The 2007-08 Toronto Maple Leaf season was barely dissimilar to the three straight playoff-less seasons after it or the two before. However, there was a bright spot that took place on January 22, 2008 that cast some optimism during a month that, in recent history, has produced none.
On that fateful day, John Ferguson Jr. was relieved of his duties as General Manager of the team. The evident piñata for fans and media for the majority of his tenure (and rightfully so), Ferguson had failed to a point where he delayed the process of a return to the playoffs for far further than his almost five-year tenure.
It was also announced on this day that Hockey Hall of Fame member Cliff Fletcher would be Ferguson’s replacement. With over 50 years in the business, Fletcher’s name is notorious in Toronto as he led the team as General Manager during some successful seasons in the 1990s.
This time around, however, his job title of General Manager had an “interim” prefix to it. This was probably the most unique Interim General Manager hire in league history. Usually, an internal member will be temporarily promoted in an attempt to quickly rectify a rash firing of the previous holder of a position. The position is then quickly filled and it sometimes even leads to the interim position holder losing his permanent job as well.
This was a much different scenario. During the press conference, then President and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Richard Peddie stated that “Cliff will have the autonomy and responsibility for all hockey matters with focus on establishing a foundation from which the next General Manager can build.” This is a far cry from the job description of most individuals in an interim position.
Taking in that January 22, 2008 press conference was nothing but refreshing. The Toronto Maple Leafs with a sense of direction? For the first time in a long time, Peddie’s organization managed to hold a press conference that actually made sense, with a future plan to actually move forward.
In comes Mr. Fletcher, the self-proclaimed “custodian of the keys.” The word “janitor” was often used both by Fletcher and by the media regarding his need to clean up the mess that Ferguson created, and to prepare the organization for the massive rebuild to be conducted by the soon-to-be-named next GM.
The work of a General Manager of a rebuilding franchise can be likened to that of a painter, where 90 percent of the job is in preparation, 10 percent in execution. It takes many hours to physically draft and sign players. The preparation aspect is the months and years that it takes to ensure that the organization is in the right position to continuously draft well and be financially secure enough from a salary cap standpoint to sign the appropriate free agents.
The term janitor was the correct word to loosely describe Fletcher’s role under his 19-month contract. However, his actions during the 10-month period as Interim GM were quite to the contrary.
As the 2008 trade deadline approached, there was a clear need to sell assets. The Leafs had a couple in Tomas Kaberle and Mats Sundin. As the last two players on the team that really provided an identity of better times in Leafs Nation, Kaberle and Sundin both had no-trade clauses in their contracts, yet Fletcher had lined up trades of both. It was said that each player would have lured at least one first round pick. Additionally, Sundin’s trade, reportedly to Montreal, would have also seen Mikhail Grabovski coming back as well, thus negating the future move the Leafs actually made in the following summer by spending a second round pick and a prospect to get him. Fletcher’s inability to convince these players to lift there no-trade clauses should not necessarily be viewed as a failure but rather an inability to conduct favorable business.
Fletcher managed to trade three players for four draft picks on deadline day, which seemed to have been a good rebuilding-esque start. With two of the four picks, he proceeded to acquire Jamal Mayers and Ryan Hollweg when the playoffs finished. Did “Trader Cliff” really see these players as being long-term pieces in the rebuild process? Draft picks are cheap and contractually controllable. The names James Livingston and Andy Bathgate may never become National Hockey League regulars but drafting players and giving your team the potential to land the Henrik Zetterberg (210th overall pick) of the draft has to positively outweigh the cost of owning a Mayers/Hollweg-type asset.
The most perplexing trade made by Fletcher was the acquisition of Lee Stempniak from the St. Louis Blues for Alex Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo on November 24, 2008. A rarity in Toronto, both Steen and Colaiacovo were first round picks of the team. Stempniak was chosen in the fifth round of his draft class. The fact that Fletcher felt it necessary to give up on not one but two former first rounders that had barely broken into the NHL for an overachieving former fifth rounder is shocking. The Stempniak experiment was a complete failure as down the line, the franchise moved him. Meanwhile with Steen, Colaiacovo and several other wisely acquired players, the St. Louis Blues are poised to be Stanley Cup contenders for years to come.
Trading up in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft to pick defenseman Luke Schenn seemed like a logical decision at the time. Hearing comparisons of Schenn to Hall of Famer Scott Stevens rang like music to the ears of Leafs Nation. What better way to guarantee the ice time and the room for development needed for Schenn in his rookie season than to go out and sign Jeff Finger and Jonas Frogren?
Pardon the sarcasm, but Finger and his 24 points in 94 games playing as a member of the Colorado Avalanche should not have warranted $14 million over the course of four years. Frogren was an eighth-round pick of the Calgary Flames back in 1998. The 28-year-old was seen as a diamond in the rough having played zero NHL games. Finger and his terrible contract are buried in the minors while Frogren has retreated back to Sweden.
Since the institution of a hard salary cap in 2005, nothing at all has been made more obvious than the importance of drafting well and developing players. The Edmonton Oilers are the second-worst team in the NHL this season. Having said this, many of the teams in the league would probably rather have the Oilers’ roster as opposed to their own. Destined for another top-three selection this summer, the Oilers have drafted four players in the top 10 in the last five drafts and even managed to luck out with Jordan Eberle at number 22 in 2008.
Richard Peddie asked for his new General Manager to be a “long-term builder and a short-term fixer” during that January 22, 2008 press conference. What Peddie – and the entire Toronto Maple Leafs organization – has still failed to realize after seven years in the “new NHL” era, is that those are two extremely divergent goals that when mixed together serve as deterrents to one another.
Mediocrity is the worst organizational state to possess in modern day professional sport. Once members of the Leafs brass can figure out that finishing ninth in your conference is considered a worse season than finishing last, a similar change will be made and a new janitor will make his attempt at starting from scratch. Hopefully this one remembers his mop.