May 19th, 2024

‘We need to win’: Maple Leafs brass hints at change after yet another playoff failure


By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press on May 10, 2024.

New Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment president Keith Pelley, left, Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, centre, and Maple Leafs general manager Brad Treliving speak to the media during a press conference in Toronto on Friday, May 10, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO – Keith Pelley was reminded of the first time he watched Liverpool play up close.

The Premier League giant with an illustrious soccer history in both England and Europe are followed by a rabid supporters craving success.

The club’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” anthem rings around its storied Anfield home at every match.

Pelley saw similar passion from Toronto Maple Leafs fans this spring during a brief foray into the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Leafs’ short playoff journey once again ended in disappointment, just like most of the last two decades, if they make it at all. The head of the team’s billion-dollar parent company wants to change that.

And change, it appears, could be coming.

“The fans here not only deserve, but demand, a championship,” Pelley, the new president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, said Friday.

“There’s no complacency.”

Pelley, alongside Leafs president Brendan Shanahan and general manager Brad Treliving, met the media for the first time since taking over the top job at MLSE for an autopsy of an organization that’s fallen painfully short of expectations. A a first-round exit at the hands of the Boston Bruins is the latest in a long string of post-season failures.

“We’re not here to sell jerseys, we’re here to win,” Pelley continued. “We’re going to do everything we possibly can to do that.”

That means looking at all options, including potentially breaking up Toronto’s so-called “Core Four” of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares.

“There are times where patience is the suitable call,” said Shanahan, who has one series victory in 10 years at the Leafs’ helm. “However, when you see patterns persist, and the results don’t change, you have to adjust.”

Marner and Tavares, both with full no-movement clauses, have one season remaining on their current contracts and are eligible to sign extensions July 1, but time has clearly run out on the Leafs’ unwavering belief this nucleus can get it done.

“When you go through a season as we have, everything must be on the table,” said Treliving, one year into his tenure after replacing former GM Kyle Dubas. “Everything needs to be looked at. Everything needs to be considered.”

Toronto has made every post-season dating back to 2017, but has advanced just once – last spring when the Leafs bounced the Tampa Bay Lightning – in that time.

The club lost all four winner-take-all games under head coach Sheldon Keefe, fired Thursday after falling on his sword and taking responsibility earlier in the week.

Shanahan, who has seen Toronto lose eight of its nine series in the much-hyped “Shanaplan” era, also put a hand up Friday.

“The accountability is on me,” he said. “Our playoff results have not been good enough. That’s on me. The results that we’ve had in the playoffs, our players know, we know, I know, they’re unacceptable.”

Treliving said Keefe was axed after taking his entire five-season resume into account – not just the one campaign the pair worked together.

Pelley was asked point-blank why Shanahan was still employed with the same level of success in his decade in charge.

The former TSN and Rogers Media boss, who is coming off an almost nine-year tenure atop golf’s European Tour Group, didn’t answer directly. Instead he pointed out he’s been in his own role just over a month, along with listing off the former NHLer’s past accomplishments.

“He’s a champion,” Pelley, who was around the Leafs brass in the playoffs, said of Shanahan. “He’s a three-time Stanley Cup winner. What I saw in my four weeks with the two gentlemen beside me showed me that the chemistry and unity is being built at the highest levels.”

That chemistry will have to be used to chart a path forward for a team that has filled the net during the regular season – Toronto was second in the NHL with 298 goals – but is consistently unable to break through in the playoffs, including against the Bruins when the Leafs scored just 12 times in seven games.

An unwavering backer of his stars at previous playoff flop debriefs, Shanahan was queried if he still believes that talented quartet can get it done.

The answer wasn’t encouraging for the four-headed monster’s future.

“It has certainly become evident that we have to assess all of those things,” he said. “And assess whether or not we have to make some very difficult decisions this summer to make the team better.”

There have been assessments every off-season. But it feels like the winds have shifted in Toronto.

“More information comes to you, different information comes to you,” Shanahan said towards the end of the 45-minute press conference. “Certain things that you maybe felt in the past start to shift.”

The information, to date, hasn’t come close to getting the desired result for a franchise that has never played a game in June – and owns an ugly Cup drought that now stands at 57 excruciating years.

“Good is simply not good enough,” Pelley said. “We need to win. Nothing else matters.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 10, 2024.

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