SIMMONS: Shanahan talks Marner, captain on way, evolving Leafs


ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Where has the time gone? Brendan Shanahan repeats part of the question in a lengthy conversation as his sixth season as president of the Maple Leafs is about to begin.

So where has the time gone? There was the season of observation and firings. The season of tanking. The hiring of Mike Babcock, then Lou Lamoriello. The promotion of Kyle Dubas to general manager. The three years of buildup and some playoff progress, and more playoff disappointment.

And now this, Year 6 of the Shanaplan — where expectations are high, the pressure may be ever higher, and where he will barely comment on the hot topic of the day, a camp opening without the Leafs’ leading scorer, Mitch Marner.

“I don’t want to get into that,” he said, biting his tongue just a little.

He got into the William Nylander conversation last year and he wound up regretting it.

“I don’t think it’s productive in any way or helpful to comment about it while we’re going through it. It wouldn’t be helpful for either side,” Shanahan added.

He will talk about the eventual naming of a captain of the Maple Leafs. There will be one — maybe even to start the season. He isn’t saying when or who, but almost everything seems to point in the direction of Auston Matthews wearing the ‘C’.

“I like our leadership group,” said Shanahan. “I like that we have several different really good options. I’m not speaking out of school, I believe Mike (Babcock) and Kyle (Dubas) and I, we will have a captain this year. And I think we have several good options. Only one person is going to wear a ‘C,’ but you need lots of captains.

“You might be the leader on the ice, another guy might be the leader in the room, another guy might be the leader on the road, there’s nothing wrong with lots of leaders. What’s Matthews, 22? He’s 21, I think. He’ll be 22 soon. I feel that all players constantly evolve, you have to succeed. You’re never settled. The moment you get settled you start to decline. I see upside for all our (young leaders — Matthews, Morgan Rielly, maybe Marner).

“I see a lot of players reach their statistical peak at a young age and then I see their games evolve in a more intelligent way in their late 20s. I think Sidney Crosby, even though he won a championship as a younger player and had his statistical peak when he was younger, there’s a maturity about him that’s grown and grown over the years.”

He says that and you almost hear him talking about Matthews the same way. This may be Year 4 for Matthews — four of the six Shanahan seasons — but in each of them, his game has grown and his maturity has been on display, and that’s the Crosby-like growth Shanahan wants to see from his emerging stars.

What does he expect from the Leafs this season: Do they have to win a playoff round to take on the next building block?

“That’s not the way I view things,” he said. “We want to advance. The way you put it, though, I don’t look at it that way. I think we can put internal pressure on ourselves to start advancing. But I also think that hockey can humble you quickly.

“The first year we made the playoffs, we threw a scare into the Presidents’ Trophy winner (the Washington Capitals). All but one game went into overtime. We came out of that series feeling pretty good about ourselves.”

Then came two consecutive years of seven-game defeats to the Boston Bruins.

“We lost in Game 7 both times, but I don’t look at the two series the same way. We’ve played the last two playoffs against a very savvy playoff team. The result was not acceptable to us, but the series were quite different.

“The year before, I thought, we were fortunate to get to Game 7. We were chasing that series. We weren’t the better team.

“I thought last year, there was a shift in the battle. I thought the Bruins were better than us in almost every game two years ago. I don’t see that being the case last time. We had a chance (in Game 6, to end the series at home.) We didn’t do it. Now we have to build on that. We have to take the next step.”

The next step and the step after that happened at the Scotiabank Arena in June. Just not from the Maple Leafs, but from the rather shocking NBA Raptors.

Shanahan barely missed a moment of the NBA playoffs. He was like a lot of us — glued to every game — but at the same time, he was around the arena a lot, doing what he does, studying whatever it is that he studies, being curious about what separates champions from every other team. Taking it all in.

He saw and felt the championship, something he experienced as a player in Detroit. His players were around for a lot of it.

“I think everyone saw it,” he said. “I think you start the season and you know that there will be six to eight teams with a chance (to win the Stanley Cup). We can be one of those teams. We want to be one of those teams.

“We still have work to do. Everybody does. But I’m fascinated, when I look at the history of sports — not just ours — I’m fascinated that teams that have faced horrible disappointments and adversity manage to develop grit as opposed to quitting or disbanding. We’ve got no greater example than the Raptors right here. Or the St. Louis Blues.

“You don’t have to go too far back in the history of public sentiment to see what everybody thought of the Raptors after the coach (Dwane Casey) was let go and (DeMar) DeRozan was traded.

“It was great for us to watch what the Raptors did. The journey was fascinating. They never got too high. They never got too low. It was a great education. One of the silliest questions I get from people is, ‘Are you concerned this is a now a basketball city?’

“I’ve lived in other places. I don’t think the Red Sox get worried about the Patriots winning. There’s enough happiness for fans in a city like Toronto that one sport won’t pull away from the others. And it’s a good thing we don’t have to make that choice.”

What matters to Shanahan, now and in the future, is being one of those six-to-eight contenders this year and every year. He doesn’t believe there is a limited window in the salary-capped NHL for succeeding, which is what conventional thinking may be.

“Look how long Pittsburgh has succeeded. Look at Washington. Look at San Jose (who hasn’t won the Cup yet). They do it every year.

“You want to be one of those teams that has a shot, and then the journey decides in the end who is the last standing. We’ve taken steps, we’ve made improvements, you do that, and you need a little luck, too. Certain things are out of your control.

“I don’t think St. Louis was an outlier. The surprise, to me, wasn’t them winning the Cup. The surprise was where they were at the halfway point. This is where a bit of luck comes in. A player (Jordan Binnington) comes in, and a song comes along and the team bands together, and when a group bands together, they became an impenetrable team.”

So what matters most this Maple Leafs season?

“It matters to me that the guys continue to come together and play for each other,” said Shanahan, who admits he has loved coming home to Toronto and watching this team grow.

“We have some new players. We have to build and evolve as a team. I’ll leave more of the specifics of how we’re going to play for Kyle and Mike to talk about. I have my thoughts and opinions. I’ll keep them to myself right now.

“But we have a group that dispels the myths that these players don’t really like being Toronto Maple Leafs. They want to be here. They want to be Leafs. They want to win here.

“And I think they understand that winning is the only thing here that really matters. A lot of our players enjoyed watching what happened with the Raptors. They want to be right there doing the same thing now.”