For the first time in a very long time, everything is coming up roses for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Back on May 8th, 2014 — almost two years ago to this day — the Maple Leafs, lead by Brendan Shanahan and Dave Nonis, signed Randy Carlyle to a two-year extension with an option for a third year. Leafs fans were sick and tired of a team that was poorly structured, lacked effort, and had a penchant for finding new ways to collapse epically, whether it be it from playoff positions or in a playoff game. Fans saw that — despite a poorly constructed core — Randy Carlyle was a primary reason for the Leafs‘ frequently embarrassing play. The contract extension of Carlyle sent the fanbase into an uproar, and his final season played out just as everyone expected.
Looking back, was it evil genius on the part of Brendan Shanahan? Did he see two and three steps ahead in paying a coach(es) to be the sacrificial lamb for a grander plan he was devising? If, on May 8th of 2014, you had a crystal ball and told a panicking Leafs fan that Shanahan was going to pull off the following over the course of the next two calendar years:
- Start his first draft by picking the most skilled player, foregoing a tantalizing 6’3, 225 power forward, with their eighth overall pick.
- Hire one of the best and hardest working scouts in the game in the fall in Mark Hunter to head up his amateur scouting operation.
- Let Carlyle coach the team as it predictably tailspun out of control, fire him, and let a powerless assistant coach help steer the team into the draft lottery.
- Actually trade the iron-clad contract of David Clarkson for Nathan Horton.
- Participate in and/or preside over one of the largest bloodlettings in NHL history: firing Dave Nonis, Peter Horachek, assistant coach Steve Spott, video coach Chris Dennis, goalie coach Rick St. Croix, chief pro scout Steve Kasper, and director of player development Jim Hughes. And then approve Mark Hunter’s firing of a staggering 18-plus scouts on top if it.
- A month later, in a grand and much-hyped whale hunting expedition, hire what many consider to be the best coach in the world in Mike Babcock — a move that many considered to be a fanciful pipe dream of only the most delusional fans.
- Hire the runner-up OHL coach of the year to coach the Marlies.
- Hire the OHL coach of the year as assistant coach of the Leafs.
- Watch a first-time 28-year-old Assistant GM and Director of Player Personnel orchestrate a draft that saw the team curiously trade down and stockpile picks using value charts to draft highly skilled players one after another — a foreign concept to fans and media who follow the team closely, and one that was derided immediately by some traditionalist media types but widely praised by experts as a home-run draft and one of the best for the Leafs in decades.
- At the opening of free agency, trade the team’s best player — who he deemed to be the lynchpin for their lack of effort — in a “get him out of town” trade that seemed — and still seems — to be a bit light on returns, but underscored an aggressive and focused plan of peeling back the team to its studs and leaving no stone unturned.
- Sign primarily analytics-positive bargain players in free agency and not heed to the pressure of signing higher-profile players to bad contracts.
- Hire the lifetime New Jersey Devil and living legend General Manager, Lou Lamoriello — a perfect counterbalance after the criticism faced for assembling a front office staff scant on NHL executive experience.
- Finally admit that team is not going to be good and encourages the fans to hang in there, telling them that “there will be pain” and that their patience is appreciated.
- After the previous year of the tale wagging the dog and the media giving and getting more scandals than they could even handle (starting even before training camp), a much-needed airtight vacuum of information transfer creates a ghost town for the regular scoops and scandals.
- Watch as the newly-assembled and seemingly-unstoppable AHL team rips the league to shreds.
- Watch as the 2015 drafted prospects lead junior leagues in scoring at their respective positions at various points throughout the 2015-16 season.
- Instil a hard-working culture of defensively-responsible, tactically-nuanced and analytics-friendly hockey.
- Make amends with who many consider the best Maple Leaf of all time — Dave Keon — and lay to rest a decades-long standing feud — a feat attempted and failed by many.
- Introduce new young players from the AHL for cameos and send them back down once the team is playing too well.
- Trade your team captain’s long-term contract for futures with no salary retained.
- Build up and ship out players at the trade deadline to acquire more picks as you prepare for a last-place finish. Get 12 draft picks for the upcoming draft.
- Conduct a hard-earned, last-place finish that is somehow praised and applauded. Get a standing ovation at home from the fans at season’s end despite finishing dead last in the NHL.
- Win the draft lottery in a year that a unicorn — a big, extremely skilled, franchise centerman — is the clear-cut first overall pick.
- Watch your top junior prospect win the OHL’s most outstanding player award.
- Prepare for your highly-favoured AHL team to push for the Calder Cup.
Would you ever have believed it, in a million years?
It was only two years ago — almost to the day — that Randy Carlyle was re-upped by the Maple Leafs and business seemed as usual at MLSE. The sharp left it took along the way is something that no one could have predicted, except for — perhaps — Shanahan himself, and even he has to be surprised by some of the good fortune that’s helped him along the way.
It was at this time last year that fans and pundits were saying the Maple Leafs didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of landing Mike Babcock. A few days later, a jet was first spotted by MLHS landing in Detroit, immediately turning around and coming back to Toronto. The rest is history. No one had the Leafs bringing Lou Lamoriello out of semi-retirement in New Jersey to come take on hockey’s biggest project at age 73. The safe assumption was also that the Leafs would be picking fourth in the 2016 Draft.
Now some media voices have been quick to sully the notion that Steven Stamkos, who appears to be headed to free agency, would ever entertain the idea of playing in Toronto. 12 months ago, the same discussions were taking place, with the same talking points, only with a different protagonist.
I’m not guaranteeing anything, but it will be interesting to see how it all plays out. The one thing many of us have said, as the Leafs embarked on their latest rebuild, is that the organization needs to get more than a little lucky somewhere along the way, and it does appear that lady luck is finally on the side of the Maple Leafs for the first time in decades. When good luck mixes with good decisions, as it has over the last couple of years, it’s hard not to start fantasizing at what could materialize in the next couple of years.
You’d be hard pressed to bet against a guy who had the year Brendan Shanahan just had.