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Brendan Shanahan says Maple Leafs' rebuild will 'take as long as it takes'

TORONTO -- As news conferences go, Brendan Shanahan may have delivered the most impressive performance in these parts in years Monday, absolutely to the point in his thoughts on what has transpired and what needs to change with the woeful Toronto Maple Leafs.

After one year in charge, he's seen enough.

The Leaf president's actions spoke loudly the previous day in firing a number of people throughout the organization, including general manager Dave Nonis and interim head coach Peter Horachek.

The message is clear: The Leafs president is cutting ties with a decade of dreadful hockey that's produced just one playoff berth but plenty of headlines.

"The challenge here in Toronto is not to come up with the plan; the challenge in Toronto is to stick to it," Shanahan said during a 20-minute news conference at Air Canada Centre. "That's the hard part."

That right there is at the heart of what has plagued this Original Six franchise for so many years.

There has rarely ever been a long-term vision for this team. It starts at the top with ownership, which has only cared about the here and now. After all, playoffs or no playoffs, it's the most profitable team in the NHL every single year.

It is a franchise that has rarely ever been able to see the forest for the trees.

Whether his actions will match his words, time will tell; at the very least Shanahan sounds like someone who understands what needs to take place here.

"Our vision is indeed to draft and develop our own players," said Shanahan. "When a player is ready to come up, he'll come up. If a player needs more time to reach his full potential, we'll leave him down there. I think every decision that we make is about how do we build a winning organization that can sustain itself year after year after year through the draft. That is our vision.

"As far as having the patience to do what's needed to be done, yeah, you have to have a stomach in order to get through it in a place with this much passion. I have that stomach, and I can tell you the [Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment] board does. We've gotten excellent support from our board that this has to be done the right way, this has to be built the correct way. They understand that there are no shortcuts. Shortcuts have gotten this organization into trouble in the past. This has to once and for all be a build that we are committed to and that we don't stray from."

How long will it take to bring this hockey team back to respectability?

"I know that people come up with answers and come up with years, and I sometimes wonder if they give a number of years just to simply buy themselves some time," said Shanahan. "I don't know if that's the case. The truth of the matter is and the reality and the truest answer I can give you: It takes as long as it takes. Whether people have the patience for that or not, in my opinion you don't deviate from the vision.

"But as far as attaching a certain date, in our mind, we would like to see next year just an improvement in the attitude and the way that we play. I think that we understand if we're going to make certain deals, especially if they reflect the ones we made at the trade deadline when we were moving good players for future assets, that it takes away from your lineup and can hurt your lineup. I think that people here can understand that. It's a sophisticated hockey market.

"But what I don't think they can understand is people that go out and give half efforts and that don't appear to enjoy playing here. You have to give the effort and at least show a happiness in being a Toronto Maple Leaf and an enthusiasm. Even if the record is the same record, I think that we just have to be able to play differently and approach this game differently in this city. I think that's what had so many people so upset this year."

I can't imagine Phil Kessel feeling too comfortable after that comment from the president. Asked specifically about the futures of Kessel and captain Dion Phaneuf, Shanahan simply reiterated that the roster as currently constructed doesn't work.

"After what's happened here over the last several years, I think it has to include everybody," he said. "That's not to say that we don't have talented individuals and that some of them won't be coming back. But they understand, and everybody here understands -- and I think the fans understand, and I think the fans demand -- that this has to change as well. I think sometimes people here try to suggest that the reason why this can't be done is that the fans of Toronto don't have a stomach to endure what truly needs to be done. I don't believe that. I think they're dying for it to be done."

First things first. The Leafs need a GM and a head coach. Asked if assistant GM Kyle Dubas or director of player personnel Mark Hunter would be considered candidates for the vacant GM job, which I don't believe is the case, the Leafs president didn't rule out anything.

"The one thing I don't want to do this early in the process is eliminate anyone from the process," said Shanahan. "We have time. There are people who are available now, there'll be more people available, obviously, as the summer goes along. We want someone that shares our vision."

This is where Shanahan shared just that, his vision.

"We need to have a team with greater character, we have to have people that represent this city and represent this team as it deserves," he said. "I think that we have an incredible loyal, resilient fan base. We need to have an incredibly resilient group of players that love to play in Toronto. We need to have an incredibly resilient group of managers, from top to bottom, that are committed to doing this in Toronto in spite of any difficulties or perceived difficulties that this is a harder market than other markets. I don't believe that. I think that the rewards are great here, and the pressure is great. But I think there are a lot of individuals that want to take on challenges like that."

Not only does the new GM have to share Shanahan's vision, but he has to embrace the front office that the president began to put together last summer: Dubas, Hunter and Brandon Pridham (assistant to the GM) are the key Shanahan guys. They're there to stay. That might be too much for some veteran executives to accept. But the new GM has to be fully comfortable with the front office setup.

Even if that means that the coach is already in place too. This has the potential to be an offseason like few others in terms of big-name coaches available. I asked Shanahan if they were concerned about losing out on a coach before he had found his GM, whether he would act on the coach first.

"If I feel that the right person is available, and if Mark and Kyle feel that right person is available and it's a little bit out of order and we get a fantastic coach, I don't think it diminishes a general manager's interest in coming to Toronto if we get a fantastic coach before the general manager," said Shanahan. "I know it might not be traditionally the way things are always done. I don't think that I'm necessarily somebody that follows the 'this is always how it's always been done, so this is how it has to be done.' Ideally we'd love to have a general manager in place that would help us find a coach. If the right person is available at the right time, we'll make that decision."

Odds are the GM will most likely be hired first, but what it demonstrates is that Shanahan is not confining himself to traditional thinking.

"The one statement I don't really like to say too much is: 'This is how it's always been done.' That doesn't really make much sense to me," said Shanahan.

No, because the way it's always been done here hasn't worked.

For the first time in ages, I would argue long-suffering Leaf fans have reason for cautious optimism. The man in charge has the right ideas. Whether he can pull them all together is still up for debate. But it's a start.