In the hours before the opening night of his first full season as Toronto Maple Leafs president, Brendan Shanahan had two words on his mind: Game Day. It wasn’t the same as being a player, but he was as hungry for his team to win as he was during his 22-year career as an NHL player.
It just shows you – even recent Hockey Hall of Fame inductees have a lot to prove with the rest of their days. And boy, does Shanahan ever. He’s here to prove he can make the rapid, pressure-packed acclimation from the NHL’s department of player safety to the high-stakes boardroom showdowns that decide which cities get to hold Stanley Cup parades. The means to his ultimate goal have changed, but the goal is the same.
Shanahan’s also here to prove his initial choices in changing up the Leafs organization were savvy. But here’s where the narrative needs to be clarified. Although his hiring of former Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds GM Kyle Dubas as assistant GM to Dave Nonis has been painted in some circles – including at least one hockey executive he ran into over the summer – as Shanahan turning to an advanced stats wunderkind to embark on a radical new direction, the reality is Dubas got the job because of his hockey decisions. For instance, his bold hiring of former NHLer Sheldon Keefe did not happen because Dubas had an abacus for a wet nurse; it happened because Dubas looked past the controversy Keefe with which he’d been associated, gave him an opportunity and was rewarded by employing one of the game’s up-and-coming bench bosses.
That’s the open-mindedness Brendan Shanahan wants to be surrounded with. That’s who he is, so it only makes sense he would hire people of a similar perspective. Ultimately, the Leafs braintrust is still going to make hockey-related decisions based on more traditional methods, but if it means winning, the people in that room are all willing to listen to insights that may not be traditional. That’s not going to win them a Cup right now, but that’s the bare minimum for a franchise that’s struggled to build confidence amongst its fan base.
Shanahan is aware of that as well. There’s a reason why he hasn’t made himself more prominent media-wise in the day-to-day operations of the team. He knows that the only currency fans will accept is that full and warm feeling that comes when fans go home happy after a game. He can tell you he wants to be like Team X playing offense, and Team Y playing defense all day long, but he knows none of it matters if the decisions that affect the on-ice product don’t lead to wins.
All in all, this is going to be an evaluation-type season for Shanahan as he settles in and gets a better grip of where the team’s strengths and weaknesses lie. But the air this fall in Toronto does feel different with him running the show. It feels like management is as progressive in its thinking as it ever has been. They appear aware of their critics and aren't so defensive as to just ignore them for spite. And although a wary group of Torontonians burned once too often by previous regimes may still be reticent to believe it, Shanahan is putting the team a good position – and of the right mind – to rebuild the trust with their fans.