“You don’t start putting up a building at the third floor.”

That’s not how great achievements in architecture occur, is it? The greatest builds are meticulous and unique, yet one unwavering common thread exists. They all start at the ground. Whatever erected, without strength at the base the building will topple, cave in, and crumble. It basically comes right down to what’s holding the damn thing up. Whether high rise condominium or championship dynasty, where does the construction begin? You start by setting a solid foundation.

There is little question after many collapsed buildings, followed shortly thereafter by dilapidation, the Toronto Maple Leafs have finally embraced the basic principle outlined above. The decks were cleared as prior structures, expensive ones I might add, have been sold off and removed. In their wake leaving more or less vacant lot. A vacant lot and a blueprint. The Leafs blueprint, or its oft used synonym, the ‘Shanaplan.’ Full scale construction has commenced.

I’m sure everyone reading has a similar idea of what the Shanaplan encompasses, what it hopes to accomplish, and how. The goal is sustainable success through use of the organization’s vast resources and most importantly, the draft. Next, the strength of the plan’s strategy lies firm in the dirt on ground level. It’s there where you will find the Toronto Marlies.

The Marlies are nearing the end of an historic regular season for the club. A year that has gone above and beyond any and all expectations. With the Calder Cup playoffs still to come, up to this point you could not ask for a more remarkable display of dominance than the one we’ve seen. Yes, there have been other good farm teams here in the past, but nothing quite like this assembled group. I mean that not only in their separation from the rest of the AHL or point total, I’m talking more of the team’s constitution. These players are headed places.

In the past there have been good teams, but they’ve been led by, with no disrespect to a guy like Keith Aucoin, but career type AHLers. This is a team led by youth. Scour the Marlies playoff roster and you see genuine NHL potential up and down the lineup. Even the veterans like Brennan and Arcobello still might get another shot in the NHL someday. Said potential has become reality in the past few weeks with the influx of Marlies to the big club. For the most part their transitions have been seamless.

Much like the Jefferson’s, the boys are moving on up to that deluxe apartment in the sky with your Toronto Maple Leafs. Two of the first wave of call ups from late February have made it clear with their play they shall return to the Toronto Marlies for a hopefully deep Calder Cup run and that will be that. The pair will not be back in 2016/17. I’m not sure if there were any players talked about more earlier this season in an attempt to let fans know what’s coming than we did about Nikita Soshnikov and Zach Hyman. The attributes which drew our praise have been on full display with the Maple Leafs thus far. Both effective and competitive players in the AHL, they’ve proven quickly their skill sets and play styles are transferable from the minors to the NHL. Their surge to the Leafs will undoubtedly leave a void to fill on the Marlies in 2016/17.

Keeping with prospects have lauded, Rinat Valiev has to be brought up next. This is a young man we’ve spoke with on a few occasions and took a real liking to, on ice and off. Shooting to the top of the depth chart among Marlie defenseman, Valiev is acquitting himself quite nicely during his current stint with the Buds. Another year of AHL seasoning was my personal expectation, though watching Valiev in the show one wonders if he’s already capable of making the jump permanently. The Russian born defender has been studly on the Marlies back end all season long and has brought his confident, well balanced game with him to the NHL. I don’t think there is any question what league Rinat Valiev will be spending his career playing in. Another pillar of the Marlie’s likely purged from the lineup for next season. With all this movement and promotions it can’t help but weaken the base we spoke of. The foundation so essential in keeping the structure upright.

It is not unrealistic to envision as much as 1/3 of the Toronto Marlies playoff roster graduating to the NHL as early as sometime next season. Brendan Leipsic will have a fighter’s chance of making the club out of camp. He’s been an impressive Marlie who has grown his game all year long. A feisty, talented, forward who seems destined for a role in the bigs. How can Josh Leivo not be considered? Goals are hard to come by in today’s game and Leivo has shown he can tickle the twine. With a good summer of training he’s likely ready to take the next step and become a permanent fixture, if not here than somewhere.

Then there is Connor Brown. An injury limited his season to 28 games with the Marlies, but now he finds himself on Mike Babcock’s bench. A place according to the coach he’ll reside for many years. His AHL apprenticeship seems all but over. According to Babcock, Brown did enough to make the team out of camp and earned a spot on merit. Instead, he was given more time to grow as a player and as a person. During his injury, Brown is said to have worked out hard to add bulk, only further ensuring a slot in the 2016/17 lineup. A definite positive, though another blow to next year’s squad at Ricoh.

How about Kasperi Kapanen and Freddy the Goat? Where do these guys play by, let’s say, next March? I’d assume with the Marlies to start, yet more examples of people preparing to trade their crown for a leaf.

On now to the most dynamic steel beam of all the Marlies being transferred from the ground floor to the next level, in William Nylander. A beam that will help support the Leafs for years, and one that will be sorely missed by the AHL affiliate.

Nylander was called up to the Maple Leafs immediately after the trade deadline and remains there today. The Leafs decided they’d keep him up for the remainder of the schedule and are willing to burn a year of his entry level contract. Upon his arrival Nylander had been finding his way in the National Hockey League, and it looks as though he’s found it.

The eighth overall pick of the 2014 entry draft had to test the waters against the world’s best and now it looks as though he’s dove in and swimming in the right direction. It isn’t often a talent like his spends time in the AHL, to be perfectly honest. After coming over from MODO of the Swedish Elite League last season, Nylander, like Brown, showed enough to make the NHL out of camp. The Leafs, sticking to the words they preached about taking their time and allowing prospects to “over-ripen” until they are inserted in the fold, did exactly that with Nylander. A recent three point night and a more confident feel to his game only reitterates what we suspected. William Nylander will be on the Leafs roster this fall and hold a fairly predominant role. Another apprentice graduate, with honors. And another steel beam removed from the ground floor. I realize the purpose of your AHL club is to produce NHL hockey players. My concern is how the farm, the foundation, will manage to stay mighty.

Everything feels right in Toronto, something we aren’t exactly accustomed to. The mood is extremely positive despite the record. Old habits die hard, so permit me to play devil’s advocate and introduce a mild dose of skepticism, if only for a brief moment. Here we have a Marlies playoff roster with the expectation to go deep. A roster consisting of a core of future or present NHLers, it’s not a stretch in any regard to say they are the Calder Cup favorite. Fantastic, but shouldn’t we look beyond as far as the Marlies are concerned? It sounds silly, I know, but hear me out. Going forward how will the “Shanaplan” address the volume of movement from AHL to NHL?

Sustained success with the emphasis on a strong farm system, this was the understanding. Tell me then what happens when the majority of quality Marlies are playing for the Maple Leafs in their centennial season? Is this Marlies sensation a “one hit wonder”? This foundation is going to be shook and shook hard.

What makes a good plan? Anybody can draw one up, can’t they? So what’s the key elements to a plan actually working out in your favor? I guess for me if I gave it some thought it comes down to these three questions.

Whose plan is it?

How much planning has been done?

And every bit as important as the first two…

Who is carrying the plan out?

The Maple Leafs CEO Brendan Shanahan knew he had to have the right men in place to help put his plan into action. What he also knew was the importance of the Toronto Marlies to his grand scheme taking shape, and maintaining that mould. This is why, in his office at MLSE, there is a vault, a large walk-in safe. Inside you will find a deposit box. The box is marked “Foundation Repair and Restoration.”

Legend has it if you open up the box, on top you’ll find a multitude of assets set aside to bolster the base of the organization for years to come. Underneath these assets it’s said you’ll find a large stack of papers. They are deeds, deeds for draft picks. All the way to 2018 and more of them than any other franchise has accrued.

Do the Marlies have to be 1st overall every year? No, no they do not. What they must do is maintain quality depth for the Leafs to pull from. How can a William Nylander be replaced? Rarely will it be the case that he can be, but this year all of the top three ranked players in this upcoming entry draft are AHL eligible for 2016/17. Could the Leafs 1st pick spend next year on the farm, learning the game at the ground level of the organization? What about Connor Brown,  Zach Hyman, and Nikita Soshnikov? How will those roles be filled? Well maybe it comes in the form of an Andreas Johnson for a stint. Maybe a sought after College UFA comes in for some seasoning before moving up. After that, although some are not yet of age but their day is coming, you have the next wave ready to provide the stability required at the minor league level. The Dermott’s, the Nielsen’s, the Timashov’s, the Bracco’s, all will see time on the farm down the road. Let’s not forget Tobias Lindberg, or even a Colin Smith who could return and sits at a PPG as a Marlie since his arrival. This is how the building will stay up and keep its magnificence. The bottom will remain strong and support the top. These are the contingencies accounted for in the Shanaplan. The blueprint calls for it. Under no circumstance does the base weaken. The group running this project, the men with access to the safe, it is them who will see to it.

Speaking of the management group, who has been given keys to Shanny’s safe? Who can edit the blueprint and open the box? The star studded team brought in to follow the plan knew revisions to Shanahan’s vision will be have to be made, at times on the fly. The message and end goal doesn’t change, but the details of the blueprint are far from static. Remarks have been made stating that, yes, there is a long term strategy. This we know, still there must be room for adaptation. Some concrete will have to be used, but flexibility of the design is crucial. Anyone the least bit familiar with renovations know when a wall, post, or pillar is taken away, or moved to the main floor of the NHL, then the load has to be transferred and carried elsewhere. If proper adjustments aren’t made, and maybe not right away, eventually the tower topples. We’ve been left in the rubble before.

The first keyholder, here to aid in the layout and ensure the tower stays standing, is young architect and General Manager of the Toronto Marlies, Kyle Dubas. I believe, in song with his Shanahan in this venture, Dubas is responsible for much of the ideology in this revitalization. The vibe around the Maple Leafs is they are no longer are a team behind the times. There is a new aura of innovation and creative practices surrounding a franchise who now sets out to not only follow modern trends, but to set them. Much of that is in thanks to their Lead Engineer.

We have our design, we have our specs. But who is going to bring in the right manpower to put this thing up Somebody has to find the labour and materials to suit the endeavour. To be the crew on the ground. There was only one man to fill this position, one man who knows the landscape of young men entering hockey’s work force better than anyone. They call him “Hunts”.

You better believe Mark Hunter has the combination to the safe and of course he has a key. He’s the one stuffing the box. Hunter takes from the fictional box and then puts more value back in. Last year he took out a the 4th overall draft choice and replaced it with a diamond, unlike anything Toronto has ever seen. It’s locked away for now, cultivating, waiting for the day it will be on display in the heart of the building. And there are other gems inside with many more deposits to come. Mark Hunter acquires the talent, the craftsmen. His philosophy, in accordance with the architect’s, will see to it the foundation box is always full of riches. During the period where both he and Dubas were active GM’s in the OHL, they ranked 1 and 2 respectively in total draft picks. Nobody went to the podium more, a fact which encapsulates the essence of the Shanaplan. That’s why he’s the Head Contactor.

As for Mike Babcock, he doesn’t spend his days on the ground. He checks in, but his duties are more related to the inner workings of the building. How it will operate, how it will work, what it will represent. Who is employed there is up to him. Who is allowed in and for how much time are pretty much his calls. Certainly he’s involved in every step of the build, though his greatest days will come when the doors open. Babcock will serve in a multitude of roles, landlord being one of them. If you can’t follow his rules then you can’t stay inside his walls. Because when this building is finished only the elite will be permitted residence. A building occupied by professionals only. Mike Babcock is the Superintendent.

Now Lou, you know full well Lou has a key. He even has a set of keys to the Hero Burger on the main concourse to personally make sure the grill is cleaned properly after home games. You see, Lou didn’t create the Shanaplan. His purpose is to carry it out. When Shanahan was awarded the contract and the Shanaplan was approved, there had to be excitement involved in taking on such a mammoth challenge. And afterwards I’m sure the thrill of it all was replaced with the intimidating reality of the magnitude of this undertaking. It’s right around that point Shanahan probably said to himself “I think I better call Uncle Lou. He’ll know what to do.” Lou knows the ins and outs of the construction business and that’s why he is here. The codes, the permits, the phone numbers of everyone in the industry, the man knows them all. Lou Lamoriello is the Project Supervisor. Nothing gets done without his approval.

Brandon Pridham, he’s in charge of Budget and Finance. His job is to make sure there’s always money set aside to cover the repairs and additions. He will work to keep us from being leveraged due to any poor building or contract agreements.

Last thing needed is a man on the scene. Someone  you can count on. Someone to oversee the day to day operations and take it upon himself to ensure the work is being done right. No shortcuts are to be taken with no corners cut. A man who can get an honest effort from the crew and teach them what they must give of themselves everyday. The work site needs a guy the men respect who will push them to keep the foundation maintained and stable. This job needed a leader who can get the most from people and knows what he’s doing. A “Foreman”, and this plan has one in Sheldon Keefe.

Keefe is there on the ground, asking for your best and he’ll likely get it. I’ve been lucky enough to hear Keefe speak in person on several occasions and the hockey player in me always walks away thinking “there’s a guy you could play for.” Honest, demanding, and fair. Keefe also has the good fortune of having a lead hand working with him who knows the lay of the land in Gord Dineen. Hunter, the “contractor”, has his own crew but kept Dave Morrison on staff for similar reasons I’m sure. There is new ground being broken. Nevertheless familiarity with the property can often help.

I thought it would be best for to try and familiarize ourselves with the project as well. Have a look at how things were coming along. So last month we took a trip to see the Marlies and Maple Leafs, a double bill at the ACC. I wanted us to do our own personal building inspection. Not that our site is by any means certified and I realize how little I personally know little when it came to the world construction or development. I don’t even know what a jigsaw is. I figured we should probably bring along someone with field experience.

The quote at the top of the story “You don’t start a building on the third floor” I took from a Blue & White Tonight podcast episode a couple weeks back. The words belong to Rick Vaive, words I’d heard from him before. Vaive, as you may know, has contributed to and we lean on his knowledge whenever we can. On this day, Vaive would be our Building Inspector.

The inspection, however, did not actually take place. Instead we just enjoyed the day and had a few laughs. When I asked if we should look around, Vaive said there was no need. The stamp of approval was already given. I listened to the foreman after the game and Rick has spoke with the men on the top. Part of me even thinks maybe he’s been allowed to peek in the safe and see the original version of the Shanaplan for himself. As they say, seeing is believing. All involved have his trust and mine, the same as they have all of yours. From the bottom on up, this build gets a passing grade. No inspection necessary.

So go ahead, shake the foundation. It was built to rock. If repairs are necessary afterwards, we have the resources and the manpower to fix any cracks to be ready year after year. When the times comes and the Maple Leafs are standing tall and proud like the CN Tower, they will balance themselves on the shoulders of the Toronto Marlies. Soon they will start to reinforce the first floor, and so on, and so on, until Shanahan and company’s vision is complete. The incredible building when all is said and done will have been made possible by the strength of your Toronto Marlies. It’s written in the Shanaplan.

We know you can’t start on floor three, but a Calder Cup championship, now that wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Then right back to work on another. There are many floors left to rise.

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