Considering the way Toronto’s media circles the Maple Leafs like starving hyenas, ready to rip into any morsel they come across, keeping Mike Babcock’s hiring a secret until the last moment was some feat by Brendan Shanahan and his staff.
For years Canadian hockey fans have loved laughing at the Leafs’ and Oilers’ expenses – Edmonton with their foolish attachment to Kevin Lowe and anyone affiliated with the 80s dynasty; Toronto with their constant attempts to shortcut the path to success, trading assets and throwing money with the hopes something would work.
Unfortunately for all of us, the two former laughingstocks are not far from becoming model organizations, and Canucks fans are one particular group that should be jealous of their clear and purposeful direction.
Speaking at his introductory press conference Thursday, Babcock said a team has to protect its players. From Shanahan’s actions this past year, it’s clear he believes this too. From his hiring of Kyle Dubas to the trade of David Clarkson, Shanahan has operated in a cone of silence. Trade rumours came from media speculation, never from the team itself.
Contrast this to Vancouver, where Jim Benning’s open and honest approach had media members swooning after putting up with Mike Gillis’s stonewalling for years. But imagine being Zack Kassian – knowing the Canucks were actively shopping him all year, forced to field countless media questions because of it.
You can be sure the players would rather have a tight-lipped GM and a team-wide culture of silence.
At Babcock’s presser, he added, “This isn’t about making the playoffs, it’s about building a winning team.”
What should hit Canucks fans over the head is their team is entirely committed to making the playoffs.
As upset as Canucks fans were about losing to the Flames in the first round of this year’s playoffs, they need to realize that any extended playoff run this past year, or in the next couple, would be a fluke. It would result from hot goaltending or a stretch of overacheivements from a few players, rather than organizational excellence.
Meanwhile, Toronto and Edmonton are building excellence.
Excellence is what the Detroit Red Wings have cultivated for years – high quality skilled players, great talent scouting and development and a clear direction from strong leadership – from management down to coaches.
While the Leafs have been making mistakes for decades, this season they finally admitted everything needs to change. You see evidence of that from what Brendan Shanahan did in the lead up to this year’s trade deadline. The team cleared out Carter Ashton, David Broll, Mike Santorelli, Cody Franson, Daniel Winnik, Korbinian Holzer and Olli Jokinen for prospects and draft picks.
Toronto made similar moves in their head office, letting go of Randy Carlyle, Dave Nonis, Peter Horachek, Steve Spott, Chris Dennis and Rick St. Croix.
Shanahan has methodically revamped the Leafs while assembling an analytics-based scouting team, headed by Kyle Dubas, that should be the envy of the entire league.
And while you might not be convinced they’ve got the ship pointed in the right direction, do realize that the most sought-after coach in hockey believes they are.
Edmonton’s scouting work has been easier thanks to years of ineptitude and can’t miss draft picks. Their stockpile of highly touted prospects has underachieved in the past few seasons because of a lack of direction from above.
But Kevin Lowe is no longer in charge. Bob Nicholson is now the CEO, he has hired Cup-winning Peter Chiarelli as GM and together they’ve signed one of the best coaches in the game in Todd McLellan. With Connor McDavid on his way, the Oilers have tons of assets to move and play with to build a winning team.
Chiarelli knows what it takes to win it all and has the pieces to do it.
And as Babcock’s move to Toronto signal’s his conviction in their turn around, McLellan’s $15-million 3-year deal in Edmonton shows how sold he is on Edmonton’s course.
Back to Vancouver’s leadership and direction – Vancouver was lucky to have a team that strove for organizational excellence for a few years as well. Mike Gillis, who replaced Dave Nonis – another “squeak into the playoffs and hope for the best” guy – strove for sustained success, modeled after Detroit.
Gillis had more success than any previous Canuck GM too, winning five division titles, two Presidents’ Trophies, going to the second round of the playoffs twice and all the way to the Finals in 2011.
The former-Canuck GM had a clear vision of what it took to be a successful organization and he executed it with precision until he was sidetracked and hamstrung by the team’s ownership group.
But Gillis is gone, and team’s current head scout (GM Jim Benning) is someone who sees one of the worst defensemen in the league as a future cornerstone of the team. He was unable to see the upside in Eddie Lack that many Canucks fans and media members – people not paid to be hockey scouts – could see, a mistake which resulted in a miscalculated signing of Ryan Miller.
Scouting aside, Benning’s idea of a contract negotiation appears to be placing the Canucks chequebook in front of a player and telling him to fill in the blanks. Evidence of this: Luca Sbisa’s $10.8-million 3-year extension and Ryan Miller’s $18-million 3-year deal.
Perhaps it’s not all doom and gloom for the Canucks. They do appear to have some up-and-coming prospects in the system: Frankie Corrado, Jared McCann, Hunter Shinkaruk, Brendan Gaunce and Jake Virtanen come to mind (interesting how many are Mike Gillis finds, considering how he’s been lambasted for his scouting work).
So it’s not the end of the world. The Canucks might be where the Oilers were just a few years ago – prospects in the system, but questionable direction from above.
Or they may be where the Leafs were for years – caving to market demands for a competitive team in the short run, while sacrificing long-term excellence.
Either way, what Edmonton and Toronto are doing should be the envy of Canucks fans right now.