If only more politicians delivered on their mandates as well as Cliff Fletcher.
When the Silver Fox was hired as interim general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs in January, he said his goal was to “set the table” for the man who would permanently hold down the job after him.
Less than a year later, he’s freed the team from salary-cap constraints, made some key front-office hires, acquired a couple young players to build around and brought in a veteran head coach who has changed the culture around the team.
It will still be at least a couple years before the Leafs are ready to contend, but the signs of progress can already be seen now. That’s something Fletcher can take pride in, particularly if he ends up being replaced by Brian Burke in the coming weeks.
“I think we’ve started the process, yes,” Fletcher told The Canadian Press from Edmonton on Thursday. “There’s still a lot of work to be done. I think we definitely have a start on it so that going forward from here will be a little easier than it was starting back last January.”
The Burke-to-Toronto rumours have been floating around for months but reached a fever pitch on Wednesday when he formally stepped down as the GM in Anaheim. He’ll be a free agent within a week as the Ducks have agreed to sign a form that will allow him to start negotiating with other NHL teams.
While Toronto is clearly a good fit for Burke, others are expected to make a pitch for him as well. And until his signature is on a contract, nothing is guaranteed.
Either way, Fletcher doesn’t seem overly concerned about his personal future. He signed a 19-month contract with the Leafs and only planned to be the GM until last summer, when a replacement was to be hired and he would become a consultant.
However, a suitable candidate couldn’t be found and the 73-year-old Fletcher was happy to remain the go-to guy a little longer. He simply loves working in Toronto.
“The passion for the sport and the passion for the team and the scrutiny that you get – it’s where the action is,” said Fletcher. “It’s where you want to be if you’re running a hockey team.”
He made moves quickly, dealing spare parts for draft picks at the trade deadline before getting rid of longtime Leafs Darcy Tucker and Bryan McCabe over the summer. At the same time, Fletcher brought in some younger players and kept the team well below the US$56.7-million salary cap.
While those moves have translated into improvements on the ice this season, Fletcher is also pleased with some of the additions he’s made behind the scenes. Al Coates – who previously worked with Burke in Anaheim – was brought in as director of player personnel and Joe Nieuwendyk was named a special assistant to the GM.
Both of those men took their jobs knowing that Fletcher wasn’t going to be the team’s long-term GM and are expected to remain with the organization even when he’s replaced.
“If you’re trying to build an organization with quality people, you can’t expect to sell them on the idea of coming if they’ll only be here a few months,” said Fletcher.
Only time will tell which of his moves will have a lasting impact on the organization.
The decision to trade up and draft Luke Schenn appears to be a good one, as does the off-season trade for Mikhail Grabovski. Hiring Ron Wilson as coach is another candidate and it’s one of the things Fletcher himself notes when asked about what he’s achieved over the last 11 months.
“I really like the way the off-ice organization is working – the pro scouting, amateur scouting, management,” said Fletcher. “I was very happy to be able to bring Ron Wilson to Toronto. I thought that was a key part of the future.
“All that to me has been a good thing, but I don’t want to overstate my accomplishments. I was just here to try and get the job done.”
The job title will inevitably end up changing. That day might even come soon.
No matter what, Fletcher will remain under contract until July and doesn’t plan to pursue a job with another team at that point. He’s intent on finishing his Hall of Fame career with the Maple Leafs and would like to be around for any success that comes as a result of his work as interim GM.
“I don’t believe I would be interested in going anywhere else at all,” said Fletcher. “Whether I stayed on with the Leafs (beyond the summer) as a consultant or not, well that would be a different issue.”