BY MIKE MILBURY
With the Toronto Maple Leafs announcing the hiring of Cliff Fletcher on an interim basis, John Ferguson can feel some relief.
Although no one wants to see it end for him like this, at least it’s over. He can move on with his life and I hope the Leafs at least gave him a financial pat on the back as he does. He deserves it.
This situation has been totally mishandled. No matter what his results, Ferguson deserved better than a public evisceration. And that’s what the Maple Leafs put him through.
So…the Leafs and Ferguson move on. At least the timing of the decision gives Fletcher enough time to make thoughtful choices regarding the future of the Leafs. While enjoying a grace period, he can produce a game plan with the Leafs scouting staff and others to make the trading deadline a productive period.
First task at hand: Trade Mats Sundin.
Sundin has been the heart and soul of the team for many years and deserves the chance to be treated with the dignity not afforded to Ferguson. Fletcher will need to convince Mats this is the best thing for both the team and the player.
The Leafs can acquire some key assets for the future and Sundin gets a chance to play for a Cup. And make no mistake, the Leafs are not playing for a Cup. And, hey, Mats will be an unrestricted free agent come July 1. Who’s to say there won’t be a joyous homecoming?
Mats holds all the cards with his no-trade clause and he has every right to dictate where he goes, and that will limit Fletcher’s ability to command a big price. Still, there are assets to be gained.
There are perhaps five or six realistic contenders for the Cup, although that might be inflating the number. That’s enough to build a bit of a bidding war if Mats will accept a trade to any one of them. But if you’re him, isn’t it Detroit, Anaheim, San Jose, Ottawa and maybe one or two others? This whole situation should prove to be intriguing. My bet is for one of those four clubs to be the winner.
After that, Fletcher has to begin evaluating the rest of the roster. Who’s worth keeping? Does Darcy Tucker have anything left? And doesn’t he have the ability to veto a move? What about Pavel Kubina?
And so on down the roster. Not all are tradeable. All of them, however, can be assigned to the AHL or bought out. Getting these ducks, or should I say Leafs, in a row is important going into the free agency period beginning July 1. There’s lots of cash on the line and the Leafs’ future. The more Fletcher can free up the roster for the incoming GM, the better.
It’s the hope here that Cliff won’t be strapped by second-guessing board members; that he’ll be empowered to do the job as if it were his for the long haul.
In the meantime, let the speculation begin as to who the next GM will be. It can only be hoped Richard Peddie and the board realize that past practices don’t cut it.
Give the next guy his budget and get out the way.
A Bruins blueliner with 754 games of NHL experience between 1975 and 1987, Mike Milbury is a former coach with Boston and GM with the Islanders.