When Maple Leafs players and management members met with the press early Sunday afternoon to dissect their 2015-16 season, one thing was clear: the organization has come through some tough days, but in doing so, it has found the most positive thing you can find in difficult times – the overwhelming belief that they’re moving together and in the right direction.
“Buy-in” was the way team president Brendan Shanahan put it, when asked the way he would sum up Toronto’s 99th regular season. And Shanahan was right – from his office, through GM Lou Lamoriello and head coach Mike Babcock and the team’s players, and down to the Toronto Marlies under GM Kyle Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe, everyone has the sense they’re part of making serious headway as the franchise moves toward being a year-in, year-out Stanley Cup contender.
“At the end of last season we really wanted to change the culture here, on the ice and off the ice,” Shanahan told a media throng at Air Canada Centre. “We wanted to do a complete about-face, a 180. (And what) I learned was that (players) were eager and willing to respond to the challenges issued by the coach and by the general manager. I think that a lot was asked of them, and to just think back around this time last year compared to where we are this year, while it might not reflect in the standings yet, I think that the people we were really hoping would respond in a positive way did.
"It’s one thing to say you’re going to do everything the coach asks of you and it’s another thing to do it. People said last year that we wouldn’t be able to find a coach or a general manager of any substance that are going to enter into a situation where the management team’s been built somewhat. We were hopeful, somewhat confident, that we could. And so the fact that (Babcock and Lamoriello) came here and the entire management team worked so well together and formed a pretty good partnership with each other, that to me goes to the buy-in as well. To me, that’s the big thing. The ship is at least turned in the right direction.”
Shanahan’s comments were echoed throughout the dressing room as players, Lamoriello and Babcock also met with reporters to discuss their feelings on a season that saw the team finish 30th overall in the NHL standings, but also effect significant change on a culture that wasn’t working in previous seasons. As the team promised last summer, there were going to be challenges ahead, but they were up to the task of showing patience and fighting through them.
“From where we were to where we are, it’s a million miles, but the journey has just begun,” said Babcock, who finished his first season with the Leafs with a 29-42-11 record. “I know we’re going to get there, I just don’t know what the timeline is. We’re just going to keep getting better. I really liked a lot of the things that happened this year. I like a lot of our kids. What I would tell you is that we’re miles ahead of where we were, both in our (salary) cap situation and our development of players and the amount of players we have. Last fall, when we were trying to put a team on the ice, we didn’t have enough players for the 23 spots on the team. You want to have way too many players for the 23 spots you have on the team. That’s how you get better. That’s how you create competition. That leads to you having a chance.”
“What we’re doing is the right thing, and we’re just going to keep doing it,” added Lamoriello, who also was in his first season with Toronto after a Hockey-Hall-of-Fame career in New Jersey. “The commitment that everyone has in this organization to do things the right way, and not getting ahead of ourselves. Getting a foundation, getting a culture – words that sometimes are overused, but underdeveloped. That’s what I feel the best about – that they’re being developed, and nothing’s being rushed. If it’s right, we do it, and if it’s not right, we wait.”
Defenceman Morgan Rielly, one of the franchise’s cornerstone components, set new personal bests in goals (nine), assists (27) and time on ice average (23:13) with Toronto in his third NHL season. But the 22-year-old has experienced the frustrations of the previous two years and is thrilled to see the change that’s taken place under Shanahan’s new management group.
“I think that we really have an idea of where we’re going, we have a real direction and a good feeling to an extent on some things that we were able to accomplish this year,” Rielly said. “That being said, we’re not where we want to be in the standings, but this year, more than ever, I feel as though we had some direction. That really goes a long way in terms of motivating players to want to work hard and try to come back here in the best shape as possible and have a good year next year. Because I think that, when we know where we’re going, we have the ship turned in the right direction, I think that can go a long way.”
“I've been through the (rebuilding) process before, I've seen it done one way, I'm seeing it being done a different way here, a way that I think is going to go a lot quicker,” added veteran centre Brooks Laich, acquired from Washington in late February. “I woke up this morning and I just kind of thought of it for a second - (it's) something I'm really excited to be a part of. I feel I'll be a Leaf next year, I really do, and I'll come back with a big smile on my face.”
Another reason for well-founded optimism this season was the strengthening of the Leafs’ prospect pool. In concert with Toronto Marlies GM Kyle Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe at the American League level, the organization helped build as deep a pool of talented youngsters as it has had in recent memory. Rookies such as William Nylander, Nikita Soshnikov, Zach Hyman and a number of others made their NHL debuts and did not look at all out of place. And with most of those players now back with the first-place Marlies preparing for a long post-season run – and younger prospects such as Ontario League superstar Mitch Marner in the pipeline as well – there will be serious competition for jobs at the Buds’ 2016 training camp.
“The kids that we have coming – not just the ones that are playing on the Marlies – we have some good players,” Babcock said. “The other thing is, we have some (young) guys, four or five of them have unbelievable drive trains. And I think that’s what you need to be successful. Skill is a great, great thing, (but) drive train is a whole other thing that pushes people to be better around you. So I like the group.”
“I think they’re still going through it, and it was part of our hope and our plan to bring them up at some point for a viewing, not just for us, but for them as well – for us to see what we had, and for them to see what it takes to be successful up here,” Shanahan added in regard to the franchise’s prospects. “But them going back and getting prepared for the playoffs is an important part of their season and their development as well. I think Sheldon Keefe and his staff, and Kyle Dubas have done a great job in getting to where they are. Now they’re getting ready for the playoffs, and it’s a whole different challenge, a whole different animal.”
The Leafs’ finish this season guarantees them a top-four pick in this summer’s NHL entry draft, as well as a 20 percent chance at landing the No. 1 pick. But management’s plan for success doesn’t and can’t hinge on any one player, nor can it be narrowed down to a specific time frame. If Shanahan’s group has proven anything this year, it’s that it has the collective strength to weather any small storm with the knowledge storms never last, and focus on staying with the process. You saw that during games, when Babcock’s charges refused to give up despite digging themselves a hole on the scoresheet. You saw that with roster movement, as Lamoriello patiently waited for the right moment to make the most of things on the trade front.
And Shanahan believes that’s exactly what the fans are asking of the team.
“What I’m getting from them is, ‘Do it right, and however long it takes, don’t fall short,’” Shanahan said.
“The future is bright here and it’s going to bright for a long period of time,” Babcock added. “Now, is (success) going to happen as quickly as we all want? Probably not, never usually does in life, but it’s going to happen.
"(I knew) that when I signed here. I’m proud that we worked, and I’m proud that the fans in our community, in our town, that come to the rink, they seem to be appreciative of what we’re trying to do and the direction we’re going. I think it’s going to be fun to be a Maple Leaf, I really do.”