As the playoffs continue toward the Stanley Cup finals, I feel like I did after the lockout: like I hadn't seen the Leafs in a year. And the problem is, I don't see the Leafs' problems getting better.
Rather, I see them getting worse.
You look at all the other teams in the league. When they fire their GM, they have someone to replace him usually that day. One press conference follows the other. Also, firing the coach is usually followed closely by the announcement of his replacement.
But as with many things, Toronto does things differently.
You fire a very unpopular GM, and replace him with an aged re-tread from better times with the Leafs, and handcuff him with the "interim" label, which gives him the power to do only what team president Richard Peddie gives him permission to. That's not at all different from how John Ferguson Jr. had to operate.
The plan was to fire Ferguson, let the season expire, wait for Anaheim to be eliminated from the playoffs and then fly Brian Burke to Toronto, open the vault and problem solved.
Of course, like many difficulties Fletcher has had to contend with, Burke's availability was hindered by his existing contract.
So, Plan A, B, C and D have failed.
As it turns out, they all happened to be the same plan.
Now, MLSE and Fletcher have to formulate plan E.
There are a lot of question marks around Fletcher and what his intentions are. I mean, he said Maurice's job was up to the new GM. Well, unless they dropped the temporary label from Fletcher's title, he lied.
Then there is the question of what if the GM they do eventually bring in really liked Maurice as a coach? What if that new GM and/or coach think they can get the best out of disappointments like McCabe, Tucker, Blake and Wellwood? Is Fletcher doing what he said he was doing, clearing the deck for the new GM, or is he clearing the deck for himself?
Then there is the question of Mats Sundin. Of course, Fletcher would love to have #13 back...who wouldn't? And while I believe Sundin has three or four good years left in him, with a new fiancee and a new lifestyle, who knows if he'll come back?
If he does, great -- until mid-February, when the NHL trade deadline rolls around.
What kind of contract does Sundin get? Will Fletcher sign him to a contract with a no-trade clause?
Highly unlikely, and I have a feeling if Sundin knows he'll be on the block again in February with no protection, he will retire. He always said he wanted to retire a Leaf. Retiring now would guarantee that.
Sundin is an excellent, consistent leader and still one of the best players there are. He performs at a consistently high level with very average support. Imagine if Sundin had a winger like Malkin or Zetterberg?
He can still take control of games and win games the Leafs should lose. The younger players look up to him and play their best when matched on his line. If absolutely nothing else, he can mentor the younger players and show them how well they can perform. It would be a shame for Fletcher to put Sundin in a position where his loyalty would be an issue.
Sundin deserves the right to end his career on his terms. He has done more for the Toronto Maple Leafs than Fletcher ever has or will do.
He's earned the right to demand that a new contract will have a no-trade clause attached and that in February, he will not even be mentioned in trade talk.
So how do the Leafs find their way out of the woods? Who will the new GM be? Cliff Fletcher? Brian Burke? Dave Nonis? Colin Campbell? Neil Smith? Carlton the Bear?
Richard Peddie needs to find some intestinal fortitude and make the hard decision to put a man of skill and experience in place, and do it soon, before the trade deadline. Allow Fletcher to stay on as an assistant GM or advisor to the GM.
If the management is serious about letting the new GM build "his team" and hire "his coach", now is the time to bring him on board. September will be too late. By then, Fletcher will have done what he will have done, with new players, a different salary structure, etc.
That will do nothing but put the new GM in a position that doomed Ferguson and is giving Fletcher fits. With a rare opportunity to rebuild a team from top to bottom, the new GM will be given a shell of a team. And it will take years of drafting, development, and shrewd salesmanship on the trade floor to build the team that Toronto deserves.
And while all of those skills are important, the Toronto Maple Leafs have an opportunity to help rebuild the team now, in the short term, similar to what the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals were able to accomplish.
For as much tradition, pride and plain loyalty shown by the fans of Leafs Nation, MLSE owes us more. Conn Smythe has been accused often of being greedy and living out of the wallets of Toronto hockey fans at the "Church St. Cashbox", but at least The Major put a winning team on the ice.
If Richard Peddie and his stakeholder friend Larry Tanenbaum can't solve this problem, maybe they should resign. But that will never happen because the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund is one of the most disengaged ownership groups in the NHL.
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