Interim is the word at Toronto
With the recent announcement that interim GM Cliff Fletcher will be kept on by Richard Peddie for next season; Leafs fans around the globe can be assured that the franchise isn’t turning tack, no, with a new coach in place, now seems to be the perfect time to hang stalwartly on for, as everybody knows, Brian Burke, furthered more so today by Toronto’s cheeky acquisition of Al Coates as player personnel director, Burkes number two in Anaheim.
Clearly another year of tedium is stretching out into the horizon before we can endure the long death crawl of rebuilding that the Los Angeles Kings have become such fine poster boys for. It’s good to see that that Peedie and Kirke’s top candidate list turned into the predictable dud we all knew it would be.
Now, I can understand the MLSE’s reluctance, heck it’s been eyeing up Burke for some time now, being constantly shooed away like a horny dog by the Anaheim upper echelons with the position being dubbed as nothing short of salvation for the Leaf Nation. But with draft day coming and the free agency free for all upon us, it’s an unusual time to opt for an “interim GM” that was chased out of Toronto in 1997 after a series of inept and desperate trades saw the Leafs derail after four straight playoff years only to be brought back to cut trades that Ferguson Jr. could never cut, and make no trade moves whatsoever. Sure he didn’t want to make trades for trade’s sake, but a little bit of mixing up couldn’t hurt in a lame duck season. Instead it was a case of once bitten twice shy for Toronto’s former trigger happy now trigger-less GM, whose past seems to have given him something of an identity crisis. In the meanwhile Peddie has been lamenting the bleakness of Toronto’s immediate future to anybody who will listen, no surprise owing the Leafs recent propensity to trade away prospects in dumb, knee jerk deals.
Subsequently the hiring of Ron Wilson came as a refreshing change in tempo; the Leafs actually got out there and nailed their candidate, if not the right candidate. Hopefully he may be able to breathe an ethos of accountability through the roster and kill of the comfort zone many of the Maple Leafs have been playing in for the past couple of years. Still there is a sharp edge and stubbornness to Wilson that he could do well to learn from his past mistakes, i.e. Patrick Marleau. Constant public flagellation will not go down well with players used to Maurice’s soft handed approach. Furthermore Wilson’s ego has been known to clash with superstars, whilst he will not be faced with that kind of superlative in a talent starved Leaf team, the media induced fish bowl could prove Ron Wilson to be his own undoing if the team fails to perform and with an interim GM at the helm, failure to perform could become a mantra under Ron, a coach who will have to temper his famed manic highs and lows, if he is to endure a rebuild.
Nevertheless, the opportunity to steel a team and a system from his own vision maybe the kind of task that would see the arrogance of Wilson shine through into the fine, stable coach he has always threatened to be. Whatever you surmise, he will have to wait a year to begin building anything as his first task will be to dismantle, an act in itself made more difficult with an interim GM with trade impotence. After all, Wilson is going to be looking for some younger, sportier models to shape into his roster; preferably good puck possession players, as the driftwood is offloaded, but questions arise over Fletchers ability to shape such deals (such as the Sundin/Kaberle deal that was supposed to bring Phillies’ Carter, Montreal’s Higgins and a bunch of draft picks to Toronto but failed to materialize).
Buyouts and free agency seem to be the theme of the day then in the clear out. Tucker is an outstanding favorite to be bought out and will almost certainly be gone in the next few days if his no trade clause can be negotiated and Raycroft will more than likely join him unless management sees fit to send him down to the minors for his final contract year. Blake had been mentioned, but with four years remaining on his contract (albeit minus an NTC), buyout maybe too expensive to be worth pursuing and somewhat tactless in the face of his leukemia battle whilst Mark Bell was quickly herded out in San Jose by Wilson after a hit and run DUI accident and after a series of personal issues, including possible imprisonment, Bell’s future remains uncertain. In the meanwhile, the blue line faces potential change with a chance that one of Kubina or McCabe will be shipped to free up some cap space.
On the free agency front, odds are that fringe players such as John Pohl, who had a poor last couple of years, will be left unsigned alongside number three goaltender Scott Clemmensen and the final transaction in John Ferguson jr’s. reign, Dominic Moore. It would also take a brave man to resign Wozniewski who had become something of a pariah in the Air Canada owing to his occasional defensive ”spasms”.
The big dice in the Toronto UFA lineup remains captain Mats Sundin, after years of loyal service his treatment in and around the trade deadline in February was shabby, but the Swede seems to show little drive to move elsewhere despite motioning that he may test the FA waters or retire. Conventional wisdom suggests that he will return to Toronto, although with a rebuild in the pipeline and his trade weight down significantly owing to his age, a lot of people wonder why Toronto’s management are dangling a “No Trade Clause” under his nose when they were so keen for him to waive his current “NTC” this year, although it’s probably because they know he is now worth nothing.
Perhaps a useful veteran to build a fresh team around, he will never win the big one in his time in the blue and white, but many believe he lacks the ambition anyway.
Of the restricted free agents the Leafs are in talks with Mitchell, Stajan and Wellwood whilst most expect the franchise to persevere with Foster and Ondrus. Stajan’s resigning is of the utmost importance as well as John Mitchell who has been impressive for the Marlies and could prove to be an excellent player in a period of rebuilding, but question marks still hang over Wellwood who had a disappointing season of the back of several injuries leading many to suggest he isn’t built for the NHL. Whilst he is a prime candidate to ship out, some would question the likelihood that any team would be willing to give up a third round draft pick for him, or if the Leafs would do better to just low ball him into a small cap hit contract.
Whatever the turnout in the next couple of weeks, the current lack of a full time GM means that the Leafs growth will be stunted. Sure a lot of players will go before next season, most for absolutely nothing, begging the question what exactly is Wilson going to have to play with when the free agency is all said and done? Perhaps if the Leafs can resist the temptation to throw prospects out like confetti, sign Brooks Orpik on the FA, stop putting No Trade Clauses in every contract and pull off a couple of good drafts on the back of what is likely to be some dreadful on ice seasons, the Leafs can start to build on the Pittsburgh model. But were a long way from there yet.
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