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New-look Maple Leafs ready to take next step in ‘Shanaplan’

TORONTO — Imagine the clock was turned back to the day the ‘Shanaplan’ first entered the lexicon of Toronto Maple Leafs fans and you could tell the guy standing behind the lectern what his team would look like five years hence.

That John Tavares, Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds would all be pulling on the blue and white of their hometown team, and a big part of the draw for each was the arrival of a young generational goal-scorer (Auston Matthews) and a homegrown dynamo (Mitch Marner) who put up a 94-point season before his 22nd birthday.

You better believe Brendan Shanahan would have taken that hand sight unseen.

Even with the attendant fits and starts — the heartbreaking playoff losses, the Mike Babcock hiring and firing, the ghost of the David Ayres game — it’s been a swift rise from the ashes. The organization has arrived in a place where Shanahan can talk earnestly about competing for the Stanley Cup without sounding tone deaf or sending everyone within earshot into uproarious laughter.

And yet the uncertainty remains.

“I said several years ago that the easier part is coming up with a plan and the hard part is sticking with it, but I think that’s what you just have to do,” Shanahan said Tuesday, on the eve of his seventh season as Leafs president. “You just have to keep looking for ways to improve, looking for ways to evolve, looking for ways to grow, being attentive to the game and where the game is evolving because what might be working for you in one year might need to be adjusted the next.”

There is hope right now in the vast majority of the NHL’s 31 markets and Toronto is no different.

Shanahan sees a renewed commitment to playing the competitive and physical brand of hockey found in the DNA of most Stanley Cup champions. And he sees a roster better composed to deliver it.

He was also buoyed by the number of local players willing to return on reasonable contracts and take up the charge. That’s not something the son of Rosaleen and Donal Shanahan ever really had the chance to do during his own Hall of Fame career. And it’s not something too many NHLers would even have considered when he was first installed at the top of the organization’s hockey operations department.

“There’s a great passion here in Toronto. We feel very fortunate to play here, we feel very fortunate to work here and this is something that we’re all committed to doing,” said Shanahan. “And to have more people come aboard and try and join that quest for us was important. To be very specific, adding guys like Joe, adding guys like [Zach] Bogosian, Simmonds, I could go through the list of all of them.

“They were all coming here for a reason: To add to the group that we already have and to bring other elements to take us to the next level. That’s the hope.”

Following the five-game play-in loss to Columbus in August, Shanahan surveyed the direction of the team with general manager Kyle Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe. They felt they had too many offensive-minded players and not enough that made life difficult on opponents when the puck was at the other end of the ice.

“We had an abundance in one area and maybe it lacked in a different area,” said Shanahan, while noting that it set the stage for a busy off-season.

They shipped Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson out in separate trades that freed up enough cap room to pursue Thornton, Simmonds, Bogosian, T.J. Brodie and others in free agency.

There was an emphasis placed on experience, presence, leadership and improved defensive play.

Toronto is also counting on growth from Matthews and Marner, still both just 23, and Shanahan cited Matthews’ new part-time penalty killing role as another step in the right direction.

“I think it’s a great message for the team that your best players are not only expected to score goals, but they’re also expected to defend as well,” said Shanahan. “You look at a guy like Mitch Marner, I would put Mitch in that same company. As a guy that is an elite offensive player, but also really developing into an elite defensive player. So that’s an important aspect for our team.

“We know we can score, we know that we have also a lot of very skilled players that not only can play well defensively but are developing that side of their game so that we can become a team that’s more difficult to score against.

“That’s an important part of our growth.”

Finally, the president is encouraged by what he’s seen from Keefe and the coaching staff. They opened training camp by identifying specific areas of improvement — making it harder on opponents to get to the dangerous areas in front of their own net, more physical play, better work habits — and put players through a gruelling series of workouts.

Keefe has also shown himself to be nimble with adjustments on the fly. He won’t hesitate to shake up the lineup or make alterations to the desired style of play, which could prove particularly valuable in this unusual season with only games against the six other teams in the North Division.

Perhaps most encouraging of all is the fact that the Maple Leafs get to take another shot at climbing the mountain with a high-quality roster. They’re setting out with a legitimate chance of finding their way to the summit.

“You just keep going back to the well and you keep trying until you’re successful,” said Shanahan. “Then of course you hope that leads to a big run. Sticking with it and sticking to it is obviously a much better solution than folding up and saying that ‘this is too hard and we’re just going to not try anymore because it’s just too hard.’

“I look at several of the dynasties in all sports — and I’m not pointing to us as a dynasty — I’m just saying if you look at the dynasties in several sports they went through those same growing pains in the early going.”

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