A Thick Coating of Teflon
It was intriguing to watch, hear and read all the flattering things about Kyle Wellwood on the weekend, and to see how he has apparently resuscitated his career in Vancouver.
What nobody seemed inclined to discuss, however, was what the Maple Leafs received from Vancouver in exchange for Wellwood and the name of the Leaf executive who engineered the transaction.
The answers, of course, are nothing and Cliff Fletcher.
Yep, the kid who scored Vancouver's pretty first goal on Saturday night was given away by Fletcher.
If you agree Wellwood looks reborn in Vancouver, then you'd have to say it was a bad deal by Fletcher.
Yet nobody, but nobody, covering the Wellwood story seemed to bring that point up.
It was, really, yet another example of the extra layer of teflon assigned to Fletcher in his second go around with the hockey club. Nothing bad that has happened since he arrived in January is attributed to him, and anything positive is wildly exaggerated.
Even now, with the team having won only seven of 18 games and having lost five of its past seven matches, the tributes to Fletcher's work are just pouring in by people who have been around the game for a long time and should know better.
It's hagiography, basically. It's also a measurement of the enormous circle of friends Fletcher has in the game and in the media that cover the sport.
The truth? Fletcher's done a capable caretaking job. Nothing great, nothing terrible. No strong new direction, no acquisition of major impact players.
He's been a useful caretaker, killing time until the next guy comes along.
But for people to say he's done a superb job, or for some analysts to suggest the Leafs would be wise to bypass Brian Burke and instead keep Fletcher on the job, is both absurd and an exercise in fact-twisting.
It's widely portrayed, for example, that Fletcher has directed a significant improvement with the Leafs.
It's just not true.
Under John Ferguson last year, the Leafs had exactly the same record after 18 games they do now, 7-7-4.
But they're a more exciting offensive team scoring more goals, right?
Wrong. After 18 games they've actually scored one FEWER goal than at this time last year, and allowed one more goal against.
Okay, but stats aside, he's effectively revamped the roster, right?
Well, sort of.
The team's top four scorers, starting goaltender and the majority of the blueline corps were all on the roster when Fletcher took over. Ditto for promising rookies Nikolai Kulemin and John Mitchell.
So the guts of the current team was inherited by Fletcher.
Fletcher has indeed added players of measurable impact in Mikhail Grabovski and Niklas Hagman. Grabovski was acquired for a second round pick, and while that still seems like a hefty price, we'll agree for the point of this discussion that was a good move.
Hagman (four years, $12 million) is overpaid, but he was a strong signing by Fletcher. Ditto for coach Ron Wilson, who will earn between $1.5-2 million this season as one of the league's highest paid coaches.
Fletcher traded three picks to move up and draft Luke Schenn, who appears to have a solid future as a stay-at-home NHL defenceman and possibly a future captain. Everybody likes the kid, and for good reason.
It was a mistake to keep Schenn in the NHL - minus-five on this western road swing - and burn the first year of his entry level contract, but again, we'll give Fletcher this one.
So he gets a big plus for Hagman, Grabovski, Wilson and Schenn.
Now let's look at his other moves.
Wellwood was dumped with nothing acquired in return. Ditto for Darcy Tucker and Andrew Raycroft, who were bought out and will cost the Leafs $1.7 million against the salary cap this season, and both are playing for the Colorado Avalanche.
The Leafs paid $2 million just to be able to trade Bryan McCabe to Florida, and in return picked up the capable but wildly overpaid ($3.5 million per season) Mike Van Ryn.
Maybe McCabe had to go. But if that deal has materially benefitted the Leafs, I'd be interested to see the evidence, and McCabe has barely played for the Panthers. Actually, since he returned from injury, he's been a plus player and Florida has won three of five games.
Jonas Frogren was signed for two years at about $2.2 million, and while he seems rugged, Wilson has seen fit to dress him for only nine games. He looks like a fringe NHLer, at best.
Fletcher tried twice to trade Mats Sundin and failed. Now, if Sundin were to come back to the NHL, it seems there's little chance he'd pick Toronto. His former salary, meanwhile, represents basically all of the cap "savings" attributed to Fletcher.
Jeff Finger was signed for four years and $14 million, an amount that seemed outrageous at the time and equally so now that we've had a look at him in action. He's seems reliable and capable, nothing more.
Jamal Mayers was picked up for a third round pick and Ryan Hollweg for a fifth rounder. Value? Doubtful.
Alex Steen was, for some reason, awarded a new two-year contract by Fletcher with a nice raise to $3.4 million. He's been of no consequence at all this season. Mark Bell and Boyd Devereaux were put on waivers and dumped to the minors.
Finally, Curtis Joseph was signed for one-year at $700,000, which made fans happy but sure isn't going to help much with Vesa Toskala's game seemingly going south these days.
So when you add it all up, is this the work of a genius?
Fletcher has made far more moves that have proved to have either a neutral or negative effect that ones that have a significantly positive impact on the Leafs.
And the team is no better, no worse. Just about the same.