In this disaster of a season for the Maple Leafs, their players and fans have grown angrier and angrier. And that’s why the presence of team president Brendan Shanahan – a calm and patient voice of reason – is so beneficial to their future.
It feels like just about every citizen of, landed immigrant to, and legislative and judicial branch of Leafs Nation is angry these days. Some of Toronto’s players are incensed with the media; some Leafs fans are fed up with decades of frustration, poor decisions by management and ownership, and lack of playoff appearances; even something as innocuous as a post-victory acknowledgment to fans at the Air Canada Centre was a source of controversy, at least until the franchise’s astonishing collapse made clear what a molehill of an issue that really was.
However, in the midst of the maelstrom stands a pillar of patience and calm. Its name is Brendan Shanahan, Toronto’s president for coming up on 11 months now, and Leafs fans ought to be thankful for it. Shanahan doesn’t have the GM experience of, say, a Ray Shero and still must prove his vision over the long term. But his particular employment history – specifically, running the NHL’s department of player safety and serving as chief disciplinarian – has made him uniquely qualified to steer hockey’s most hyper-analyzed franchise through the white noise, hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing that seem to increase every week.
Shanahan’s vision hasn’t been made completely clear to the public, but he provided a glimpse into it via his letter to season ticket holders that was sent out Wednesday morning: “There are no shortcuts to building a team the right way,” Shanahan said in the letter. “It will require patience and a long-term view, but it is important for you to know that the process will be well worth it when we get there.”
For all the things Leafs fans and players didn’t want to hear this week, those words from Shanahan should be music to their ears. If you’re one of those fans, the knowledge Buds brass aren’t going to trade away young players anymore should delight you to no end. The awareness Shanahan isn’t going to be swayed by any particular instance of spontaneous combustion – a controversy created in the blink of an eye by someone’s spin on an issue – should have you doing cartwheels.
His plan may not turn out to be the right plan, but Shanahan won’t fall victim to distraction, nor will he act simply to satiate reporters or fans clamoring for a move to be made. That’s why captain Dion Phaneuf wasn’t dealt this week. Previous Leafs regimes might have chosen to send Phaneuf packing by Monday’s trade deadline and accepted whatever it could get in order to give the public the impression it was strong and moving in the right direction as quickly as possible. But under Shanahan, the opposite has been true: while he has made significant changes to his management, coaching and playing rosters, the 46-year-old hasn’t shown any craving for approval or acted based on anyone’s timeline other than his own. If the team is going to move Phaneuf, it is more than happy to wait until the off-season (when the market for his services will increase) and take a few more slings and arrows until then.
Shanahan grew accustomed to those sharp objects when he was a player, and after he retired, his skin grew thicker. When he was the league’s player punisher, nobody agreed with his decisions. Fans and media covering players who were responsible for injuring opponents tended to think his rulings were too severe, and fans and media covering players who were injured tended to think his punishments were never severe enough. After a while, all he could do was trust in his own team at NHL headquarters and the system he’d helped shape and maintain there. And although his employer has changed, that approach has not. In concert with GM Dave Nonis, assistant GM Kyle Dubas, and director of player personnel Mark Hunter, Shanahan still seeks out opinions before making a decision, but once the decision is made, no amount of outrage from fans and media or player unrest will take his eyes off his goal.
Shanahan’s decisions on the scouting, draft and trade front in the coming months and years will go a long ways in determining his legacy and how successful the franchise will be for the next decade or longer. His choices very well could be wrong, but at least Leafs fans can know that, for once, ownership has been convinced under his leadership to attempt to build the team in a manner that offers the greatest likelihood of success.
The cool and calm of Brendan Shanahan doesn’t resonate at the moment the way Angry Kessel or Raging Fans do, but his approach is as crucial to a bright Leafs’ future as any player in the system.