TORONTO – There was no sense of deja vu for Cliff Fletcher as he was handed the reins of the struggling Toronto Maple Leafs for a second time.
His task as the team’s new interim general manager will be quite different from the one he faced while holding the Leafs GM job from 1991 to 1997.
Fletcher succeeds John Ferguson, who was fired Tuesday after weeks of speculation about his future, and is expected to bring some stability to the organization while it searches for its next long-term leader.
“We all know why I’m here,” he said during a news conference. “I think my experience will bode well for what we’re trying to accomplish – and that is eventually to bring in as good a hockey executive as there is out there …
“Hopefully I can set the table so that when the new person comes in he’ll be able to get off running the first day.”
There is much to accomplish before that happens.
The 72-year-old Fletcher inherits a team that sits 28th overall in the NHL despite having a payroll hovering near the $50.4-million salary cap. The Leafs have several veteran players signed to long-term contracts and Fletcher identified that as one of his primary concerns moving forward.
“We have big cap issues here – big cap issues that we’ll have to deal with,” he said. “We’ll deal with that in whatever way we have to to make sure that we have enough room to really improve our hockey team.”
Everyone from Jason Blake and Bryan McCabe to Pavel Kubina and Darcy Tucker can expect to hear his name in rumours ahead of the Feb. 26 trade deadline. Those rumours have already surfaced involving captain Mats Sundin, who was acquired by Fletcher in a 1994 trade and will become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Leafs coach Paul Maurice expects his players to be concerned about their future in blue and white.
“I think it’s inevitable,” said Maurice, who will keep his job for the rest of the season. “But there’s a simple solution to all these things and there has been from the start of the year – we’ve just got to win some games.”
Heading into a home game against Washington on Wednesday, the Leafs have 46 points. Only Tampa Bay and Los Angeles have fewer.
That leaves Toronto in serious danger of missing the playoffs in three consecutive years for the first time since 1925-27. Neither Ferguson nor Maurice ever dreamed that this team would be among the worst in the NHL midway through the season.
“We feel that we’ve got a better club than our record reflects,” said Ferguson.
The results simply didn’t come so he’s looking for another job.
The 40-year-old Ferguson became the Leafs GM in August 2003 and saw his team make the playoffs just once in three full seasons. The Maple Leafs fell one point short of a post-season berth last year and were two points back in 2006.
A permanent GM will be hired after a search by the two-man committee of lawyer Gord Kirke and Richard Peddie, the president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. Fletcher will not be a candidate for the job.
He signed a 19-month contract and will become a consultant after a new general manager is hired. Until then, the team is his.
Fletcher turned the Maple Leafs around during his first stint with the club by making blockbuster trades involving such players as Sundin, Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark, Dave Andreychuk and Grant Fuhr. He was never shy to mortgage the future, once famously saying “draft shmaft” after being asked about trading away a first-round draft pick.
Times have certainly changed and so has the way teams do business in the NHL.
“Today if you want to compete you have to draft well and you have to develop your own core of young players,” said Fletcher. “While each team might get its share of one or two free agents with the cap system, you have to have that base of solid young players that you draft and develop yourself.
“That’s the only way you’re going to get some sort of sustainable success in a league now today that’s pretty well designed for teams not to be able to be on top too long but supposedly you’re not supposed to be down too long either.”
Fletcher’s biggest decision in the coming weeks involves Sundin.
The Maple Leafs captain is the franchise leader in goals and points and would be one of the most attractive players on the market if he were made available before the trade deadline. However, the 36-year-old Sundin has a no-trade clause in his contract.
“Mats is driving the engine here,” said Fletcher. “He’s an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year and he has a no-trade clause.”
Other players – including McCabe and Tomas Kaberle – also have no-trade clauses, although Fletcher says that he’s found they can often be worked around.
The new interim GM plans to consult with the team’s hockey operations officials and hopes to have a plan in place within two weeks. That will leave him with three weeks to spare ahead of what could be a very busy trade deadline for the Maple Leafs.
“Just what might be able to be accomplished this year at the trade deadline, honestly you’re looking into a crystal ball,” said Fletcher. “Whatever you do has to make sense. The goal is to improve the hockey club both for the present and the future.
“You have to assess what opportunities you have and how appealing they may or may not be.”
He’s a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame who has been living in Phoenix after being fired by the Coyotes last season.
Fletcher was still being paid by the Coyotes and easily could have elected to retire. But the challenge of the job and the chance to retire with the Maple Leafs organization is what lured him back to the city.
“I know here in Toronto the expectations are high,” said Fletcher. “I look forward to the challenge and a few tough months ahead.”