BOCA RATON, Fla. — Is there a trademark on the so-called Shanaplan?
If not, the Toronto Maple Leafs may want to talk to a copyright lawyer. A couple of years after team president Brendan Shanahan and head coach Mike Babcock told fans that “pain was coming,” the New York Rangers’ front office wrote an open letter in February asking their fans “to remain by our side as we undertake this exciting new chapter filled with promise and change.”
The Rangers had been on the bubble of making the playoffs, so it was a shocking — if not refreshing — that whatever New York had been doing was simply not good enough. The decision to begin the rebuild, says Rangers GM Jeff Gorton, was inspired after watching the Leafs go through a similar transformation.
“When we came out with the rebuild plan, this was one of the teams we were looking at for sure,” Gorton said of the Leafs. “Clearly, Toronto came out and had a plan and I think Brendan (Shanahan) went public with it and then they did a lot of the things that they said they were going to do.
“I think as you do a rebuild, that’s one of the teams you’re looking in the league that you have to say, ‘Ok, we can do it.’”
Since that letter, the Rangers kept their promise and cleaned house. They traded Rick Nash and Nick Holden to Boston, Michael Grabner to New Jersey, and — on the day of the Feb. 26 trade deadline — sent captain Ryan McDonagh and winger J.T. Miller to Tampa Bay. In return, New York acquired two first-round draft picks, four top prospects (Brett Howden, Libor Hajek, Igor Rykov and Ryan Lindgren) and much more.
It was a risky move, said Gorton, one that he and team president Glen Sather did not take lightly. But so far, the fans have been on board.
“I think people like the fact that we came out and told them what our plan rather than keep it behind closed doors.”
It helps that the Rangers had a blueprint from which to follow. Though the Leafs had spent several years spinning their wheels, ever since the Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock were hired, the organization has followed a singular vision towards sustained success.
It’s all there in the plan — something that Lamoriello said is a constant reminder to not veer off the road in search of short-term gains.
“Going public — just saying this is what we’re going to do — indirectly what it does is it puts pressure on yourself and makes sure you keep it,” the Leafs general manager said. “So it helps. But I think everyone has to be committed to doing it. Everyone has to be on the same page and to stay on the same page.
“You don’t rush it. That’s the most important thing. You can’t rush it.”
As promised, there was initial pain with Toronto finishing last in 2015-16. But after drafting Auston Matthews with the No. 1 overall pick in 2016, the Leafs were in the playoffs in 2016-17 and headed into Tuesday night’s game against the Lightning with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference.
It’s a start, said Lamoriello. But it’s far from a finished product.
“We haven’t won a first round of the playoffs,” he said. “We’re still going, but we have a strong foundation. I think that’s the key. If things don’t go exactly the way you want them to, you have things to go back to and you’re not starting over.”
If anything, the Leafs are building something special. With a talented young core that not only includes 20-year-old Matthews, but also Mitch Marner (20), William Nylander (21) and Morgan Rielly (24) — as well as a minor-league system that is teeming with NHL-ready prospects — it seems only a matter of time before Toronto will contend for a championship.
And the rest of the league is taking notice.
“They drafted well and they have a lot of nice pieces there. It’s not just Matthews,” Gorton said. “There’s a lot of players that they hit on over the years and guys from other systems that they acquired. So there’s no question that we looked at what they did and studied how they built it.”
The biggest thing Gorton took is the effect that the rebuild had in Toronto. The thinking had always been that Leafs fans would not put up with a team that is tanking. You could maybe do that in places like Carolina or Florida, where hockey wasn’t No. 1, but certainly not in an Original Six market such as Toronto or New York.
It’s partially why Montreal and Vancouver have refused to tear things down at a time when both teams are in need of a change. In reality, fans just want a management team that has a plan for success and is willing to stick to it.
“There’s a little less media and day-to-day scrutiny, but Rangers fans are passionate and there’s a lot of them and they have a strong feeling about how they want the team to be,” Gorton said. “That’s similar. You have that in Toronto and we have that in New York. Listen, we all want to win.
“I think our fans have been like, ‘Ok, show us and we’ll go from there.’”
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