Fletcher At The Helm
As absurd as it sounds, the Maple Leafs might as well rip up Cliff Fletcher's 19-month contract.
And give him a five-year deal.
Whether you or I or most of the sharper minds in the hockey world think it would be smart to do doesn't matter a bit.
Those that run MLSE and the Leafs live in a bubble, totally removed from the realities of building championship teams. They do what they like in the way they like, knowing with confidence that their ever forgiving fans will happily buy tickets and t-shirts and merchandise no matter what is actually produced.
When it comes to Fletcher, however, it's clear the quaint notions of January in which he was presented as a fatherly figure, a Wayne Embry type, a temporary caretaker assigned the job of clearing the decks for a new Leaf management team, have completely evaporated.
Now, Fletcher is making major decisions with long-term implications. Just in buying out Darcy Tucker and signing Jeff Finger and Nicklas Hagman, Fletcher has tied up $7.75 million worth of Toronto cap space for the next four years at least.
He has signed a veteran coach, Ron Wilson, to a lucrative, long-term deal. He has bought out a 28-year-old backup goalie, Andrew Raycroft, and replaced him with 41-year-old Curtis Joseph, who couldn't find a job for the first half of last season. He has sacrificed two useful draft picks to move up in the '08 draft to select stay-at-home defenceman Luke Schenn, and dumped another third rounder to acquire winger Jamal Mayers. There's talk the Leafs may be pitching hard for defenceman Ron Hainsey, and the asking price is apparently something in the neighborhood of $5 million or more per season for six years or more.
These are all decisions, whether they're good ones or bad ones, that will affect the Leaf franchise for years. There are those conspiratorial types who believe Fletcher is really carrying out the wishes of Brian Burke, who would love to run the Leafs but can't right now.
But there's not a shred of evidence to support that theory.
As of now, there's no new hockey boss on the horizon. The Leafs aren't even looking anymore after saying publicly there were no candidates available good enough to take the job. That said, up-and-coming execs like Doug Armstrong, Dave Nonis, Brian Lawton and Tom Kurvers have all been hired to new jobs in recent days. None own the Stanley Cup ring as NHL general managers that the Leafs apparently cherish, but then again, none of the players Fletcher has acquired have championship pasts in NHL competition either.
All of this said, if they're going to let Fletcher make these major decisions, the only logical follow-up is to make him truly responsible for them by giving him a long-term deal to run the hockey club.
Of course, that would be idiotic to most thinking people. Moreover, most of the recent moves seem largely a smokescreen to cover up the fact that the jobs Fletcher was brought to Toronto to accomplish, specifically dump assets at the trade deadline for major gains and make sure Mats Sundin didn't walk on July 1st without the Leafs realizing something in return, were not accomplished.
That said, is giving Fletcher a long-term committment any sillier than letting the 72-year-old executive tie the hands of the next GM by spending millions of dollars on players and clogging up cap space with buyouts?
To be fair, Fletcher and the Leafs weren't the worst offenders on the first day of the NHL's silly season yesterday.
Washington believes the failed goaltender known as Jose Theodore is worth $4.5 million per season even though he's proven to be thoroughly unreliable. The Islanders spent a lot more on Mark Streit than the Leafs did on Finger. Boston blew their brains out to the tune of $4 million on Michael Ryder. The Rangers, by committing $11.5 million per season to Wade Redden and Michal Roszival, seem to be heading down the same slippery slope the Leafs did when they threw big money at Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill.
The best decisions? Lou Lamoriello got a proven offensive performer in Brian Rolston, and a player who has played in New Jersey before. Edmonton's decision to bring in winger Erik Cole for underachieving Joni Pitkanen could pay major dividends.
The real winner yesterday, it seems, was the NHL Players Association, which now seems to be emerging as the long-term winner of the lockout, with even pedestrian athletes receiving enormous, multi-year contracts from foolhardly GMs.
The NHLPA has the option to re-open the current labour deal before it runs its full six-year length. My goodness, why would it do that? With teams like the Leafs still in the business of spending good money after bad, and with the payroll minimum now almost the same as the maximum the owners
players were prepared to live with in order to end the lockout four years ago, NHL players are accruing riches at a staggering pace with no sensible end in sight.