Fletcher’s task is to right Maple Leafs’ many wrongs

match point

Mike Woods
Mike Woods
Andrew Bucholtz
Andrew Bucholtz

It appears the Toronto Maple Leafs are finally starting to crawl out of the grave they’ve spent their season digging.

On Tuesday the team fired general manager John Ferguson Jr. and replaced him on an interim basis with former general manager Cliff Fletcher. The move was hardly a surprise, as Ferguson had been a lame-duck GM ever since the team’s ill-fated summertime search for a “senior advisor” to oversee him. The move was made bafflingly late though. The team should have either extended Ferguson’s contract or replaced him last year, rather than keeping him around in an unproductive, tenuous state of limbo.

Fletcher’s the right man for the interim job. He has a strong resume from stints around the league, and his previous experience with the Toronto media circus will certainly help. Fletcher plans to retire after his Leafs’ job is done, so he’ll be able to make potentially unpopular deals, trades and buyouts that need to be made.

There are several things Fletcher should address in his interim role. First, he needs to initiate change in the organization’s mentality. The Leafs used to survive on overpaying veterans good enough to get the team into the playoffs, but not to a Cup final. With the new collective bargaining agreement, mortgaging a middling team’s future hurts far more than being a bottom-feeder, which at least leads to high draft picks, experience for youngsters and probable long-term success.

Second, youth should be a focus of Fletcher’s administration. The key priority is to bring in the right talent: this means stockpiling draft picks and increasing funding to the scouting ranks. The Leafs are the richest team in the NHL, but can’t spend their unlimited funds on players due to the league salary cap. They could use their vast resources to hire more qualified scouts so they know which juniors to draft and which young players to target in trades. Scouting’s an even more vital element in the new NHL as cap restrictions make developing your own players crucial. A focus on quality youth will ensure Fletcher leaves the Leafs’ next GM with a solid base of assets to build around.

To go with these general changes in focus, several specific moves need to be made. First, Fletcher should trade Mats Sundin, one of the Leafs’ few genuine assets. He shouldn’t rush into a trade, but should maximize Sundin’s value, getting at least two high draft picks and one or two talented prospects in return. This year’s draft class is supposed to be quite deep, so it’s a good time to stockpile as many picks as possible. Sundin becomes a free agent this summer, so the Leafs should resign him then and keep him around for the next few years to teach the youngsters.

Second, Fletcher should dump Andrew Raycroft, Pavel Kubina and Bryan McCabe, as their inflated contracts are holding the team back. Getting rid of them would clear the deck for the new GM, allowing him the cap flexibility to build a contending team. As host Bob McCown said on Prime Time Sports Wednesday, anything in return is a bonus. Some picks would be nice, and the Leafs may be able to weasel them out of teams looking for short-term fixes at the trade deadline, but getting rid of those contracts by waivers and buyouts if necessary is crucial. The Leafs have the second-highest paid defence in the league, and the fifth-most goals allowed—such a ratio can’t exist on a successful team.

Third, Fletcher should try to swap veterans such as Jason Blake and Darcy Tucker for young talent and picks. This would create room to call up younger prospects to gain valuable seasoning. Winning this season is no longer necessary: it’s all about developing talent for the future.

Fourth, Fletcher should acquire a new coach. Paul Maurice hasn’t had the greatest talent to work with, but his results to date haven’t been impressive. More worrisome is that most of his young players don’t seem to be developing to their potential, indicating he’s more of a motivator than a teacher. Maurice is a good coach, but there are plenty of solid coaches kicking around who can do a better job.

Finally, the Leafs need to make sure they hire the right man to be their next full-time GM. They shouldn’t rush into an impulse hire, but should wait and choose the best candidate. It’s vital for the new GM to have full control of hockey matters, much like Bryan Colangelo on the basketball side and Mo Johnston on the soccer side. Richard Peddie, the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president and CEO, should cease his current meddling in hockey matters and allow capable people to run the show.

If the Leafs refocus their mentality, reload with young talent, and revitalize their organization with a strong new GM, they should be on the right track—not the Maple Laugh track of old.

Andrew Bucholtz and Mike Woods would like to notify Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment that they are both accepting offers for NHL general managing jobs, and they think Toronto is a very nice city.

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