Multiple reports that top Maple Leafs executive Tim Leiweke has reached out to NHL chief disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan for a high-ranking management role with the team should be hugely encouraging for Leafs fans nursing their wounds after another disastrous season. If the Hockey Hall-of-Famer has any interest in moving back to his hometown, ownership needs to move heaven and earth to make it happen, because he's exactly the type of dynamic, modern-minded executive who could thrive with this team.
Like anyone they add to the mix, Shanahan wouldn’t be a guarantor a Stanley Cup arrives in a hurry. It will still take years to build the Leafs into a consistent championship threat, and the 45-year-old will face a learning curve as all rookie management members do. If he becomes GM, skeptics will point to the fact he has no experience in that role and question whether he can do the job under the microscope and incredible pressure of Toronto.
However, Shanahan has accumulated a different type of experience in his four-and-a-half years working out of the NHL’s New York City head office. In his current role as vice-president of player safety, he is in contact with all 30 GMs and watches as much, if not more hockey than any of them. He is a consensus-seeker who understands how the game is policed at the league level and has a reputation for fairness. He would have to negotiate his way through the corporate jungle that is MLSE, but he wouldn’t be signing up with the Leafs to have strings attached to him. Leiweke would have to give him full autonomy on hockey moves – the kind Shanahan’s friend and former teammate Steve Yzerman has with the Tampa Bay Lightning – and if Leiweke is talking to Shanahan, he knows that’s how it would need to be.
But back to the question of NHL experience. There’s something to be said for apprenticing, but it’s not absolutely necessary to winning a Stanley Cup. Shanahan’s first NHL GM, New Jersey Devils icon Lou Lamoriello, is just such an example; Lamoriello had experience as a head coach, athletic director and commissioner at the U.S. college hockey level, but he hadn’t a shred of experience in the NHL when he started with the Devils in 1987. We all know what he’s gone on to do since then.
The challenges Shanahan would face in Toronto would be immediate and not without potential pitfalls. But he’s aware of the animal he’d be agreeing to wrestle. He’s a confident, but humble guy who could’ve already been working with the Calgary Flames if he wanted to. This isn't about ego gratification. It would have to be the right fit. And Toronto certainly qualifies on a number of fronts: ownership support; personal ties; and the potential glory of being the guy to bring a Cup to a market that aches for it more than ever.
Once he retired, Shanahan could’ve easily enjoyed civilian life, or found a hockey role that doesn’t put him square in the spotlight the way his current gig does. A star of his stature didn’t need to subject himself to the anger and accusations of crazed fans and/or incensed GMs that he faces virtually every day. But he took the job because it was a challenge and he thought he could make a difference. He’s done just that. The player safety department’s makeover has been remarkable; where once Colin Campbell explained his suspension decisions to a small group of people, Shanahan has modernized the system with his explanation internet videos and brought transparency to the disciplinary process. He’s not going to hold it against you if you disagree with a decision his department makes, but he’s not afraid to be the guy to make that decision. It’s the same trait that made him a winner on the ice. It’s why he was such a valuable leader on and member of those championship Wings teams.
So if Shanahan feels the Leafs are his next worthy challenge and joins the franchise, Leafs fans ought to be thrilled. Rarely, if ever, has he failed to do something he put his mind to.