Who would’ve thought we would be saying those words in reference to the Maple Leafs just a week ago?
There was a palpable air of awkwardness present as Tim Leiweke called this ‘Shanny’s team and culture” while Dave Nonis sat listening at the other end of the table. Shanahan is his Leafs’ Masai Ujiri, and Leiweke made no bones about referencing that directly. Dave Nonis is saying all the right things as of now — about knowing this role was in the offing for some time, looking at it as an opportunity to collaborate with another good hockey mind, Shanny being his boss, etc — but we’ll have to see what happens when the boardroom battles play out about the direction of this team and opinions on players and coaches. Leiweke was clear on this – Shanahan has fully autonomy over hockey decisions.
This was tantamount to a demotion and Nonis’ role and level of influence in the Leaf front office has been reduced, plain and simple. Leiweke sat there and explained there were issues with the team’s culture, direction and leadership, that they never really went away despite the modest successes of last season, and all of that obviously falls in no small part on the past and present General Manager sitting two seats to his left.
The thing that’s easy to get caught up on with Leiweke is this belief that seems to shine through when he speaks: Winning culture can precede winning itself. He referenced the number of times the Wings made the playoffs when Shanahan played for Detroit and how Shanny wore the A and the C. Leiweke opened the Conference with the statement, “it’s no secret we’re big on culture and character.”
This isn’t to say a history of being a part of winning organizations doesn’t present some value in and of itself when it comes to a front office candidate such as Shanahan, but the #1 focus has to be improving the competency. Let’s hope that Shanahan’s ideas for fixing this team were more of a focus of Leiweke’s during this hiring process than his assuming Shanahan’s winning history as a player means he’s going to come in and reverse a culture thoroughly steeped in decades of failure through the power of his Cup rings. Because there certainly isn’t a long track record of managerial success we can point to with this new hire in addition to all the nice stuff about him being a winner in Detroit.
This is not to come off as cynical on Shanahan so early on in the game. I loved what Shanahan opened with: “I recognize it doesn’t really matter to a lot of people where I’m from or how many championships I was a part of as a player, or the teams I played for. I’m not here for big speeches, big words, big proclamations.” That, for me anyway, saved what was a worrisome press conference in its initial stages.
Shanahan himself came off as humble and bright, a student of the game who is open to ideas and aware of the magnitude of the task ahead. He’s going to be learning on the job in one of the toughest jobs in pro sports, but if an impression from a press conference means anything (it doesn’t really), he seemed up to it.
No grand proclamations on day 1, as it should be.
As stated above, the short answer is that we don’t know yet.
Brendan Shanahan didn’t want to assess coaching or player personnel having just arrived in Toronto, which is expected and sensible. He certainly has opinions he’s holding close to his chest and he may have even been following the team especially closely for weeks knowing this was in the works, but it would’ve been crazy, insensitive and totally unexpected for him to show up and start assessing Carlyle’s coaching performance or Phaneuf’s captaincy.
Shanny did hint that, between his conference and post conference media rounds, the plan the may be to “tinker” (direct quote from TSN Radio), not undergo a full-scale rebuild. Shanahan mentioned Detroit specifically (upon his arrival there as a player) and later vaguely referenced GMs who, in the face of pressure to tear it all down, believed in the talent present and tinkered with some ingredients before turning the corner.
Tearing the entire core apart without Nonis and Shanahan picking their own coach and filling some of the holes present on this roster, essentially restarting the 5-year process, seems like a drastic measure. There’s pieces here. Change is required, not insignificant change, but the right term for it might be “reload” (with a new coach) rather than “rebuild.”
That said, this Leiweke quote was interesting: “I saw the culture that Dean [Lombardi] created where we were a tough team to play against. We were big, heavy and physical. Task number one for Shanny is: What are we going to design ourselves to be here? What’s going to be our identity as a team?”
That seems to leave the door open for some sweeping changes depending on the final determination.
We’ll leave the following quotes to speak for themselves.
Nonis: “Randy’s a good coach and we’ll leave it at that.”
Leiweke in his post-conference scrum: “I think you look at the talent in that locker room that Dave put together and say we should’ve done better. I’ll leave it at that.”
Randy Carlyle, curiously, did not meet with the media on locker clean out day.