New faces have Maple Leafs showing signs of progress

Brendan Shanahan and Mike Babcock have preached patience as Toronto rebuilds, but there is a positive outlook throughout the organization. Dan Hamilton/USA TODAY Sports

A year ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs meandered their way through a nightmarish season that plummeted their legion of fans into the worst of all places: complete apathy.

So many Leafs fans stopped caring. Period. They were not angry or disgusted, just completely detached from their beloved team.

That is the worst nightmare for the corporate suits who own the team. When the actual brand is tarnished beyond the limit, there's legitimate concern, even in the so-called center of the hockey (business) universe.

And so, it is quite the different picture as the Maple Leafs sit exactly at the midway point of their season entering Friday night's game with the Chicago Blackhawks to see how many Leafs have taken notice to what's happening on and off the ice with their team: It appears there's a plan in place.

A vision.

The hirings of GM Lou Lamoriello and head coach Mike Babcock were the finishing touches on Brendan Shanahan's massive overhaul of the front office the past few years, and even the most cynical of cynics has to admit the change is apparent with this hockey team.

"We went into this season understanding that there could be a bit of a struggle here,'' team president Shanahan said in a phone interview Thursday. "We traded away our leading goal scorer. We were bringing in a whole new staff, we signed a lot of players to one-year deals. I guess in some ways myself and Mike prepared the hockey market here that it was unrealistic to expect quick fixes or a quick turnaround; Mike even promised 'pain.'

"But, it was always my belief that so long as we were marching in the right direction, that the Toronto fans and the Toronto media and the Toronto ownership are not given enough credit for knowing when a team is going the right way and when they're not.

"So, in that sense, while we look at the standings and we're reminded we're certainly not where we ultimately want to be, I'm really pleased with the work effort and really pleased that we've brought in, in the management staff and coaching staff, how they've meshed with other people here, and how the players have responded to what's been asked of them.''

The eye-popping, eight-year, $50 million contract that lured Babcock to Toronto last offseason is looking like a wise investment in the early stages. Opposing teams talk about the Leafs being a hard team to play against. When is the last time you heard that?

"I see structure and compete," Shanahan said of Babcock's impact. "And I see players that are starting to understand and believe that when you have structure and you have a lot of compete to your game and there's someone who is unyielding in his expectations to keep people accountable, that it makes players feel safer and it makes the game they're playing more enjoyable.''

The Leafs are 16-18-7 through 41 games, hardly anything to write home about, but it's more about the manner in which they are playing with a talent-thin roster. And the way players have bought in off the ice. The change in attitude is striking.

"Well, we're not taking bows yet," cautioned Shanahan. "We're just at the very start of this process. I'm pleased with what the players are doing on the ice, I'm pleased with the way that they're behaving off the ice.''

Behind the scenes, Shanahan has been pleased too, with how the organization's revamped scouting and player-development efforts are showing promise.

"The parts of an organization that are so important, like the guts of an organization that are so important that maybe they don't get talked about or noticed by the public as much, our development staff and our scouting staff, and the Marlies as well, all of them have worked so seamlessly well together," said Shanahan. "The communication between the Leafs, our management, up and down throughout the organization, that to me is something that I noticed and hope it has an impact on the team down the road.''

There are promising young players in the system. It's just the start of where that needs to be.

"The Marlies are doing well, we've also got kids that are not even with the Marlies yet playing throughout North America and Europe that seem to have promise,'' said Shanahan. "That's all it is at this point, it's promise, but promise is a nice thing to have. It's better than knowing in your heart that you don't have things on the way, pieces on the way."

The Leafs will acquire more assets between now and the Feb. 29 trade deadline as they shed some players on expiring contracts, and perhaps others, too.

As for Dion Phaneuf, while Shanahan wouldn't speculate on the captain's future with the team, he echoed the praise that Babcock has had for the veteran defenseman.

"I think last year was about exposing some truths about ourselves, and I think we told the truth about ourselves," said Shanahan. "One of the things that we felt was that Dion probably got way more blame than he deserved and was a much better person and leader than he got credit for. And so, to have someone like Mike Babcock come in and see that and agree with that, is a real compliment to Dion.

"And by the way, Lou as well feels the same way. So I think Dion is being used right, and I think he feels he has a coaching staff that knows his strengths and allows him to play to his strengths. It's really given Dion a lot more confidence.''

Half a season in the books, but certainly already some answers for the Leafs.

"The first 41 games, people were going to reveal themselves, and so far there's been a good response," said Shanahan. "And I think we maybe have more here than we thought we did. But we need more to come, we really need more to come to really be what we want to be, which is a championship-caliber team.''