The Toronto Maple Leafs need a general manager who has an excellent grasp of hockey talent, both outside and within the NHL. And where do you go to find it? Well, a two-time Stanley Cup winner might be a good place to start, or the guy who built Nashville’s defense.
It has been exactly 25 years and one day since notorious tyrant, skinflint and former Toronto Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard died. And you could argue that 9,131 days later, the franchise is in even more disastrous shape on the ice than it was a quarter century ago.
Ballard died 11 days after the Leafs posted a record of 38-38-4 and a goal differential of minus-21 and one day before they were knocked out of the playoffs by the St. Louis Blues in five games. This season’s edition of the Leafs just put a bow on a miserable 30-44-8 season with no hope of the post-season and a goal differential of minus-51.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Leafs quickly and decisively decided to clean house after a season that was a disaster of biblical proportions. Both GM David Nonis and interim coach Peter Horachek deserved to be let go based on their bodies of work with this team, as did the other coaches and members of the scouting staff. Go big or go home. If you’re going to rebuild, take it down to the wood. If the Leafs had done this last year, they might have gotten themselves a better chance to get Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, but oh well, what’s not done isn’t done.
Now is the time to focus on the new GM, who will be faced with one of the most daunting and arduous rebuilding programs in NHL history. There are, and will be a lot of quality names out there, starting with Ray Shero and possibly Doug Wilson and/or Peter Chiarelli.
As far as this corner is concerned, the Leafs should focus their efforts on trying to get one of two men – either Los Angeles Kings assistant GM Mike Futa or Nashville Predators assistant GM Paul Fenton. Both men are under contract and would need their teams’ permission and new NHL rules would stipulate a third-round pick would go the other way. But that’s a small price to pay for someone who is going to have his kind of impact on the organization.
The last thing the Leafs need to do here is to put on a news conference where they introduce a high-profile guy who has no interest in a slow, proper and methodical rebuild. The day Brian Burke, whose fingerprints are still all over this mess, was hired, one of the first things he said was that if you win a Stanley Cup you get a school named after you. At that precise moment, Burke made it all about him and nothing but carnage followed.
The Leafs need someone who will come and won’t talk about winning Stanley Cups. They need a hockey man whose first priority will to be to restore some pride to the on-ice product and who will have the patience and vision to see through a proper rebuilding program that does not contain any short cuts.
Futa is that kind of man. So is Fenton. Both have a vast amount of knowledge of players at every level and the inner workings of the NHL. Futa was one of the main cogs in the building the Kings into a two-time Stanley Cup winner and is former Ontario League GM who is currently mentoring Rob Blake with the Kings. Fenton has worked at the foot of David Poile in Nashville, was with Anaheim prior to that and has had a remarkable record of drafting NHL talent, particularly defensemen. In case you hadn’t noticed, Nashville has had a few good ones over the past decade or so.
Neither Futa nor Fenton would bring the kind of cachet that a bigger name might attract, but that’s the last thing the Maple Leafs need right now. This is an organization that has during the salary cap era, repeatedly and consistently made the wrong assessment on players, both in the amateur and NHL ranks and that’s why they’re in the position they find themselves now. From the days of letting Steve Sullivan and Jason Smith go for nothing to signing Justin Pogge over Tuukka Rask to signing David Clarkson, the Leafs have had a mind-boggling and uncanny inability to properly evaluate talent. Two years ago, they thought the core of this team was destined for greatness on the basis of almost winning one round of the playoffs. Management then tied its future to the wrong people and the results have been disastrous.
You’d have to think Mark Hunter, who currently holds down the post of director of player personnel for the Leafs, would be another serious candidate. And even though he has virtually no NHL experience, he has built the most formidable junior program in the Canadian Hockey League with the London Knights. If he’s named GM, don’t be surprised if Hunter appoints a guy by the name of Lindsay Hofford, who runs the Pro Hockey Development group and has long ties with Hunter that go back to minor hockey and the Knights, to head up the scouting department.
But once again, Hunter might not be ready for the job. And another guy who will likely get an interview who is not ready is Rob Blake. Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan and Blake have a long history, but if Blake is being honest with himself, he’ll tell Shanahan he’s not ready for the job yet. Blake has never fired anyone or been fired and this year attended his first American League game. Ever.
Whomever the Leafs hire, one thing is clear. The days of the quick fix should be over for good. That should be the case with the GM and the coach. Anyone who presents a plan to Shanahan that rushes that process should be immediately taken out of the running. After all, the Leafs have taken almost 50 years to get where they are. It’s going to take more than a couple to get them out of the abyss.