By Jonas Siegel
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
LOS ANGELES — Brendan Shanahan was milling about near the ice at Staples Center as a couple handfuls’ worth of players took to the ice for an optional morning skate, ahead of Thursday night’s game against the Kings.“Shanny!” former King Kyle Clifford exclaimed, spotting Shanahan as the new Leaf headed back to the visitors’ dressing room in L.A. for the first time.
Then Shanahan did something we’ve rarely seen him do in the nearly six years he’s been president of the Maple Leafs: he held a media scrum to discuss the state of the team. On this occasion, he talked about “adversity” and his team learning to find a way through it. He talked about whether expectations for the team had changed in light of all the turbulence. And he talked about what he seemed to suggest was the defining challenge for this group moving forward: going from a good team into a great one.
“I think it’s difficult to become a good team in the NHL. But I think it’s even more difficult to become an elite team,” Shanahan, a three-time Stanley Cup champion as a player, explained during the impromptu 10-minute session with media. “To me, one of the biggest separations between the elite teams and the good teams is consistency. And that’s something that we are definitely, as a group, trying to learn and develop. That ability to come out with that same peak effort.
“You’re never gonna do it all 82 games in a row, but certainly doing it more often than not. And that’s something that our guys are learning and something I’m very confident they’re gonna continue to grow at.”
To this point, consistency has not been a strong suit of the 2019-20 Maple Leafs. In fact, their inability to consistently put forth a strong effort night after night has been a major flaw. Last week’s run of three solid wins in a row — largely without either Jake Muzzin or Morgan Rielly, as well as key forwards like Andreas Johnsson and Ilya Mikheyev — was followed up Tuesday night in San Jose with another flat, momentum-sapping loss. Such performances have been all too frequent this season.
Following practice a day later in El Segundo, head coach Sheldon Keefe said one of the greater concerns he had was his team’s propensity for nights like that, “when we’ve looked bad, we’ve been really bad.”
It’s the elimination, or at least minimization, of efforts like that, that could change the tenor of the team, Shanahan said. It’s what could put them in the class of legit contenders for the Stanley Cup. It would define their ability to become “elite.”
It’s also about learning how to achieve a certain level of professionalism.
“We all like to look back and think that certain players, even the best players who have ever played the game, never had bad games. It’s just not true,” said Shanahan, a Hall of Famer player with the 14th-most goals in NHL history. “But (it’s) their ability, and the ability of great teams, to have fewer bad games. Also, a sense of occasion, of knowing when a game is a must-win game.
“I think that that’s just something that comes with time and experience,” he continued. “I think playing in Toronto can speed that up because we are so sort of on it, and our fans are so passionate. But I see that as an advantage, and not a disadvantage, that the expectations are high in that regard. And we’re seeing a lot of the same stuff that our fans are seeing. But I have all the confidence in the world that we’re gonna get there and we’re gonna continue to power through this.”
Shanahan makes himself a constant figure around the Leafs. He takes in practices from the overhang at the team’s practice facility, huddling often with Kyle Dubas, the Leafs GM. He’s there in person at home games, sometimes watching from a box, or down at ice-level. He’s there on the road sometimes too. He’s around the dressing room at Scotiabank Arena following morning skates, games or otherwise around the management offices.
He prefers, however, to keep a lower public profile, allowing Dubas, and now Keefe, to largely speak for the team.
The last time Shanahan addressed the media? It was in November the day after Mike Babcock was fired, alongside Dubas.
The timing of this availability was curious, coming as it did during another worrisome dip, when injuries and a lack of depth have stung, and as Keefe has continued to confront many of the same woes that led Shanahan to fire Babcock in person in Arizona. But this was an admittedly spur-of-the-moment decision to speak, an apparent opportunity for the top figure of the franchise, the one who so rarely steps out from behind the curtain, to calm some nerves and slap a positive message to the struggles of his team.
)Perhaps most interesting was how Shanahan responded when asked if he still looked at this year’s Leafs team as one that could capture the Cup. He didn’t exactly endorse the idea, nor, however, did he seem to want to shut down the possibility.
“I just see adversity differently,” he said in response to the question. “I remember years and years ago, when I was playing for Jim Rutherford (in Hartford), he came into our dressing room with about 12 games to go and sort of took the pressure off of us, and said that it didn’t all ride on this year. And I really at the time — and I love Jim Rutherford — but I hated that message as a player. I wanted to have that pressure that we had to win this year.
“So I’ll never take that pressure off our guys to sort of say, like, ‘Look, this is a long-term thing.’ It really is about now. But the truth of the matter is right, this is about how we develop and how we grow, but I don’t ever want to take the pressure off the guys. They want that pressure and they want the expectations about now. And then management, it’s our job to certainly make judgments and make assessments that are about now, about this year, and about the future as well.'”
In other words, Shanahan wasn’t about to take that pressure off by saying the Leafs couldn’t win it all this year, even if their chances look dimmer than they did at the beginning of the season when hopes were highest.
“It’s funny,” he said. “I remember four or five years ago saying to somebody that we had an idea and a plan and a vision to try and make this an elite NHL team. And that person had said to me, ‘Well, that’ll be so nice, because once the team’s a good team and once the team’s competing for a Stanley Cup, then it’ll be nice and peaceful and quiet.’ And I said, ‘It’s just the opposite.’
“Once you become a good team — and again, we’re trying to develop into an elite team and we see it on some nights against certain opponents. We know that it’s there. But this is what it’s like. This is what it’s like to be a team that is trying to compete for a Stanley Cup. It’s quieter and more peaceful when you’re going the other way, when you’re trying to rebuild from scratch.
“But if we are lucky enough to be the kind of team that can compete and win Stanley Cups, it will not be peaceful. It’ll be loud and noisy, because the decisions are worth more. The small decisions, the small tweaks, will have a bigger impact on a bigger stage.”
Shanahan said the confidence he had in the team he started building in 2014 stemmed from the growth of core players this season, such as soon-to-be 50-goal man Auston Matthews, as well as the intangible impact of former Cup winners like Clifford and Muzzin. He believed the “scar tissue” of recent experiences, like playing without Rielly and Muzzin, their two best defencemen, or perhaps, past playoff series gone bad, would help in the long run.
“Adversity is something that every NHL team will go through — and for all teams, not just ours — and it’s something that you can either meet or grow from, or you can use it as an excuse,” Shanahan said. “And I like to think that our players are not using it as an excuse. Certainly (we’re) not in management or in coaching. These are the peaks and valleys, and certainly, the adversity is a