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How Brendan Shanahan hacked the system to make the Leafs winners

The Leafs brass told everyone there was going to be pain this year. So why are Leaf fans so happy?

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Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Brendan Shanahan and his crew hacked the system to make the Leafs into winners. Before this season even began, they redefined success, and made it about executing a system, not just winning the game.

The goal for the players became personal growth and commitment, not just pucks in nets. P.-A. Parenteau is the poster boy here, but so is Colin Greening or Ben Smith, guys who'd been written off and consigned to the AHL, maybe for good, who suddenly seem valuable.

For Morgan Rielly, it was learning the PK and how to be a consistent player in a top pairing role. For Nazem Kadri it was being aggressive and playing every game all out all over the ice. Frank Corrado speaks philosophically about his long stint in the pressbox. Byron Froese and Peter Holland are thrilled their hard work got rewarded in ice time.

For every player there was a marker of success, and fans can see who achieved it and who didn't as easily as Babcock can.

They hacked the fans before they went to work on the players. A year ago, the mass firings gutted the front office and James Mirtle talked about what the New Maple Leafs were trying to do:

Despite essentially guaranteeing they’ll be bad on the ice, the Leafs are attempting to sell that lack of success as a positive. Instead of being bad aimlessly – as they have for years, including several when they didn’t even have a first-round pick – it’s now with a purpose.

Almost a year later, he noted this:

By redefining success as an achievable goal, the fans are happy, the players are buying in, but what does any of this matter?

Good in the room doesn't win games. Does it?

A man said, "Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so." Or maybe it was a woman, because that quote is only attributed to Galileo, perhaps wrongly.

"There are more things in heaven and earth, stats fans, than are scraped off of NHL.com." A woman definitely said that. And while teams do a lot of measuring they don't make public, it's mostly confined to the physical world of bodies in motion.

You can measure things other than shots and zone entries and exits. You can measure more of a player than their body mechanics. And we humans have been measuring with our error-riddled subjective brains from time immemorial all sorts of things about each other. We make judgements on our guesses, educated, based on our experience, but guesses all the same.

One thing guessed about in hockey is a thing we've given a very scientific name to: chemistry.

We group a bunch of things under this term. We might just mean a situation where the right-shooting centre never passes to the sniper on the right wing because he favours the easier pass to the bruiser on the left wing who should be forechecking, not trying to score. That's one kind of bad chemistry.

We might mean the whole team, how they get along, how they feel about each other, how hard they work for each other and not just themselves. We feel like we can see that on the ice as fans. The Leafs in April 2015 vs. the Leafs this year illustrates this very well.

We might mean the delightful serendipity where two players just seem to read each other's minds on the ice. The famous Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne pairing springs instantly to mind, but so does Claude Giroux and Shayne Gostisbehere, proving chemistry is not just about forward lines.

Can you measure chemistry objectively?

If you can define it, can you measure it. Once you do that, you'll know how big of an effect it really has on measurable outcomes. Outside of hockey, this measuring happens all the time.

I'm not a social scientist, and I don't make a pretence of understanding the math here, but this caught my eye:

Digging into the relationships in this chart, what this says is that once you have a satisfactory objective measure of group cohesion, or chemistry, it does correlate with future success, but not as strongly as success itself does. And future cohesion is driven more by success than cohesion itself.

The adage about winning bringing teams together, even if they all hate each other, is true to a point. But should you ignore the real relationship between cohesion and future success just because it's not the strongest one? That would be like ignoring all the shots that aren't scoring chances just because they don't turn into goals as often, and no one does that, am I right?

It's easy to understand how people can narrow their focus to the one thing that works best. But it's often a very short-sighted way to view a complex system. I think it's short-sighted to ignore the temperature of the room, the cohesion of the group, and focus only on the measurable results and assume the chemistry will sort itself out once you win enough.

It's also an excellent thing to turn the team's and the fans' attention to when you know you're going to lose a lot. There is a reason that bad teams often care so much about their identity, one that it is often about toughness and grit.

The Leafs have turned their attention to their chemistry during this rebuilding year. Mike Babcock, with his concern about the character of his players, his desire for them to "live right" in ways beyond just their training regimen seems to care very much that all of the guys are good in the room and good guys. Lou Lamoriello, too, has always cared about outward signs of group cohesion.

There's a lot of common sense and traditional wisdom about how you go about building a hockey team, forging bonds, building an identity. But do any of them work?

Can you measure team building?

I can't, but some guys who are social scientists—the guys who produced that chart, in fact—wrote a meta-study on team building. They looked at all the studies done before (mostly with corporate or industrial workforces), examined their structure, their results, sorted them out and came to some conclusions. I'll not pretend to grasp the math there either, but their conclusion is interesting. They found the one aspect of team-building exercises that had a measurable effect was role clarification.

In summary, the present results indicate that overall there is no significant effect of team building on performance. Moreover, what little benefits team building might exert on performance are likely to be seen in interventions that emphasize role clarification in smaller groups.

There are a lot of examples of Babcock doing just this. He's told Joffrey Lupul what not to worry about; he left Nazem Kadri as the 1C during a scoring slump and gradually made his work load harder; he told Peter Holland to shoot more, be more aggressive; he told Parenteau he has to play it like he means it; he sat William Nylander in front of the TV and made him watch the guys he needs to learn from. All of that is role clarification.

Hockey is not just physics; it's more human. Seeing it as just vectors and forces and bodies in motion, reduces the game to robotic actions made with muscle memory. Those aren't robots out there, nor are they cash registers who consider their millions before every move on the ice. What they are is risk takers.

Everything that happens on the ice is the result of choices, human decisions about risk, expectation of reward, fear of failure, confidence, fear of success, self-doubt, all of it; and those choices are the mass of dark matter we can't see when we look at something like a shot differential and see it as wholly representative of what's really going on in a game.

A coach can't say, "Get better Corsis, Kid, and maybe you'll make it someday." He can define how much risk he wants taken and when. This is what I think has changed the Leafs more than any other factor.

Success leads to more success

This is an important truth, even if it isn't the only truth. And success is a thing the Leafs don't have. But the organization has done a very good job of making that bug into a feature. They are bad, they knew it when they took over, and they knew the game was unwinnable. Playoffs were never likely this year even if the Leafs had amazingly good luck instead of amazingly bad.

By hacking the system and chaning all our expectations they made failure into a success well beyond one hot draft pick, and it worked.

The trick now is to have enough improvement in measurable outcomes next year so this keeps working. Success can't just be personal growth and good numbers on the shot clock and the faceoff dot. You have to win some games, and while this tactic paid off, they're still in the basement of the standings and they're playing games that don't matter.

Both Connor Brown and Ben Smith recently talked enthusiastically about returning to the AHL to play purposeful hockey.

Very soon, even if the Leafs aren't cup contenders, they need to have some purposeful hockey to breed even more success in the future and to help with that cohesiveness.

That gets harder to do when you're up in bubble team territory. The higher the hopes, the bigger the pain when they're dashed, the greater the risk in losing. This was the easy year, a simulation of battle if you will. Next year is when the hard jobs start for everyone, especially Mike Babcock. But for now, he can have this: