In his end-of-season media address, Toronto Maple Leafs President Brendan Shanahan discussed his abiding faith in the Big Four core players and what the team needs to do to get over the hump after a fifth-straight first-round playoff exit.
Opening Address: “Kyle, Sheldon, and our scouting staff did a great job of addressing grit and toughness”
Shanahan: First off, I want to talk directly to our fans. We understand the disappointment that everybody feels. Year in and year out, the support we get from you is so vitally important and so appreciated by us and the team every year. This year, in particular with the restrictions that are going on around the world but specifically here in Ontario and Toronto, we really wanted to be a beacon of happiness for you. We want to do that for you every year, but certainly, this year was even more important for the players.
Starting with me, Kyle Dubas, our management staff, our coaching staff, and our players, we take responsibility for disappointing you and not getting the job done. To our players, I have seen them in recent years very disappointed, obviously, after first-round playoff defeats. I have never seen them quite as despondent as they were the other night. Again, a lot of it is for the reason that they had built and earned the expectations that were given to them.
Over the course of a lot of work over the season, a lot of commitment throughout the season, they had put themselves in a position where they won the division and were favourites in the series. That being said, I think they also recognize it was [important] not just to them and their families but to all of the Maple Leafs fans who couldn’t come to our games and were watching at home. They certainly care a tremendous amount.
We didn’t get the job done. I heard some of their comments. They know that. They have deep regrets. But I have no issue with their effort, commitment, or their desire to win here in Toronto and get the job.
Management — I will say this. At the end of last year, Kyle Dubas, Sheldon Keefe, myself, and our management and scouting staff went to work after the season and identified issues that we needed to improve if we wanted to be a Stanley Cup contending team. I thought the work was well done.
If we go back to March of 2020, prior to the Covid shutdown, the NHL was planning on anywhere between a 4-6% salary cap raise. The cap was going to go up again this year. For all NHL teams, that changed. The work had to be done. We had to find players that fit our needs.
I thought Kyle, Sheldon, and our scouting staff did a great job of addressing grit, toughness. We wanted to be a team that could not only play in more physical games but excel in more physical games. More importantly, we wanted to be a team that, through the acquisition of other players — but also through a renewed commitment from our own players and their growth and development — to be a much better defensive team.
I thought they did an excellent job of going out and getting those players, but still, we came up short in this year’s playoffs. We had an excellent regular season, but ultimately, we judge ourselves on the playoffs.
In the coming weeks, Kyle, myself, Sheldon, our management staff, Brandon Pridham, and our scouting staff will go to work figuring out what we need to do next so we can get over that hump and have that playoff success.
Shanahan Q&A: “Any team in the league would love to have any of our top four, but we want them, we like them, and we want to keep them here”
From your perspective, why did the team come up short in the series?
Shanahan: That is one of the questions we have to examine. Every year, at the end of every season, there are changes. No doubt, there will be changes this year. If there is a pattern that has certainly developed, it is not through a lack of desire from players or preparation. I felt all season long that there was not just a comfort in playing physical games but an enthusiasm and the players excelled in games like that. They had confidence in their defensive abilities.
I thought the preparation was good, but as many of the players have said, there is a killer instinct that is missing that we need to address, whether that is externally or figuring out a way for our guys to get over that hump. That is something we have to address, certainly, as a team.
We had opportunities. Certainly, we were playing some really good hockey after four games. We liked where we were. We had two opportunities in overtime. The first one didn’t last very long. In the second one, we outshot them 13-2 and weren’t able to get the job done. We came up short in Game 7 again.
These are areas we have to address and really be honest with ourselves. We have to figure out a way that we can support our players and help them get over that hump.
All of the things you have done to support the players and get them in a good spot — anything from the preparation they go through, the training, the nutrition, the psychological help, the R&D staff — haven’t worked. How much faith do you have in the system that you have in place?
Shanahan: None of it has worked yet. We will make tweaks. We will make adjustments. There is always a turnover in players every single year. I think that there is definitely growth needed. There is a lot of important growth that happened this year.
As I said, those elements I thought we had addressed over the offseason will continue to be important pillars for our team — defensive play, sticking up for each other, being able to play physically in games where we are tested that way.
Those pillars — learning how to defend, being committed to defense, playing the full ice — are important, and then it is again a mindset of… Whether it is somebody coming back and having another run charging at the door to bust it down, or it is the acquisition of new players, it is a combination of both. It is something we have to accomplish.
Going forward, the grit, physicality, and experience were seemingly addressed in the offseason. It is just replacing those parts with more of the same thing? Do you go any more drastic and take a look at the Big Four and the contracts they make?
Shanahan: I will say this about our top four — I think any team in the league would love to have any one of them, but we want them, we like them, and we want to keep them here. They are special players. They are all deeply, deeply committed to winning here in Toronto.
It is important for us as a management group to continue to develop them. When I say develop, that is also developing them to play in situations — those ones they were just in, have found themselves in over the last couple of years, and have come up short. It is also to support them and surround them with other players that can help them in that development as well.
We can be better, too. Honestly, we have to take it on ourselves as well — starting with me, Kyle, Sheldon, our coaching staff, our assistant coaches, our goalie coach. We all have to be better and we can all be better.
You mentioned that you entered this year in a flat-cap environment. Do you think that might force you to revisit the four forwards thing?
Shanahan: Those are very unique players and hard players to get, but I certainly think it creates a difficult situation for all teams in the NHL. Nobody was prepared for Covid. What I appreciated last summer — and we are going to have to do again — is the work that Kyle and Brandon Pridham did to go out and get players.
I don’t think our depth was an issue. I think our depth actually played well all season long. I thought our depth was a benefit to us in the playoffs. That wasn’t an issue — not having the ability to go out and find players to surround them. We just didn’t get over that last hurdle. We didn’t get the job done.
You didn’t score until the final minute of Game 7. You didn’t score in Game 5 against Columbus. You scored one goal against Boston in Game 7 the year prior with the same four. There has to be more to this than strictly physicality when your big guys come up empty year after year after year.
Shanahan: That is not what I was saying, that it is all about physicality and grit. That is just one element we addressed this year and added to our team. I think it is an important element to keep. That is not what I am saying is the reason why we didn’t win.
If you look throughout the history of hockey, there are lots of players who are in the Hall of Fame or who have their names etched on the Stanley Cup multiple times who went through this same experience early in their careers with their teams. The teams that were wise enough to hang on them — to continue to surround them and develop them, and just keep trying and trying and getting better and improving — benefitted eventually.
History will tell you it can be done. Certainly, we are aware. We are aware of how we have come up short. We get it.
Throughout history, there aren’t many teams that have lost in the first round five times in a row and won the Stanley Cup.
Shanahan: When you talk about history, there is a lot of history where people would say, “No one has won with a European captain,” and then someone wins with a European captain. “No team has won with so many Russians,” and then a team wins with Russians. We can talk about all of the things that stand in our way, or we can talk about ways to get around them and get the job done.
That is what I am here to say. As horrible and devastated as we feel today that we have let people down, we are not going to stop until we accomplish this. We are going to do this here in Toronto with this group. There will be changes that will be made. There will be tweaks along the way. The team will evolve. The people will evolve. But we are going to get this done.
We are not going to focus on the reasons why it can’t happen. We are going to focus on the ways it can happen.
Where do you stand on finding the balance of not always finding what you are missing on the roster but having the players on your current roster play a certain way come playoff time? The games in the playoffs are played differently. Is the answer not always outside your locker room?
Shanahan: I would say that our players certainly had the abilities to win those games. My own assessment is that we had opportunities to close out the series with a simple shot on goal and a goal in two overtimes. We didn’t do it.
A pattern repeated itself in a Game 7 where we didn’t play our best hockey. Those are the questions that we have to ask ourselves. Those are the things we have to address. How do we make them better?
Part of that is external. Part of that is internal and getting people to evolve and grow. That starts in the offseason. That starts with just improving our habits next year, and hopefully, coming back a better and stronger team.
Do you foresee any modifications to the front office staff between now and puck drop next season?
Shanahan: Like I said, I think Sheldon and Kyle, specifically, did an excellent job last year in addressing the things that we needed. I felt that Sheldon, as a coach, made excellent adjustments throughout the year. I saw a lot of growth and development with guys like William Nylander. I saw growth and adjustments even with a guy like John Tavares, not to mention some of the players who were playing on the third and fourth line or were coming up through our system. I thought Kyle did an excellent job.
They would be the first ones to tell you — as would I — that there is still something missing. There is still some more that is left to do. We have hit no finish lines here, obviously. We are not idiots. We are really just going to continue to work along together. We are going to continue to try to get better.
The difference between winning and losing, as we saw in that series, is not a tremendous difference. I think that we were, for the most part of that series, in control. We weren’t able to put them away. That is the biggest thing we have to address. We found ourselves in a similar position in previous years. We have to figure out a way to have that killer instinct and address that need. Whether that is internal or external, that is the thing that we need to do.
Do you think the brand has taken a hit after another first-round exit? How do you think the situation with the fans will unravel?
Shanahan: It is hard for them. I know it and I understand. We gave them hope. They believed in us. I think our players had earned those expectations. It wasn’t something that was given to them. It was earned through hard work. It was earned through a regular season in which they met many challenges against other good teams.
As fans, how they feel is that they get their heart broken. They do believe in the team. They sort of throw that belief into the team. The trust gets shaken at times like this for all organizations that don’t meet the expectations. The trust is wounded.
It is up to us to come back and earn it back again. I will say that this has happened in other cities where championships followed. It is tough to get through. We know how our fans feel about the team. We know it is generational. I think it is part of the reason why our players care so deeply. They want to win it for themselves, but they also want to win it for the decades and decades of fans that have been waiting for a long, long time.
You have been with the franchise for seven years. Do you have a heightened level of concern regarding ownership’s confidence in you?
Shanahan: When I came here, I was tasked with rebuilding the organization and building a Stanley Cup to Toronto. I haven’t accomplished that goal yet. My focus here is just on accomplishing that. I don’t focus on anything else. My singular task is just getting the job done.
There are a lot of things that go into that. Certainly, there is a lot of work that has gotten us to this point today. We have made the playoffs five years in a row, but five times, we failed to get out of the first round.
The job that I took on to come here was to rebuild this organization, make them a Stanley Cup contender, and win a Stanley Cup. That hasn’t happened yet. I am going to keep my focus on that until I accomplish it.
Is the ability to “close” something that the team can learn over time? Is it something you have to go outside of the organization and bring in?
Shanahan: It can be both. When you have an opportunity to add players like that, that’s great. It can certainly be cultivated from within. I didn’t win my first Stanley Cup until my 10th year in the NHL. It is something that can be developed. As I was saying earlier, there are players throughout the history of our game that are elite, elite players and took years, years, and years to get that closing ability.
The one good thing I would say: Once you do it, it becomes sort of a learned experience. Once you do it for the first time, it is something that you don’t forget how to do. It is no guarantee it is going to happen for your team every single year, but I do think it is something that can be developed.
You just can’t quit on these guys. You can’t quit on players that care so much. And they do. At the end of the day today, no one is going to feel better from our players speaking, me speaking, Kyle speaking, or Sheldon speaking. It is going to take action. It is going to be the actions of what we do in this offseason and the actions of what we do on the ice.
It is going to be about the results we get in the playoffs. Until we get those results, we are going to be second-guessed. That comes with the territory. We have seen it. I have been through it. We have seen other teams and players go through it. It comes with the territory of being a professional athlete.
We are a results-based business. Until we get those results in the playoffs, none of us are going to feel satisfied with our job.