Thursday, April 10, 2014

Leafs to Hire Brendan Shanahan as President

Heads have yet to roll in Toronto after another monumental collapse, but Tim Leiweke is about to make the first major change, hiring Brendan Shanahan as president.

Damien Cox of the Toronto Star broke the news, and while he didn't report the exact details of Shanahan's role, explained that it will extend beyond over-seeing general manager Dave Nonis and the hockey department.

It's hard to tell whether Shanahan's hiring will be positive or negative for the Leafs. He has no experience as an executive, instead handing out discipline for the league. It's also hard not to view ex-players taking over managerial roles at least a little skeptically as they are usually brought in by organizations to distract fans from the horror show on the ice (think about Pat LaFontaine in Buffalo and Trevor Linden in Vancouver). Plenty of ex-players have succeeded as executives, while many others have failed miserably. How Shanahan will perform is hard to predict.

Thinking positively, cautious optimism might be in order. Shanahan has no ties to either Nonis or Randy Carlyle, and might be prepared to clean house and bring in his own staff to transform the Leafs.

It's utterly clear that Carlyle has to go. The Leafs are one of the worst defensive teams, perhaps of all time, saved only by great goaltending. This despite Carlyle's reputation as one of the league's better defensive minds. A reputation, I might add, which was formed entirely based on his years coaching behind two slam dunk Hall of Fame defencemen. After both Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger left Anaheim the Ducks became a terrible puck possession team, routinely getting outshot, and quickly dropped from their status as perennial contenders.

Moreover, Carlyle has been completely incapable of adapting to the modern NHL, in which the most successful teams focus more on controlling the puck and retaining possession, rather than dumping and chasing and relying on the stretch pass/chip play (as an aside: has that ever worked for the Leafs? yet they stick to it religiously). His fierce refusal to ice a competent fourth line—also becoming another necessity in the modern NHL—and puzzling roster decisions compound his poor tactics. Simply put, he has to go before torpedoing another season.

But Shanahan shouldn't stop with Carlyle. Nonis spent the off-season using ample cap space to tailor the roster almost exactly to his coach's specifications. Out were useful players like Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur and in were the Mimico twins, Dave Bolland and David Clarkson. Bolland was a good gamble in a complementary role, but Clarkson has essentially destroyed the Leafs cap and has a buyout-proof contract. The moves were made at expense of re-hauling a blueline that was woefully thin.

Much like Carlyle, Nonis needs to go because he doesn't understand that the game has changed. Speed and skill trump brawn and grit.

While he's at it, Shanahan may as well torch the whole front office. Capologist Claude Loiselle, who made such a mess of the cap that the Leafs couldn't even call up Peter Granberg for a few days at the end of the season, needs to go. Ditto for a guy like Dave Poulin. Move Cliff Fletcher's rocking chair somewhere outside of the ACC and put on a nice episode of Matlock. Never ask for his advice again.

The groupthink that has gone on up top has made the entire management team believe they were the smartest guys all summer, the hubris practically bleeding from their mouths during every interview, despite the reality that the Leafs excelled during the shortened season thanks to sky-high percentages (which have predictably regressed). Being outshot as badly, and as consistently, as the Maple Leafs have is not generally a recipe for success. The Leafs did almost nothing to correct their most visible flaws.

Hiring Shanahan is the first step for Leiweke. Now let the heads roll.

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