Mail Bag - Early Edition
Day One of the Cliff Fletcher Era, Part Two, is officially underway.
Actually, it probably began last night when Doug Gilmour and Jeff Jackson, two key members of the departed John Ferguson’s hockey cabinet, jetted back from the top prospects get-together in Edmonton to begin the process of bringing Fletcher up to speed on what the Leaf management team has been working on for weeks.
It'll be Fletcher's job to sift through the information, start getting a read on the team starting with tonight’s home game against Washington and then preparing his own game plan for the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
What will be intriguing is whether Fletcher relies on Ferguson's group of advisors, or maybe even tries to bring in a person or two to help him through this period. During his last stint with the Leafs, assistant GM Bill Watters was his point man on many deals, and interestingly, Watters is now a radio man in Toronto charged with dissecting the Leafs' every move.
Will Watters be as tough on Fletcher as he was on JFJ? That will be fascinating to listen to.
Gilmour, meanwhile, is a intriguing variable here. He was very much part of the Ferguson team, trying to find whether his future might lie in hockey management or coaching, and the ties between he and Fletcher are obvious. Fletcher brought him to Calgary, brought him to Toronto and traded him to New Jersey. Might Fletcher lean on his former captain now in this time of stress?
Anyways, yesterday was a crazy day with lots of questions and comments from Star readers, so we decided to go with our weekly Thursday mail bag a day ahead of time.
This, obviously, is a hot story that’s going to stay hot for a while.
Now on to this week’s mail bag:
Q: How much do you think of the Coyotes' current success should be attributed to Fletcher?
On one hand, commentators are saying good things about the young Coyotes and their prospects, most of whom were acquired while Fletcher was part of the management group (though not the GM). On the other hand, Fletcher was canned by the Coyotes in their most-recent management housecleaning.
Also, how much of Fletcher's downfall in his first Leaf engagement should be attributed to (Steve) Stavro interference? It was my understanding that the first reacquisition of Wendel (Clark) - in my mind the beginning of the end - in which he gave up Kenny Jonsson, a no. 1 draft pick (Luongo) and change, was really orchestrated by Stavro.
John Hunt, Harvard, Massachusetts
A: Re the Coyotes, Fletcher was there when many of the young players were brought into the organization, and so he deserves some of the credit, as does ex-GM Mike Barnett. Many in the hockey world think Phoenix talent sleuth Tom Kurvers, a former Leaf, is one of the bright young minds in the game, and he’s getting kudos as well. The problem in Phoenix was that the management team seemingly couldn’t decide on a strategy and wasted a lot of time bringing in expensive vets who couldn’t produce. Barnett has made it clear Fletcher was a key component of the 'Yotes front office, so evaluate that as you will. As with every situation, he deserves both the credit and the blame, or at least some of it.
It’s hard to evaluate the Stavro influence during Fletcher’s first run. We do know Stavro was against hiring Fletcher in ’91 and tried to block it, but then fell in line and supported the president/GM. But when Stavro ran into money issues in the mid-1990s, he was less inclined to let the Leaf payroll soar, and there were pressures on Fletcher to cut costs. Fletcher had to balance those pressures with his hockey instincts, as many managers in other cities had to do as well, and the results were a team that slid downhill and foolishly sacrificed top draft picks.
Q: Hey Damien, I think most Maple Leaf fans (a few exceptions) love what Mats has done over the years for the team. It's been said that he doesn't want to look like he's 'abandoning the sinking ship' by leaving. Do you think his popularity here would take a hit if he declined to waive his no-trade clause? I know, despite being a big fan of his, I'll be very unhappy if, your friend, Mr. Fletcher can't deal Sundin for some picks and prospects. Thanks.
J. Wideman, Uxbridge
A: I’ve always been surprised, really, that Sundin isn’t far more popular in Toronto. Instead, far less talented types like Tie Domi and Darcy Tucker have been greater fan favourites, which I find inexplicable. That said, I do think Sundin would be viewed with limited negativity if he refuses to go to another team. Some will applaud his loyalty and treasure his obvious playing ability but a majority, I think, recognize the motherlode of talent and possbility he could bring to the team in a trade. Morever, it's important to understand that if he isn't traded, he may end up walking away at the end of the season and the Leafs would get nothing for their most important asset.
Q: With the firing of JFJ - now Fletcher is temporarily in place to make moves and run next years Leafs draft. Can it now be said, with the hiring of Gord Kirke (not a Hockey guy) to work with Peddie to find a new GM within 19 months that the Leafs now officially have "Dumb and Dumber" running their management team?
As soon as Fletcher wants to make a move - Peddie will question it because the next GM may not want such a move - it will always leave such a question. Peddie will still have the last say - he is the problem.
All Fletcher's hiring is, is an attempt by Peddie to get the media and people to stop harping that there is no hockey knowledge running the team - it really bothers Peddie. Peddie wants a puppet - JFJ was his main puppet - now Peddie has Fletcher as his puppet - he will hold the trump card about a future permanent GM to limit any hockey moves Fletcher wishes to do even in the short term.
Anthony Frost, Toronto
A: Not sure what the question is here, although I would disagree with your characterization that Kirke is a "dumb" guy. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the fact he has no ties or allegiances to the MLSE board might allow him to produce something out of the box.
With regards to your thoughts on Peddie’s motivatons for hiring Fletcher, I agree that the entire plan is largely an attempt to improve the image of MLSE at a time when the hockey team is slipping. This isn’t about building a champion; it’s about selling a product.
Q: Do the MLSE directors actually believe that firing Ferguson actually changes anything? The bigger problem is that morons like Peddie still effectively run the team. Is it plausible that upper management will finally stop pretending they know how to run a hockey team, and hand the team over to someone who does (and stop micromanaging) - like the Raptors did with Colangelo?
Erich Isopp, Vancouver
A: Boy, those anti-Peddie sentiments just keep rolling in. I think the MLSE board had an image problem they wanted to try and fix. These folks really just wanna keep the money rolling in and get people off their back. It's the "winning if necessary, but not necessarily winning" approach to the sport.
Q: Hi Damien, you've well documented your thoughts on the hiring of Cliff Fletcher. The only thing I would say is let's wait and see. The only way this move could be deemed successful is if Cliff is able to make trades to free up cap space and rid the team of some of the ludicrous contracts that were given out. Which is easier said than done as other teams surely realize that the contracts are ludicrous. But if Cliff could clean up the roster so the next president/GM can come in with a much cleaner table, than I would consider this move a success.
Scott O., Toronto
A: I agree. True, I don’t believe bringing back Fletcher is a strong move. But if he does what is necessary and makes a series of transactions that, in effect, clear the decks for the next guy, you will certainly hear words of praise from yours truly. I’m not saying Fletcher is incapable of doing what needs to be done; I just doubt he’ll do it. But perhaps he’ll prove me dead wrong.
Enjoy the column, keep up the good work. On Detroit sports radio Scotty Bowman is a frequent guest enlighting the audience with his savvy and unfiltered view of the current state of the NHL. He's a God here with arguably the best resume in the business when it comes to building championship teams.
Please tell me why the Leafs time and time again refuse his offer to help? Is there something i'm missing?
Christian Gani, Detroit
A: Well, I think Bowman wanted big money and full control. The Leaf ownership group wouldn’t be crazy about it either. In particular, they don’t like being told to keep their noses out of the hockey operation.
Q: Hi Damien,
My question is, why does the media take it so easy on the Leafs management when given a chance to directly question them? All we've been hearing for the past few months is what a bad job Richard Peddie has done as president and how bad the Ontario Teacher's Pension board is at running the Leafs as a winning team. Yet at the press conference when Ferguson was fired, no one pointed out the many many mistakes that Peddie and the board has made over the years. Also no one questioned Fletcher about his "draft schmaft" comment. Why does the same media that rightfully bashes these guys everywhere suddenly back down when presented with a direct chance to show them up? Are they afraid that they will be blacklisted from future press conferences? Don't want to lose any of their sources?
I only ask because I would have loved for someone to have stood up during the Ferguson/Fletcher press conference and asked Peddie and Tanenbaum directly about all their failures in running the team.
Vsem Yenovkian, Toronto
A: Interesting question. I would disagree to some extent in that Peddie, in particular, was peppered with questions during the press conference. What you didn’t see on television was that Tanenbaum was scrummed afterwards and grilled fairly aggressively on the team’s failures. Fletcher was also scrummed and asked about his "draft shmaft" comments. So I guess the answer is that what you see on television isn’t necessarily all that happens. In particular, those of us in the print business aren’t really that inclined to do TV’s work by providing probing questions when instead we can do it for the benefit of our newspapers off-camera later.
Q: Hi Damien,
I'm not really convinced that the Leafs are as bad as people have said in the last couple of weeks. Toskala was out for the vast majority of the recent loosing skid, and was still recovering when he played in Anaheim a few games back. If you look at the games where Toskala was in net since he became the undisputed #1 in late November, the Leafs are something like 9-4-3, which is pretty damn good. Isn't it possible that they'll be just fine if Toskala stays healthy? And if Blake, Tucker and Wellwood can all raise their games to where they should be...who knows?
Jeremy Huws, Ottawa
A: There’s always a best case scenario, sure. But the fact is Toskala didn’t stay healthy, and that Blake, Tucker and Wellwood have been massive failures. If Toskala can play every game and the three forwards suddenly turn into all-stars, sure the team would be better. But that’s not the reality, is it?
I do wonder if the T.O. media is at least somewhat duplicitous when it comes to MLSE's failure to take serious steps towards rebuilding? As soon as the team strings a couple of wins together, right away I see articles talking about a 'winning streak', and how the team is still only five points out of a playoff spot. Of course the dynamic duo on HNIC are the worst offenders, with RM and DC assuring everyone each Saturday night that 'the Leafs are gonna be okay ... they're turning things around.'
People talk about how tough the media is here on the Leafs, but to me it seems like they're always cutting the team slack. I'm guessing the tone of Montreal's media would be somewhat different under similar circumstances? Your thoughts?
Ron Rogers, Toronto
A: I agree. I hear people say the Toronto media is part of the problem, but I really think we – TV, radio and print – are, as you say, a rather forgiving lot. Moreover, if people want to blame the media for being an influential part of the Leaf failures, well, they better carve our names on the Cup if the drought ever ends.
Q: If you were running the Leafs, is there any complete NHL Roster you would not trade the complete Leafs roster for? I look at other teams in the NHL and when I look at them from a collective standpoint, I would rather have the roster of any of the other 29 teams (even Florida) than the current collection of blue and white. Your thoughts?
Brent Achtymichuk, Toronto
A: I don’t particularly like Tampa’s roster, with all the money concentrated in the hands of three players and without quality goaltending. The Islanders’ roster doesn’t exactly knock me dead, either, but that team seems to get more out of less all the time. But I never bought the line that this Leaf team was particularly talented; particularly overrated, I would say.
Q: Hey Damien, What's wrong with bringing in Cliff Fletcher as a caretaker until the summer? He could handle the Sundin trade and clear the payroll for the GM. Ferguson can't be trusted to handle that now. The Raptors did the same thing by having Wayne Embry conduct the Jalen Rose trade before Bryan Colangelo was brought in.
Raymond Young, Toronto
A: Well, if you believe Fletcher is capable of handling the Sundin deal and clearing the payroll and doing sweet deals for the Leafs, then there is nothing wrong with it. I don’t think he can do it effectively and without making a lot of excuses as to why he couldn’t do this or that. We’ll see.
Q: Hi Damien,
I was wondering about the Leafs plans for Cliff Fletcher. I keep hearing that he would be brought in as an interim GM, but I also understand that the Leafs are going to have to compensate him well enough to make it worth his while to give up his 2 year severence package with the Coyotes. I'm worried that if they have to pay him for 2 years, they're going to want him to work for two years (not a Fletcher fan myself). Any insight as to just how long this interim regime may last? Will we use our first high draft pick in years with Mr. "draft-schmaft" steering the ship?
Bradley Meldrew, Toronto
A: Mr. Draft-Shmaft will indeed be making that pick, and Leaf fans can only hope he’ll do better than he did with Brandon Convery. His contract is for 19 months, with no set deadline on when he’ll magically turn from interim GM to paid consultant. The best guess is that will happen by July.
Q: Damien, I hear all these old time names being thrown around - Cliff Fletcher, Scotty Bowman, etc. for the top Leaf job. Now, putting aside the question of whether the Leafs board will ever give their GM the power he will need without their interference, why are these the names that we keep hearing?
Fletcher, as you rightly pointed out, is a step backwards. Scotty Bowman, while an astounding coach never really showed much as a GM.
My main question is why is Bob Nicholson not #1 and #1A on every list? The guy will know more about up and coming talent than any other person alive, has the respect of anyone who ever played and has the brass to get things done. Sometimes I get the impression that names are floated out there by the media because it is who THAY think should get the job. Well, I'm floating Nicholson.
Ken Morlis, Toronto
A: A good float. He was in the mix back in ’03, you’ll recall, when Ferguson was hired. Many teams have had the opportunity to hire Nicholson, but none have as of yet. He is a well-respected hockey man, but he has no experience at the NHL level or with managing or coaching a team. Really, he’s an unknown commodity, albeit one that might well have the goods to be a very good GM.
All this talk about Cliff Fletcher, but no one mentions John Muckler. He coached the Gretzky-less Oilers to a Cup. He rebuilt the Sabres into a Stanley Cup condender (Only to be ripped-off by a Brett Hull kick-in). He retooled Ottawa into a Cup contender. They haven't made any changes since he left and they are still Cup contenders.
Hire Mr. Muckler as president and interm GM, let him clean house. And just before the draft hire Ken Holland as GM/VP and Doug Gilmour as his assistant (if Mr. Holland would agree, it would be his call). In two to three years. Mr. Muckler could then semi-retire, with Mr. Holland stepping into President role and hopefully Dougie would ge ready to step into the GM role.
I'm just puzzled if they were serious about rebuilding I agree with you and think Cliff Fletcher is not the right man.
Dave Callaghan, Toronto
A: I think the scenario you’ve outlined would be far preferable to that which the Leafs have put in place.
Q: Hi Damien, I am wondering. Writing a column in the city of Toronto with so much subject matter to choose from, i.e. the Leafs, if you might find it boring, or more difficult if you lived in a city with a more stable hockey team. Like Detroit for example.
I've had jobs I loved, I was so busy putting out fires that I didn't have time to think about just how lousy it was, and others where the work was so easy it actually was boring. Just wondering.
Bruce Allan, Brockville, Ont.
A: Well, I think that it's never boring covering hockey. My enjoyment of my job doesn’t depend on whether the Leafs win or lose, but whether there are interesting stories to write about that people are passionate about. I’m sure there are other great towns to write hockey in, but I can’t imagine there's a better one than Toronto.
Click here to send Damien a question and he'll answer a selection in his mail bag every Thursday in this space.