TORONTO – A month ago Cliff Fletcher fired Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Paul Maurice, saying he wanted to clear the decks for the team’s incoming general manager.
He figured the new guy should have the freedom to choose his own coach. There was no argument there, especially given the tension that occurred when former GM John Ferguson was hired in 2003 with Pat Quinn already in place as head coach.
As it turns out, the new GM still isn’t in place but there’s now a new head coach. Very few people would argue Ron Wilson was not a great hire. His track record speaks for itself. The Leafs got one of the very best coaches available in the NHL.
But what happened to the new GM hiring his own man?
“That changed because there wasn’t a new general manager in place,” said Fletcher, the team’s interim GM who introduced Wilson on Tuesday. “The one thing we couldn’t do is spin our wheels in sand and watch as all the good coaches are gobbled up by other teams.
“I just took it upon myself, with the approval of the hierarchy, that this team had to be run like I was here permanently regardless of how permanent that may be. I’m making decisions now that are permanent decisions. That’s the only way this team can be run and it’s the only way this team can get better.”
The decision to hire a coach despite not having a new GM is the clearest indication yet that the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment was hoping the Anaheim Ducks would have relented by now and allowed a conversation with Brian Burke. But the Ducks GM is being forced – at least right now – to honour the final year of his contract in Anaheim.
The fact the Leafs have hired one of his best friends as head coach – the two were teammates at Providence College – has only further fuelled the speculation that Burke will one day be at the helm in Toronto. The Ducks GM had no interest in answering any questions when contacted Tuesday other than to say the Leafs made a good hire.
“Ron was a great college player and an even better teammate and captain,” Burke told The Canadian Press. “His great success as an NHL coach has come as no surprise to me.”
Wilson himself tried to downplay the connection. That’s smart because the NHL is keeping an eye on any possible tampering.
“I can’t deny that Brian Burke is one of my best friends,” the former San Jose Sharks coach said at a packed news conference. “And it’s logical. We started school together in 1973 at Providence College. By my math, that’s 35 years. When you play together and go to school together, all of you know your best friends don’t come from high school, they generally come from your college acquaintances.”
Wilson also pointed out that yes, Burke is his older daughter’s godfather and yes, Burke helped him land his first coaching gig as an assistant while also helping to open a door in Vancouver in the early 1990s, where Wilson worked as an assistant coach.
“But beyond that, I read all these things that our families vacation together and all this other stuff which has never happened,” said Wilson. “Brian and I are in contact because we’re friends. We do alumni things for Providence College, we help them raise money.
“But this will be my 15th year as a head coach in the National Hockey League and I’ve never once worked for Brian Burke. So if we’re this tight, as all you people assume we are, somewhere along the line Brian would have hired me as his head coach. And he’s never done that.”
Whether or not the Leafs are waiting for Burke, they are still without a permanent GM. Fletcher said a month ago he doubted he would still be in charge come training camp in September. Now that seems like a strong possibility as the veteran hockey man tackles some of the club’s important decisions.
“I’m going to be general manager for the next four to five weeks without a doubt and that’s a critical time of year for us with the draft and trades,” said Fletcher. “We’re in negotiations with a number of teams over possible situations.
“And then there’s free agency. So there’s a lot on the table.”
The NHL’s buyout period goes from June 15 to 30 but Fletcher indicated he would wait until later in the period before making any decisions on that front.
“We’re going to go through the draft (next week in Ottawa), we’re going to go through trade discussions and see where that takes us,” said Fletcher. “Buying out a player is the last option.”
Darcy Tucker and Bryan McCabe have long been targeted by local media as possible candidates. Wilson raised eyebrows Tuesday when asked to assess Tucker. While he said the pesky winger was one of his favourite NHL players, he also added that “he’s starting to wear down a little.”
Fletcher will see what interests exists in McCabe or Tucker as well as other players at the draft in Ottawa before deciding how to proceed. Both McCabe and Tucker have no-movement clauses which makes them difficult to trade. But the reality of a possible buyout could lead them to reconsider.
Either way, Fletcher feels the Leafs’ front office is ready for all the tough decisions ahead despite not having a new GM in place.
“We’re quite well organized as a matter of fact as far as putting a plan in place and how we’re going to approach July 1 (start of free agency),” said Fletcher. I feel very comfortable that we’ll have a good chance to achieve what we’re going to try to accomplish.”