TORONTO – Even though Cliff Fletcher’s days as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs appear numbered, he continues to shake up the team’s roster.
The Maple Leafs dealt former first round draft picks Alex Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo to the St. Louis Blues on Monday for Lee Stempniak.
Fletcher has been targeting Stempniak for a month because he believes the 25-year-old is capable of playing on one of the team’s top two forward lines. Neither Steen or Colaiacovo seemed to have won the confidence of new coach Ron Wilson so far this season, but the GM insists this deal wasn’t a case of addition by subtraction.
“It’s not about getting these players out of here – they’re good young hockey players,” said Fletcher. “We think we’re getting somebody that suits our needs better. Plain and simple.”
Stempniak could make his debut in a Leafs uniform as soon as Tuesday night when the Atlanta Thrashers visit Air Canada Centre. That will be dependant on whether all three players involved in the trade pass physicals by then.
The Leafs don’t anticipate there being a problem with the oft-injured Colaiacovo, who missed the team’s game on Saturday with a minor foot problem.
While the timing of the trade appears curious given that many believe Brian Burke could become Toronto’s new GM within days, Fletcher says the deal has been in the works for about a month. He told team CEO and president Richard Peddie about what was happening as a courtesy, but says it’s not something he had to do.
Either way, the Burke speculation clearly isn’t getting in the way of doing business.
“I think the board has confidence in me in getting the job done,” said Fletcher. “Until such time as the heir apparent is in place, it’s just business as usual. We’re continuing on running the hockey club.
“Like I said earlier in this process, this isn’t a one man situation. This was the overall consensus of the whole hockey department.”
The addition of Stempniak should help the team offensively. He has 13 points (3-10) in 14 games this season and scored 27 goals for the Blues in 2006-07.
Stempniak, who grew up in Seneca, N.Y., first caught Fletcher’s eye a couple years ago while playing in the American Hockey League for Peoria.
“He’s a very crafty player,” said Fletcher.
The trade also gives the Maple Leafs a little more room to add salary down the line. Stempniak’s cap hit of US$2.5 million is $600,000 less than Steen ($1.7 million) and Colaiacovo ($1.4 million) combined, although he’ll be paid $3.5 million next season.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s another move that will inject some new blood into the organization. Colaiacovo and Steen were once pegged to be longtime stalwarts with the Maple Leafs, but neither had lived up to expectations so far.
As a result, they won’t be around to see the results of the current rebuilding effort.
“I was really caught by surprise,” Colaiacovo told reporters after learning of the deal. “My first reaction was I was in shock. The first thing that went through my head was how great I’ve had it here in Toronto. How good it’s been to me. How everyone in this organization has been good to me.
“I’m really going to miss that.”
Under Fletcher, the face of the Leafs has changed considerably. He was hired to replace John Ferguson Jr. on an interim basis in January and has since been responsible for cutting ties with 11 regulars. On top of that, former captain Mats Sundin remains unsigned.
“We have changed the chemistry in the dressing room substantially,” said Fletcher.
Colaiacovo was drafted 17th overall in 2001 and has been plagued by injuries during his career. Despite playing his first NHL game more than six years ago, the 25-year-old has only appeared in 110 more since then.
Steen has been a reliable two-way player during three-plus seasons in the NHL, but he’s never scored more than the 18 goals he had as a rookie. The 24th overall pick in 2002 has just four points this year while being used largely in a checking and penalty killing role under Wilson.
He was also taken by surprise.
“It came out of the blue,” said Steen. “It’s tough leaving the organization that’s been so good to me and all the friends we’ve gotten to know in Toronto …
“At the same time, it’s exciting. Chapter 2 has started. I’m excited to get down there and get to meet the guys and hopefully have a better, second, third and fourth quarter of the season.”
On paper, Stempniak is the most successful of the three players involved in the trade. However, they’re all 25 or younger and should have their best years ahead of them.
With the Leafs rebuilding, the time was right for Fletcher to take a bit of a gamble.
“I have yet to know a player trade in any sport that there isn’t an element of risk in it,” he said. “There is in every trade because the party on the other side is making the trade because they think they’re making a good deal. And we think we’re making a good deal.
“Hopefully we’re both right.”