after four, the last two of which had been 100-point regular seasons. The “insiders” wanted you to believe the coach was in trouble. His third-period use of Auston Matthews in Game 7 against the Bruins was the pretext, but the real driving force was the concept in Toronto that change is always coming, that change for the sake of change is better than the status quo because the status quo is equivalent to inaction.
When rookie GM Kyle Dubas suggested that Babcock’s work would be reviewed, some leapt upon his words as an indication that a coaching change was in the works, that Dubas somehow believed a move was important because it had been argued on TV and elsewhere that Toronto’s “window” for possible success was closing and it was incorrectly assumed Dubas was listening to those people.
But nothing was further from the truth. Shanahan simply wanted the hockey world to see a functioning organization in which the coach answers to the GM, and the GM answers to the team president, who answers to ownership.
So you heard not a peep from Shanahan for the few stormy days in which Babcock’s job was supposedly hanging in the balance, before Dubas made it clear he had no intention of changing coaches now.
This is the way a good organization should run. That doesn’t mean change won’t eventually come, particularly if the youthful Leafs aren’t able to progress. But it’s also entirely possible that by 2023, the Leafs could have a team president (Shanahan) who has been there for almost a decade, a GM (Dubas) with five years under his belt and nine years in total with the organization, and a coach (Babcock) having completed his eighth season.
This kind of stability is unprecedented for this team since the days of Conn Smythe. Continuity, of course, doesn’t guarantee anything in what will soon be a 32-team league, just like Poile’s long run in Tennessee has yet to see the Predators lift the Cup.
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But given the 47 years of constantly shifting sands and often tumultuous change in Toronto that preceded Shanahan, isn’t this approach at least worth a try?
The Cup final-bound Bruins are an interesting study. Yes, Bruce Cassidy has only been on the job since 2017. But Claude Julien was the coach before him for a decade. Don Sweeney has been GM in Boston only since 2015, but Peter Chiarelli was there before him for a decade. Cam Neely, meanwhile, has been a team executive since 2007 and president since 2010. Jeremy Jacobs has owned the team since 1975.
This kind of philosophy — that it takes time to do a job well and it’s not helpful to have your key people constantly looking over their shoulders — isn’t the primary reason the Bruins are going to be playing for the Cup for the third time in nine years, but it’s part of the story.
The Leafs appear to be trying to establish the same type of common-sense approach: hire strong people, let them do their jobs over a reasonable period of time.
“I sometimes hear people say the window is small. I think the window is small if you make bad decisions,” Shanahan said this week. “I would say if you’re smart, the window can be quite large. If we’re intelligent and we continue to plan and we continue to scout and develop, the window can be quite significant if it’s built the right way.”
There are many, many reasons why Leaf teams pre-Shanahan weren’t able to have this kind of stable situation. Why Pat Burns was hired in 1992 and gone by ’96. Why Brian Burke arrived in late November 2008 and was fired slightly more than four years later. Why Ken Dryden and Pat Quinn worked together but were barely on speaking terms. Why nine different men coached the team in the 1980s. Why Roger Neilson lasted only 160 games.
Those days are long gone, and MLSE deserves credit for charting another course. It started, at least for the Leafs, with the hiring of Shanahan by Tim Leiweke in 2014. That Shanahan has now been re-upped for another six seasons, despite all the disappointment and white noise that followed this spring’s loss to Boston, tells you stability is here for a long run.
Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin
Published at Fri, 17 May 2019 22:47:15 +0000