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Melrose: Time for Shanahan to make mark in Toronto

by Barry Melrose /

There was big news in the NHL on Sunday, when the day after the regular season ended the Toronto Maple Leafs fired general manager Dave Nonis and interim coach Peter Horachek. While this signals significant changes coming for Toronto, you can't be surprised to see it happen. You can't be bad and finish the way Toronto did and not have something like this happen in response.

This was a season that started with optimism for the Maple Leafs. They had a relatively decent start and it looked like former coach Randy Carlyle had things going well and then the whole team just blew up. I don't think anyone in the hockey world is surprised that this is the response. Now it's on Brendan Shanahan to remake this team in his mold and with his guys. He's going to put his mark on this franchise with the hires he's about to make in the front office, and when that happens it will fully be his team.

The Maple Leafs have a lot of decisions to make beyond the front office, of course. When you look at this roster, it wasn't very long ago that it was pushing the mighty Boston Bruins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and there are definitely pieces to work with. Phil Kessel is the key and James van Riemsdyk is a pretty good warrior. The goaltending isn't great, but it's OK, particularly considering how many shots the defense gives up there. That defense is really the big question. A lot of Toronto's guys on the back end are untradeable, so whomever takes over will have to be able to get these guys to play. The new coach will also need to get guys like Kessel and van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak to commit to competing on the back end as well.

The big elephant in the room, obviously, is what to do with Dion Phaneuf. That's a big contract and it won't be easy to move, but I think it's important to point to Kessel coming out and sticking up for Phaneuf. It not only shows that there's some fire left in the players there, but that Phaneuf is well-liked among his teammates. That carries some value in the locker room. Now, I don't think Phaneuf is a No. 1 defenseman anymore. Those guys are hard to find, and now most of those guys get locked up when they're young. Toronto thought it had that in Phaneuf, but I don't think he's that type of guy anymore even if he's being paid like it. With that contract, it's hard to imagine the Maple Leafs could move Phaneuf and get a ton of value in return, so he may have to be a big part of the rebuild.

As the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks have shown us this season, you can turn these things around and the Maple Leafs have as good a chance as anyone. That said, Toronto hasn't really given us a reason to believe they'll pull off the same kind of turnaround in just a season or two. The Maple Leafs don't have a ton of great young players in their lineup like Calgary does and they haven't made savvy acquisitions like Vancouver did with Radim Vrbata.

Finding ways to do that will be the task of the Maple Leafs next general manager. It will be interesting to see who gets that job and what they try to do with it, because as it stands right now, this might be the toughest job in hockey.

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