Commentary

Patience is key for Shanahan

Leafs president must keep long-term view to deliver results

Updated: April 14, 2014, 4:26 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

TORONTO -- Brendan Shanahan repeated himself in saying that it didn't matter what came out of his mouth on this day, that only his actions would define how years from now people will view his legacy as president of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Of that, there is no doubt.

Having personally attended a few of these introductory news conferences over the years in these parts, there comes a time when they all start sounding the same.

Just hearing Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment CEO Tim Leiweke mention "culture" twice in the opening three minutes of his address Monday forced my eyes to roll without my control.

Shanahan is dead right: It doesn't matter what was said Monday. It just doesn't matter how smooth he sounded, how confident he appeared or whether anybody thinks he's qualified to be Leafs president.

The only thing that matters is what he's actually going to do about inheriting a hockey team that's missed the playoffs eight of the past nine seasons.

For starters, is he willing to share the long-term view that GM Dave Nonis has sold to the MLSE board?

You can say what you want about Nonis -- his detractors will point to the David Clarkson signing, his backers will underline the trade for emerging star goalie Jonathan Bernier -- but the one thing Nonis stands for is the most impressive thing I've ever seen a GM try to stand for in this market. He has implored his bosses at MLSE that, in order to break the cycle of knee-jerk decisions and Band-Aid solutions that has plagued this franchise for far too long, the organization needs to suck it up and grind out a long-term view. Which means drafting and developing for one, something that's been almost foreign in these parts over the past 25 years.

[+] EnlargeBrendan Shanahan
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images"I'm not here today for big speeches, big words, big proclamations ... Today is my first day at work. And there's a lot of work to be done," Brendan Shanahan said Monday.

It is why under Nonis, the Leafs didn't trade away a first-round pick this year even though there were a few trade offers on his table offering up a pretty good player or two in exchange for that draft pick. The Leafs GM stuck to his guns and didn't repeat the cycle of short-term madness that has been the Maple Leafs' way for too many years.

In a salary-cap era, more than ever, it's got to be about patience, about drafting, about development.

So again, the question now is where Nonis' new boss stands on this particular vision. What is his own vision?

"I have some ideas in my head about direction, but I think that at the same time, I also know at the same time those are subject to change,'' Shanahan told a massive media scrum after the formal part of his news conference was over. "I think that it's very important for people, especially in sports, to have the ability to evolve and to make changes."

Shanahan twice praised Nonis during the news conference, saying that he admired the Leafs GM and trusted him.

And interestingly, when a question was asked about the power structure and which person had the last word on coaching hires/fires or trades, it was Nonis who grabbed the microphone and answered the question, saying Shanahan was the boss, but that every good organization has management that reaches a consensus on important decisions.

Shanahan nodded approvingly during this answer.

Again, just how much patience Shanahan demonstrates during his time as Leafs president will be the key. No question he will need to be bold in some ways, and I suspect you'll see that this offseason. There are trades coming.

But through that, he'll need to retain his long-term plan and stick to it.

Because what's buried the Leafs organization for years and years is the intoxicating allure of being the man who builds Toronto's first Cup winner since 1967; and that emotion has led many a smart hockey man over the years to make short-term decisions that ultimately hurt the franchise in the long run.

Knowing that Shanahan loves his 1980s music, a humble suggestion: He should have Guns N' Roses' tune "Patience" played on a loop in his office in the MLSE tower to remind himself of the trappings ahead.

Shanahan played for teams run by Lou Lamoriello and Ken Holland, two brilliant hockey men whose standards and practices will serve the new Leafs president well if followed.

What can't be forgotten, however, is that Shanahan himself has a boss, the guy sitting to his right at the news conference Monday, the guy who reached out to him and offered him this gig.

Tim Leiweke won't stand for losing much longer for his money-making hockey team. That much is clear. Leiweke has brought change with other MLSE sports franchises, and the NBA club and MLS team have been better for it.

Now the hockey team must come together ... or else.

"I definitely sense that we lack an identity," Leiweke said Monday of the Leafs. "And right now, we're a team that lacks a direction. And we want to change that."

Leiweke also addressed the Leaf players earlier Monday and it's obvious it wasn't to say thanks for a great season.

"Things are going to change around here," said one Leafs player in reference to Leiweke addressing them.

There's no question, at the end of the day, that Leiweke is the wild card here. Does he have enough patience for building a hockey team the right away? And will he stay out of Shanahan's way given that he admitted in Monday's news conference that he's not a "hockey guy?"

That's a storyline to monitor.

In the meantime, I'm ready to give Shanahan the benefit of the doubt. He's a guy who's shown vision in the past, pulling together a hockey summit during the 2004-05 lockout when owners and players were at each other's throats but getting it done anyway. Some of the ideas that came out of that summit would end up part of the NHL's re-launch in 2005-06.

And you certainly can't argue that Shanahan didn't have courage taking on the chief disciplinarian's job for a few years. Who in their right mind would ever want that job?

Which is why he's ready for whatever scrutiny is coming his way now.

"Well I had a job in which everyone questioned my decisions. Everybody thought they knew better than us. They second-guessed everything we did and didn't like us so now I get to come do this," he chuckled Monday.

As a hometown kid, this is the chance of a lifetime for Shanahan, born some 20 months after the May 1967 Cup victory by the Leafs.

He gets it, that was already obvious Monday. He knows all too well the religious-like zeal attached to Leafs fandom and what responsibility he's now been given.

"I thought a lot about coming in here today, this specific moment," Shanahan said in his first remarks at the news conference. "I just want to say that I recognize that it doesn't really matter to a lot of people where I'm from, how many championships I was able to be a part of as a player, the teams I've played for. I'm not here today for big speeches, big words, big proclamations ... Today is my first day at work. And there's a lot of work to be done.

"I know a lot of people in the game, a lot of people that I respect, a lot of winners, architects of teams, and they're humble guys because they realize how difficult it is to win in the NHL. ... It's a humbling experience for these guys, it's going to be a humbling experience for me, as well."

Well said. But now comes the tough part: Doing it.

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