In the wake of the Toronto Maple Leafs long-overdue firing of head coach Randy Carlyle, a number of fans, bloggers and pundits have taken to print and the airwaves to speculate over other possible moves for the long-struggling club.
Some want general manager Dave Nonis replaced, or the Leafs to woo coach Mike Babcock away from the Detroit Red Wings, or for stars like Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf to be traded. Some want all of these things to happen, some preach caution and others are taking a “wait-and-see” approach.
For all the speculation, suggestions and predictions, the final decisions belong to the Leafs first-year team president Brendan Shanahan, who played a role in both Carlyle’s retention last summer and in his recent firing.
Shanahan remains tight-lipped about his intentions, keeping a low profile from a chattering media horde beseeching him to do or say something about the situation. Their pleas have fallen on deaf ears so far. The Hall of Famer developed a thick skin with the media during his tenure as “Sheriff Shanny”, the NHL’s disciplinarian. Whatever his plan (or “Shanaplan”, if you will) it’s apparent the media will learn about it along with the rest of Leafs Nation: via press release.
It’s painfully obvious the Leafs are no closer to ending their 47-years-and-counting Stanley Cup drought. Everyone in Leafs Nation looks around the NHL, sees once-moribund teams improving or even becoming Cup contenders, and wonders why the Maple Leafs can’t seem to get it right.
Mismanagement is to blame, but there seems to be something else at work with the Leafs. In recent years, it’s become a place where the careers of respected managers and coaches are wrecked on the Toronto shores. As I noted in a piece last November on the Leafs ongoing woes, those GMs and coaches didn’t suddenly get stupid overnight.
I chalked it up to the pressure of managing and coaching one of hockey’s most famous and popular franchises in the NHL’s largest market. I also said it was up to Leafs ownership, fronted by Shanahan, to find a solution which had eluded their predecessors.
My opinion hasn’t changed, and in the coming weeks and months, we’ll get a better idea of what Shanahan has in mind. It’s a huge challenge. The Leafs are currently among the NHL’s worst defensive and puck-possession teams, whose stars are mostly offensive players unable or unwilling to commit to a strong two-way game.
The solution seems straightforward. Bring in a coach who’ll earn their respect and motivate them into becoming better two-way players. Finding that coach, however, is another matter.
For all the talk of wooing Mike Babcock, the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons made a great point when he recently wrote that the Red Wings bench boss wants to be paid and wants to coach a winner, and the Leafs can only assure half of that.
So if Babcock’s out, then who? In the wake of Carlyle’s firing there was certainly no shortage of options suggested by the media, but few which I believe could thrive in the Toronto hothouse. St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock seems the best of the bunch, but unless the Blues fire him at season’s end he’s not going anywhere. Ditto Anaheim Ducks bench boss Bruce Boudreau. Dan Bylsma and Pete DeBoer top the list of former coaches, but I just don’t seem them succeeding where Carlyle failed.
As for roster changes, I expect those could start in a month’s time if the Leafs haven’t snapped out of their current funk by then. I doubt we’ll see any blockbuster moves involving the Leafs top players, as such deals involving high-salaried talent on long-term contracts are almost impossible to swing during the season in today’s salary-cap era.
Instead, I expect we’ll see pending unrestricted free agents like Daniel Winnik, Mike Santorelli and maybe even Cody Franson hit the trade block before the March 2 trade deadline. Maybe goalie James Reimer, who has a year left on his contract, gets dealt as well.
Bigger moves involving the Leafs stars will likely come in the offseason, once the salary-cap figures for next season are established. There will be more teams with cap space and a willingness to spend by late-June and early-July, especially given how barren this summer’s UFA market is.
I’m guessing those moves won’t be made before a new coach is hired, which could come as soon as the playoffs are over, if not earlier. Unless interim coach Peter Horachek successfully rallies the Leafs, gets them into the 2015 players and they win a round or two, I just don’t see him as their full-time head coach.
Once the new coach is hired, the Leafs will probably try to bring in players to suit his system, possibly by swapping out those who don’t.
Beyond that, your guess about Shanahan’s plans is as good as mine. The solutions might seem so easy from the point of view of a fan, blogger or pundit but the reality is very different and very difficult to implement. We’ll all find out leading up to the March trade deadline, the NHL Draft in June and the start of unrestricted free agency on July 1 what form “The Shanaplan” will take.