TORONTO – It’s been six months since Toronto Maple Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher had to helplessly watch the NHL’s trade deadline pass by without being able to shake up his lineup.
On that February afternoon, he made a passionate promise that major changes were still coming. With training camp and a new season now fast approaching, it’s fair to say the veteran hockey executive made good on his word.
There could be as many as 10 new faces in the Maple Leafs lineup on opening night. Fletcher is pleased with the changes he’s made but is keenly aware that they won’t change one fundamental rule of pro sports.
“Trying to build a team can’t be fast-tracked,” he said Tuesday.
Fletcher is currently enjoying a rare period of quiet and noted that news from around the NHL has fallen almost completely silent of late.
That includes any news from veteran Maple Leafs Mats Sundin (considering retirement) and Bryan McCabe (considering waiving his no-trade clause).
“There’s nothing new as we’re talking today,” said Fletcher.
No matter how those situations play out, there will be plenty of new faces to get familiar with. One of the more interesting stories to follow will be that of defenceman Luke Schenn.
The Leafs traded up to select the 18-year-old with the fifth pick in the June draft and intend to have him compete for a spot with the team. However, they won’t rush him along.
“He’ll be given every chance to make the team,” said Fletcher. “When you look back historically Toronto’s been a graveyard for young defencemen that maybe shouldn’t have been integrated into the NHL lineup as early as they were.
“We’re not going to make that mistake.”
Overall, the GM feels good about a defence corps that will also include free-agent signings Jeff Finger and Jonas Frogen. He’s also happy with the goaltending duo of Vesa Toskala and Curtis Joseph.
The area he’ll be watching closest is his forwards because that group includes the most number of question marks at this point. Expect to see new additions Mikhail Grabovsky and Nikolai Kulemin among the players challenging for spots on the scoring units.
“When you look at your top two lines, we’re going to have a lot of young players there this year,” said Fletcher. “How we fare during the regular season will depend very much on how half a dozen of our young players progress.
“We’re not going to be able to start finding that out until we drop the puck for real.”
That won’t come until Oct. 9 when the Maple Leafs visit Detroit.
The team will participate in a rookie tournament starting Sept. 13 and will break training camp a week after that. There were no cure-all solutions to be found during a busy off-season and Fletcher remains content to allow his team to grow.
“The key word for the Maple Leafs management and coaching is going to be patience,” he said. “You can’t force things to happen – you have to let them unfold and happen at their own pace.
“We will be patient. We will give a lot of young players that opportunity to become better players and to become a good hockey team.”
He doesn’t think most Leaf fans will have any trouble sharing that philosophy.
“I think most hockey fans in this area understand what our situation is here,” said Fletcher. “I think they have a pretty good feeling for what has to be done to build a much better team.”