TORONTO – Big changes lie ahead for the Toronto Maple Leafs even though interim GM Cliff Fletcher was only able to make minor changes at the trade deadline.
Fletcher was unable to convince any of the team’s core players to waive their no-trade contracts so he had to settle with dealing spare parts instead.
Tough guy Wade Belak and winger Chad Kilger were sent to the Florida Panthers in separate deals on Tuesday while defenceman Hal Gill was sent to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Those deals netted Toronto four draft picks in return: a second-, third-and fifth-round selection in 2008 and a fifth-round pick in 2009.
But the Maple Leafs are just getting started. Fletcher says he expects the team to have quite a different look come next season.
“I sure hope it will,” he said. “We’re going to work on it. Sometimes you don’t need a lot of pieces in place, but you need some important ones, just to change things. And we’re going to change this hockey team.”
Fletcher was hired on Jan. 23 to clean house, only to find out that it wouldn’t be possible because of the no-trade contracts held by five key players.
He tried his best. After finding out that captain Mats Sundin was intent on staying in Toronto, Fletcher says he had convinced another player – believed to be defenceman Pavel Kubina – to waive his no-trade clause, only to have him change his mind on Monday night.
Still, that didn’t anger the veteran GM.
“Being upset isn’t a luxury you can afford in this business,” said Fletcher. “You deal with the realities. And the realities are that the player was driving the bus, and we just dealt with that.”
It’s hard not to imagine what the Leafs could have done had Sundin or Tomas Kaberle or Darcy Tucker been willing to accept a trade.
Atlanta received two young roster players (Erik Christensen and Colby Armstrong), a top-level prospect (Angelo Esposito) and a first-round draft pick for Marian Hossa and throw-in Pascal Dupuis.
Fletcher believes Sundin would have had more value than Hossa.
“There definitely would have been opportunities there that would have looked pretty good for the future of the Maple Leafs, but that doesn’t mean that those opportunities won’t be there in the off-season,” he said.
In the meantime, the Leafs recalled forward Ben Ondrus and Jeremy Williams from the AHL Marlies to fill the holes left by the departed players.
Toronto was six points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference heading into Tuesday night’s games. Even though the upcoming draft boasts some high-end talent, Fletcher says his team won’t tank to secure a better draft position.
“You play to win games, and every player who puts his hockey gear on every night is doing so with the purpose of going out there and winning,” said Fletcher. “That’s the nature of our business. We have a lot of fans who pay a lot of money to see the Leafs play, and they deserve to see the best effort and the best product they can – game in and game out.”
Even though the Leafs GM claimed not to be frustrated with how things unfolded, he clearly wasn’t happy.
He’s watched the team closely now for a month and knows that a lot of changes need to be made before it has a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup.
“Well, I’ve learned that last year they started to play very well when nothing was on the line, as they got closer to the trade deadline,” said Fletcher. “And the bottom line is we have to get a better team here. Whether we miss the playoffs or make the playoffs by two or three points that’s not what we’re looking for.
“That’s not what I was brought in for, and that’s not what my successor, the ultimate man, will be brought in for. We have to change this team to move forward, and believe me, we intend to move forward.”
The only way forward now is to change the culture around the team.
Sundin, Kubina, Bryan McCabe, Kaberle and Tucker are five of the team’s top six paid players. None of them has appeared in a playoff game over the past few years and none of them was willing to be moved out of Toronto.
Even Fletcher wouldn’t argue when it was suggested that their actions suggested there was something wrong within the culture of the organization.
“Well, it’s an interesting question, and I’m sure it’s a debatable issue,” said Fletcher. “At this stage I don’t think I’ll get into debating with you.”