A major story breaking this morning from The Globe and Mail’s Cathal Kelly, with some big implications for the coming weeks and months ahead.

According to Kelly, Brendan Shanahan concluded last Spring’s initial evaluation period and asked the new ownership group for the mandate to strip the team down. Reportedly, the board wasn’t yet ready to commit to a likely 3-5 years without sniffing the playoffs, and voted to give the core of the team once last chance after attempting to shore up the depth with some low-commitment adds to the bottom end of the roster.

[quote_box_center]Mr. Shanahan and his lieutenants have now finally received a broad mandate from ownership to scorch as much earth as they see fit in order to return the Leafs to contention, according to two sources familiar with that meeting. It will mean a new philosophy on building slowly through the draft and long-term projects, rather than quick fixes via trades for established players. It will mean at least three more years of pain for fans, and as many as five.[/quote_box_center]

By the midpoint of the season the team had made the decision for them, and it sounds like Shanahan is set to strip it down to the wood.

The issue for Shanahan is that the club is cap strapped; it’s going to take time if he’s going to offload some of these deals, and it’s obviously going to take time to build markets for players. That said, among the Leafs highest paid players who they will look to move – Kessel, Phaneuf, Clarkson, Bozak, Lupul – only Clarkson strikes one as totally locked in place. The rest should carry mild (Phaneuf, Bozak) to medium (Lupul) to high (Kessel) value, and it’s more about exercising patience in maximizing those returns. Most of those deals, outside of likely moving expiring contracts of Santorelli, Winnik and Franson, may have to wait until the summer, but it seems like a good bet they happen before the draft, as the Leafs appear to be targeting this 2015 draft class as a good opportunity to stockpile picks and turn to the likes of Kyle Dubas and Mark Hunter to help them stock the cupboard at the draft table.

Again, if Kelly’s got this right, keeping Randy Carlyle to start the season in the context of playing the long game makes some sense of a perplexing decision and has confirmed suspicions of a write off year, in essence.

Here were the players Kelly identified as the group of younger assets the Leafs figure to keep and build around:

[quote_box_center]Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Jonathan Bernier, William Nylander. Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk are still considered valuable because of their youth[/quote_box_center]

No real surprises there, as it is what has been considered the “young core” of the team that would be worth keeping around and adding to/improving upon if they opted to go this route.

The other interesting nugget out of this Kelly report:

[quote_box_center]Then, Mike Babcock. The best coach in the NHL still hasn’t re-signed with Detroit. People who know Mr. Babcock say one important thing about him – he badly wants to succeed in the most difficult, high-stakes circumstances. That would be Toronto. He could probably win now in a city such as San Jose. But why would he care?

There’s also the allegiance he feels to fellow coaches. Moving to hockey’s most lucrative market would make Mr. Babcock far and away the highest-paid coach in league history, a rising tide that floats all salary boats[/quote_box_center]

That last paragraph is an interesting new angle to the proceedings, but, while visions of McDavid and Babcock dance in fans’ heads, there are zero guarantees in going this route. It has to start with fetching good value for the outbound assets, requires years of improved drafting and development, and better cap and asset management.

But, the Leafs are clearly aren’t going in a forward direction as constituted. If it requires a few steps back first (that doesn’t seem possible right now, but in the sense of committing to noncompetitive rebuild seasons), so be it. We’ve learned in the past decade the dangers of wallowing around in the mushy middle.

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