Ex-Wing Brendan Shanahan: Groundbreaking Cup teams in Detroit give Maple Leafs hope

Detroit News

Mark Falkner
| The Detroit News

Three-time Stanley Cup champion Brendan Shanahan is drawing on his experience during nine years with the Detroit Red Wings to handle criticism about the unconventional ways he’s trying to end the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 53-year championship drought.

As president of the Maple Leafs for the past six years, Shanahan and general manager Kyle Dubas have spent almost half of the team’s 81.5-million salary cap on four high-scoring forwards: Auston Matthews ($11.6 million), John Tavares ($11M), Mitch Marner ($10.9M) and William Nylander ($6.9M).

The foursome combined for 266 points last year but Toronto hasn’t won a playoff series during Shanahan’s tenure and they’re off to a 1-1 start this year after Friday’s 5-3 loss against the Ottawa Senators.

The former power forward and catalyst for Detroit’s first Cup in 42 years said he’s constantly reminded by the Leafs’ avid fanbase and the city’s numerous media outlets that no team has won a title with so much money tied up with so few players.

“When a sentence starts off with no one has ever won like this, I remember when people would say no one has won with Russians, no one has ever won with a European captain, no one has even won when they’ve been in last place in January … and then someone does,” Shanahan said on this week’s edition of The Ray & Dregs Hockey Podcast, featuring TSN insider Darren Dreger and analyst Ray Ferraro, whose son Landon was drafted by Detroit in 2009.

“Every time a Stanley Cup is given out, we sort of look at that team and how they’ve been assembled. Are they a puck-moving speed team? Ok, well let’s copy that. The next year, a big physical team wins and we say, let’s copy that. I think what’s important to learn is there’s a lot of different ways that you can win this thing.”

The Red Wings were the first team to win the Cup with a Russian-dominated lineup in 1997 and with Nicklas Lidstrom as the first European captain in 2002. The St. Louis Blues were in last place on Jan. 2 in 2019 but won the title for the first time in 52 years.

Shanahan, the only player in NHL history with 600 career goals and 2,000 penalty minutes, said the Leafs have tried to find “the balance between analytics and old-school thinking” to build a winner.

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“The first thing I would say, generally speaking whether we’re talking about hockey or sports in general, I want to hear everyone’s perspective because even if you disagree with someone’s perspective, there’s a chance you may learn from them,” Shanahan said.

“It’s important to have diverse opinions in a room that present different ideas and then you can go with the best approach. We tend to look back in history and just sort of think that it was a smooth ride each time these teams won a championship but it’s a hard thing to do.”

Shanahan credits coach Scotty Bowman for “building trust” with the players in Detroit. Now 51 and trying to develop some of the same winning standards in Toronto, Shanahan said they “wanted to have a relationship with him (Bowman) but he wouldn’t let that happen.”

“I’ll say this about Scotty,” Shanahan said. “People think that when you’re winning these championship or you’re a contender, it’s just pleasant every day. No it wasn’t. He liked to keep us off balance, to deal with adversity. No matter how we felt about him on that particular day, if we were mad at him, we knew he made good decisions.

“If we were winning 6-0 against a last-place team in the third period, Scotty wouldn’t be quiet behind the bench. He was on us and just wouldn’t shut up. We would say, ‘Scotty, stop talking about a shutout’ and ‘stop complaining about drop passes.’

“On the flip side, if it was 1-1 in the second overtime period of a game against Colorado, he was quiet. He was silent, thinking, making decisions. He knew just how to run the bench when the game is stressful and how to handle anxiety and adversity.”

Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe and Dubas have been part of winning teams together with the Soo Greyhounds in the Ontario Hockey League and the Toronto Marlies in the American Hockey League.

Shanahan said they added toughness and intangibles over the years to their NHL lineup with players like Jake Muzzin, Kyle Clifford and Roman Polak to go along with the four high-priced forwards.

“Sometimes toughness is showing up for a battle, sticking together as a team,” Shanahan said. “I can also say that I’ve seen lots of guys in hockey who have never had a fight in their careers but are incredibly tough, resilient and gritty and have won multiple rings.

“Some people will take a manager that is considered to have tough teams like Sheldon and, they’ll say, ‘Oh, he doesn’t care about skill.’ That’s not true. Then you’ll take a manager that has a background in analytics like Kyle and say, ‘Oh, he doesn’t care about toughness and he only cares about skill.’ That’s not true either.”

“Over the years, we’ve grown and generally speaking if you look at other teams and players that get signed, a contract that may seem expensive or constraining can look very favorable in a year or two. There’s good information and bad information and it depends on how you use it.”


Twitter: @falkner

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