With another season in the books, the Toronto Maple Leafs are in for another busy summer. Fortunately, Leafs Nation has one less thing to worry about this summer as Brendan Shanahan will be brought back as the president and an alternate governor. The organization announced that Shanahan has signed a six-year extension that will run through the 2024-25 season. This should come as good news to fans of the Leafs as the arrival of Shanahan was a massive turning point for the organization.
Scorched Earth in Toronto
It doesn’t seem that long ago that the Maple Leafs seemed destined to linger in mediocrity. Up until they made the playoffs in the 2016-17 season, the Leafs had only made the playoffs once since the 2004-05 lockout. In fact, it wasn’t until the summer of 2015 that fans could feel any sort of hope. Notably that was one year after the hiring of Shanahan.
After missing the playoffs in 2014, and the eighth time in nine seasons, the Maple Leafs signed Shanahan as their new president of hockey operations. Although significant changes didn’t happen immediately, it didn’t take long for him to get to work. Early in Jan. 2015 Shanahan fired head coach Randy Carlyle, and Peter Horachek took over as interim head coach until the end of the season. Just one month later, in the beginning of February, Shanahan got permission from the Board of Directors of MLSE to begin a “scorched earth” rebuild.
The rest of the season followed the template of a normal for a non-playoff team as players were unloaded at the trade deadline. However, when the season ended sweeping changes were made, general manager Dave Nonis was fired, Horachek was informed he would not come back as head coach, and a whopping 18 individuals in the scouting department were let go. Changes were underway in Toronto.
Lose for Auston Matthews
After all the firings, many big names were brought in to fill the empty positions. Most notably Stanley Cup and Olympic gold medal winning coach Mike Babcock was signed to an eight-year contract, and former New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello was brought in to serve the same role. At the time of his hiring, Babcock famously said, “pain is coming,” indicating that the rebuild could be a long process, but it would be done right. With Shanahan’s brain trust in place, the Maple Leafs that we know today began to be formed. It started with the trading of the franchise’s superstar Phil Kessel and the drafting of future superstar Mitch Marner.
The next season was likely the most important in the Maple Leafs’ rebuilding process. It was then that the team committed from the start to tanking and obtaining a high draft pick. Every fan in Toronto knew that the roster put in place wasn’t designed to compete for the playoffs. Most players were on short-term contracts that the team would try to move at the deadline. Everything that season went according to plan as they were able to trade many of those players for picks, and most importantly were able to unload the contract of captain Dion Phaneuf to the Ottawa Senators.
Promising rookie William Nylander was also given his first taste of NHL hockey and was impressive in his short stint with the team at the end of the season. When the season ended, the Maple Leafs were in last place in the NHL, ensuring them the best odds at the first-overall pick. Then, by a stroke of luck, they won the Draft Lottery and selected Auston Matthews first overall. It may seem strange, but finishing last may have made the 2015-16 season the Maple Leafs’ most successful in a decade.
Early Successes and John Tavares
The Leafs entered to 2016-17 season with the young core of Matthews, Marner, and Nylander, but expectations weren’t high. The team was expected to improve on the previous season, but the playoffs didn’t seem realistic. However, the team defied expectations and squeaked into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, ultimately losing in the first round to the Washington Capitals after a hard fought six-game series.
The 2017-18 season saw the team reach new heights as they set a franchise record for points, placing them in the upper echelons of the NHL elite. Playoff seeding would not be kind to them, though, as they drew the powerful Boston Bruins as their first-round opponents. Despite going down three games to one, the Maple Leafs managed to even the series and entered the third period of Game 7 with a lead before a disastrous final period led to a Bruins victory and a Maple Leafs first-round exit for the second straight year.
Despite the disappointment of the early exit, the Maple Leafs remained optimistic as they had a good series versus the Bruins, and if not for one bad period, could have advanced. Even if some fans were upset with the loss, all was forgiven when they signed New York Islanders superstar center John Tavares to a massive seven-year contract. With the addition of Tavares, the Maple Leafs had possibly the best one-two punch down the middle in the league along with Matthews, and looked poised for another season of contention.
The First Bump in the Road
Everything looked to be going well in 2018-19 for the Maple Leafs as they were one of the hottest teams out of the gate and managed to even keep pace with the Tampa Bay Lightning for a stretch. However, the new year brought struggles, and the team began to slow down. Second place in the Atlantic Division no longer looked like a guarantee as the Bruins steadily gained ground. With a disastrous final six weeks of the season, the Leafs stumbled into the playoffs as the third seed in the Atlantic, once again drawing the Bruins as their first-round opponent.
However, despite their poor finish to the season, the Maple Leafs won Game 1 of the series, and then Games 3 and 5. Suddenly they had two chances to send the Bruins home. We all know what happened next as the Maple Leafs were sent packing after losses in Games 6 and 7. With the season concluded, it was the first one in the Shanahan era that could be called a failure. A team that looked better on paper from the previous season finished with fewer points and had the same result in the playoffs.
The Future with Brendan Shanahan
That brings us to today, with the Maple Leafs having brought back Shanahan as the president of hockey operations. All of this is to show his body of work and to give optimism to fans going forward. When he first arrived, the Leafs were a shell of an organization. They were a team with no direction. He established a new, winning culture for the Maple Leafs.
He’s set them up for success in a way that hasn’t been done for a very long time. Bringing him back should bring some relief to fans as they enter what could be a very hectic offseason. One unsuccessful season does not diminish the overall body of work of Shanahan, and he’s proven that he’s the right man for the job. After all, he’s the man with the plan, and the Shanaplan is just getting started.