At the end-of-year press conference, Maple Leafs President Brendan Shanahan discussed another disappointing first-round exit for his team, the job security of Kyle Dubas and Sheldon Keefe, Auston Matthews’ next contract, and more.
Shanahan: Obviously, it was a very disappointing end to what was a great regular season and a great playoff series, which didn’t get the result we wanted. We are extremely disappointed. We are not going to make any excuses. I thought our players battled hard. I thought that they played well, and they lost to a great hockey team.
As players, management, and ownership, we share in everyone’s frustration in not getting the job done. Certainly, as we look forward to next year, there are always going to be new faces. That being said, we will not be making changes just simply for the sake of saying we made changes.
With that, I think Kyle built a very good hockey team. I think he made excellent adjustments along the way. I think Sheldon is an excellent coach.
As we look forward to next year and getting to work towards next year, I think it is important to state that I see both of them as being extremely important to getting us to the next level, so that when we do approach next year and we do come back, we are ready to take that next step.
As Kyle said to the players today, the work for next year begins right now. I look forward to getting to work with Kyle and Sheldon for next season.
Can you put into context what happened with Mitch Marner last night, and what your immediate thoughts were when you heard the news?
Shanahan: I was shocked when I first heard the news as everybody was. Immediately, your first thought goes to, “Is he alright, and is whoever he was with alright?”
As the players have probably reiterated many times today, we have been asked by the Toronto Police Service to not speak specifically about the case. I also want to thank them for their attentiveness and the work that they do every day but especially in this particular case. We don’t want to get into the specifics.
Obviously, you just care for the well-being. As much as you are upset that it happened, you are thankful that it wasn’t worse.
25 years ago, you hoisted your first Stanley Cup as a player. You were a piece that was traded to that team to put it over the top. It cost the team a lot in Keith Primeau and Paul Coffey. What is the piece that will put this team over the top, and will it require a similar sacrifice?
Shanahan: I don’t think you can ever compare any one season and say it is exactly the same situation. Sometimes it is a trade. Sometimes it is development from within. Sometimes it is just the same players going out, trying the same thing, and getting a different result.
Our focus is on trying to improve. Our focus is on trying to get better. Regardless of what the outcome in this year’s playoffs, there was always going to changes that are made. It is always our intention to improve as a team and get better.
I don’t like to specifically point to any one particular team or any one particular way of doing it. There are lots of different ways to win a Cup. We have to figure out our way.
I do think that whether that is an opportunity that we can feel we can improve our team through a trade — regardless of who that player is — or if it is someone from within, I think we have some good young players on the way up that are going to be interesting players for us.
I think [there is also] the development of our people and staff that are here to go out and be determined to work harder and get a different result.
John Tavares talked about continuing to find ways to make the group feel uncomfortable in pursuit of the ultimate goal. The core group has been here for a number of years and the results haven’t come. The messaging seems to be that you are going to continue to stay the course. Do you worry that comfort can seep into the group and maybe — subconsciously or not — work against them?
Shanahan: I don’t think playing in any passionate hockey market will allow for comfort to seep into a group. I think if you reflect on that question, you would agree — in your experience being around the team — that it is one of the greatest parts of playing in Canada and playing in Toronto or any great hockey market: the constant push.
Before these guys even get to the NHL, they are absolutely driven individuals to make it to the NHL. Certainly, when you get here and you play in a passionate hockey market, I see it as an advantage. I think many of our players do, too.
Our players have embraced playing in Toronto. They don’t want to be anywhere else. They want to be the ones to change the narrative in Toronto. They are committed to doing that.
Last year, on exit day, there was a lot of talk about killer instinct being missing. What do you want your players to take away from how this series played out?
Shanahan: As Kyle has alluded to, I have watched and observed in our fans, and I watched and observed as well, in spite of the fact that we were not able to finish Tampa off in Game 6 and Game 7, I saw a different team and a different approach.
In the past couple of seasons, when we have had an opportunity to eliminate a team, we got back on our heels. One of the things that I liked about this year’s process, despite the result, was that our team was on its toes. I liked their starts. I liked their comebacks. I liked the fight that they showed and the embracing of those moments. They just didn’t get the job done.
The process, to me, is what makes me feel more encouraged, but it doesn’t take away my disappointment. It makes me feel more encouraged that it was a completely different approach.
We are still seeking that killer instinct, but we were doing a lot more of the things that you need to do in order to get that job done than I have seen in the past couple of elimination games where I felt like we looked a little bit more on our heels. I thought that was a big change. It is a matter for us to keep encouraging them, when they are doing the right things, to not get discouraged and keep doing them.
We see areas for improvement as well. We will address those over the summer and over the course of next season. I think that is the one thing that we stress to our players when they came back this season: the regular season is important. There are certain things and skills that we have to do in order to prepare ourselves for those moments when we get into the playoffs.
Next year, the regular season is incredibly important to hone those skills and sharpen those skills so that when we get into those moments, we are just that much better — those small increments better that are needed in order to be on top and advancing.
You have worked with Kyle now for eight years. Kyle and Sheldon are joined at the hip. To what degree are all of these first-round failures putting a strain on those relationships?
Shanahan: [laughs] You can make a lot of jokes about that — sleeping in separate bedrooms, and things like that — but I’ll stay away from that.
When you go through those disappointments… As much as winning can bring people together — and for some of us who are fortunate enough to experience that, it is absolutely true — learning how to deal with the heartbreak and devastation of falling short, depending on what kind of relationship you have, can bring you closer as well.
To share some of those disappointments not just with Kyle and Sheldon but with our players who have now been here, and to have our fans back in the building this year… I know we had a bit of a pause their due to Covid in the regular season, but to see our fans and the support that they gave us and to have that back, Sheldon mentioned after Game 1 that our fans were the first stars of the game. It was something that we were all talking about after that game. It was something our players were talking about. I don’t know if in my time here I have ever seen and experienced, in my time here, our players feeling so connected to our fans.
Again, you would like to start mixing in quite soon those victories that pull you closer together, but for me, it just strengthens our resolve to support each other and get the job done. It strengthens my resolve to give them whatever they need to get over that hump, get through those challenges, and get to the place where we want to be.
There appears to be a doomsday clock as it pertains to Auston Matthews and a contract that is going to be coming up in 2024. How concerned are you that you are now down to a two-year window to not only win a round but win the whole thing?
Shanahan: I think that Auston has embraced being a Maple Leaf. He has had historical seasons here in what is still the early part of his career. He has a lot of runway left. We love having him. I agree with Kyle that we would love to make him a Leaf forever.
He has been very supportive. He has really sort of grown into a leadership role here. He has made an immediate impact as a young player and a rookie, but he has grown into a man. He has been fantastic for us in every aspect: on the ice, off the ice, in the dressing room.