Fletcher: wrong man at the wrong time

I have to disagree with TSN analyst Bob McKenzie’s assertion that hiring Cliff Fletcher as interim GM is a smart move for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It’s not that the 72-year-old veteran NHL executive is underqualified to take over this much-ballyhooed National Hockey League franchise after John Ferguson Jr. was fired on Tuesday. Winning the 1989 Stanley Cup with the Calgary Flames and serving as the architect of Toronto’s early 1990’s turn-around after the misery of the Harold Ballard years are certainly plusses on his resume.

But why go from one lame-duck GM to another? Fletcher’s not staying, and everybody knows it.

Ferguson’s authority was fatally undercut as soon as it became known last summer that the Maple Leafs were shopping for someone like Scotty Bowman to serve as an advisor to him, to help him “learn on the job” while already employed at the highest level of professional hockey. The notion was absurd.

Now granted, the Leafs have fallen all over themselves to proclaim to the world that Fletcher will enjoy genuine autonomy in his new position. “Trader Cliff” won’t be handcuffed by the whims of the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment board, we’re led to believe. But since only six months out of his 19-month contract have been set aside for him to serve with full GM powers (before he becomes some kind of consultant, as Bowman was supposed to), what is the point of all this?

Let’s not overplay the therapeutic shock value Ferguson’s firing might have had after Toronto eked out a 3-2 win over Washington on January 23 in Fletcher’s first game at the helm.

With the February 26 trade deadline looming, clearly the Leafs hope Fletcher will astutely shed some overpriced assets and help the club start to rebuild. (He’ll need good luck to find takers for Pavel Kubina, Jason Blake, Darcy Tucker, or whichever other underachievers are targeted for dismissal.) This is, after all, the man who got Doug Gilmour from Calgary in exchange for Gary Leeman as the centerpiece of a stupendous 1992 deal involving 10 players, one that proved heavily lopsided in Toronto’s favor.

But this is 2008, and given the constraints of the salary cap system, Fletcher is unlikely to be able to pull off any such blockbusters. And why should he be allowed to, anyway?

A general manager needs a mandate to shape his club in the image that he sees fit. A Cliff Fletcher team is by no means synonymous with a Brian Burke team, Ken Holland team, or Jim Rutherford team. (I only throw out those names because the Toronto media insists that such proven winners must be slavering to come to Toronto the Good, not because of a pressing likelihood that any of those men are eager to leave their current favorable situations and join the circus on Bay Street.)

The team would have been better-served to either line up a new permanent GM right now, or stick with John Ferguson Jr. down the stretch and see what happened. Were they afraid Ferguson would botch things so badly at the trade deadline that they couldn’t afford to take that chance? The playoffs (even though the Leafs can’t be expected to go anywhere) are not that far out of reach.

You had to love this statement from MLSE president Richard Peddie at the press conference announcing Ferguson’s firing: “Regrettably, we did not win enough games to reach our goal, winning the Stanley Cup.” What does that mean? The season isn’t over yet. Nobody has reached their goal of winning the Cup, not even Detroit or Ottawa. Or if Mr. Peddie meant last year or the year before or the year before that (repeat as necessary), well, couldn’t you have put Ferguson out of his misery earlier?

Anyway, you’ve got to feel for Fletcher too, a little bit. The stress of taking the Toronto job has already turned his hair white.

Let’s hope the Leafs hire a suitable replacement in the summer. Perhaps a triumvirate of Viktor Tikhonov, John Muckler, and Steve Simmons?

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