Brendan Shanahan (Getty Images)
The Maple Leafs lost their first game under interim head coach Peter Horachek Wednesday, but tucked away inside the grey clouds hovering over Toronto is a silver lining: team management is willing to rebuild the right way.
The Toronto Maple Leafs officially hung the title of interim head coach on Peter Horachek Wednesday morning, and Wednesday night, Leafs players officially hung their first stinker performance under his stewardship, falling 6-2 to the Capitals at Air Canada Centre. And really, is there anyone left that was expecting any different? To imagine a new bench boss would immediately deliver an improved Leafs team is to scream out for your friends and family to grab you by the shoulders and never stop shaking until your senses return.
Some people may choose to not believe it, but that awareness of the extent of the damage does extend to Leafs management. Nobody – not Brendan Shanahan, not Kyle Dubas, not Mark Hunter, and certainly not the in-house analytics team – can be accused of having Blue And White disease, which afflicts victims' ability to properly appraise the Leafs' collection of talent. They all understand the enormity of the task at hand, and the time frame that will accompany it. But they're also not going to be hurried or pressured into remaking the franchise simply because it's in dire need of a distinct direction. There's too much to do, and too many things that require a delicate touch, to just fire up a fleet of bulldozers and send them to work. If you've ever tried to untangle a number of cords that have virtually fused together, you know that moving quickly isn't a good idea.
That's what Shanahan & Co. are faced with. That means more steps backward before the organization gets to the point where every step forward feels natural and not an anomaly. And for as agonizing as it undoubtedly is for Leafs fans to hear (especially the older ones who've heard various versions of the "give management a chance" speech for nearly five decades now), that means dozens, if not hundreds more nights where Toronto looks out of sync, if not altogether discombobulated. There will be more blood, and fans will be tempted to call for more heads to roll and/or players to be jettisoned.
But for Leafs fans, the good news coming out of all of this is that, in Shanahan, they finally have a power broker prepared to show the appropriate amount of patience come hell or high water. Shanahan already has demonstrated his willingness to operate in a manner significantly different from his predecessors in Toronto. Hiring Dubas and the analytics group showed he wouldn't be bound by convention, and it's safe to expect that approach also is applied to the way the team sees the fan base. That's important, because for too long, Leafs ownership and brass have hamstrung the franchise by presuming their fans would not be patient enough to sit through a longer rebuild and instead made fast-track moves that ultimately hurt the Blue & White.
This is where Shanahan's native son status makes him different: he knows that's a pile of rubbish. He knows Toronto fans just want to see the team built properly, and that they don't care if that takes a week, five years or longer. So if that means hiring someone in Horachek who is a transparent stop-gap measure until a more desirable candidate appear in the off-season, so be it. If that means eschewing quick fixes that might nudge them into the final playoff position for one season in exchange for developing young players, so be that, too.
The importance of this particular sea change in Toronto's management thinking can't be overstated. It's the thing Leafs fans should be happiest about through all this ugly play and frustration that manifests in media/player squabbles and other distractions. As we saw again Wednesday night at Air Canada Centre, the organization is far from perfect, but it's now run by someone with the stroke and spine to not be caught up in the drama of the moment and finally see a proper Leafs rebuild through.
It won't always be a fun ride in Toronto, but at long last, at least it will be the right one.