The long rumored hiring of Brian Burke as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs is now a fact. A new era has begun in Leafs’ history and fans are full of anticipation that Burke’s tenure will help lead this struggling franchise that has gone 41 years and counting without a Stanley Cup, back to on-ice prominence. Burke is replacing “caretaker” GM, Cliff Fletcher. Although he held the position for less than one year, Fletcher had a great impact on the Maple Leafs’ franchise. Toronto hockey fans owe “The Silver Fox” a debt of gratitude for jump starting the club’s rebuilding process and beginning the turnaround of the culture surrounding the Maple Leafs.
You have to remember the state of team when Fletcher took over. He inherited a franchise filled with underachieving veterans, many of whom had high salaries and no trade clauses in their contracts. The Leafs missed the playoffs last year for the third straight season, the first time that happened since 1926-28. Worse than that, there seemed to be no hope for the future in Toronto when Fletcher came on board. Now, even though the record has not changed much, there is optimism at the Air Canada Centre again.
Fletcher was hired in January and the rebuilding began in earnest last March. Unfortunately, Fletcher couldn’t pull off a blockbuster deal at last year’s trade deadline because of all the no-trade clauses he had to deal with. Still, he made a few minor moves and acquired some extra draft picks that would later come in handy.
The real rebuilding began during the offseason. Fletcher brought in a new coach after Paul Maurice failed to make the playoffs. The bad situation wasn’t Maurice’s fault, but a new coach was needed and Fletcher found a good one is ex-Sharks’ bench boss, Ron Wilson. Wilson has a reputation as a no-nonsense coach known for bringing out the best in teams with modest talent. Wilson has proved to be a perfect fit for this year’s Leafs and he has gotten the most out of his players.
Changes had to be made to the roster as well and the moves came rapidly over the summer. Gone were long time Leafs Darcy Tucker, Andrew Raycroft and Kyle Wellwood. Underachieving and troubled forward Mark Bell was bought out and sent packing. Fletcher later created badly needed cap space by dealing defenseman Bryan McCabe to Florida for Mike Van Ryn who is both younger and playing better hockey than McCabe this season. Van Ryn is out for four weeks with an injury, but the move still looks like a good one.
Fletcher also was active in free agency. He added defenseman Jeff Finger from Colorado. While experts balked at the price Fletcher paid, Finger has provided steady play from the blueline and is a plus-four on a team that is a collective minus-41. Ex-Stars forward Niklas Hagman was also signed and is now third on the team in scoring.
At the NHL Entry Draft, Fletcher traded some of those extra draft choices to the Islanders and moved up to the fifth spot where he selected defenseman Luke Schenn. The rookie made the team out of camp and the Leafs elected not to send him back to juniors. Schenn projects as a stay at home defenseman in the NHL and adds toughness to the lineup. He also appears to be a potential cornerstone the team can build around for years to come.
Fletcher made another move at the draft that paid off when he acquired Mikhail Grabovski from Montreal for a second round pick. All the Potsdam native has done is lead the team in goals. At 24, Grabovski has a bright future. Not too many Leafs players were viewed that way prior to Fletcher’s tenure as GM.
Even with all of Fletcher’s progress, Burke still has plenty of work to do before the Maple Leafs are serious Cup contenders. There are still holes on this team, especially on defense. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the team misses the playoffs for a fourth straight season this April. But even if they do, there is no question that Cliff Fletcher left the Maple Leafs in a much better situation than he found them in 11 months ago.
Listen to the words of forward Lee Stempniak, the forward Fletcher acquired in a trade with the Blues just a week ago even though he knew Burke was taking his job any day after that.
“To be a Maple Leaf is extremely exciting,” Stempniak said. “It’s an Original Six team that’s headed in the right direction. I’m just really excited to be a part of it.”
How many players would have said that a year ago and been taken seriously? How many would have said it and meant it?