Commentary

Fletcher's hiring will be for naught if he can't deal Sundin

Updated: January 22, 2008, 7:05 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

The Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the most disorganized, dysfunctional teams in pro sports, announced Tuesday they have hired a 72-year-old man who hasn't made a meaningful personnel decision in a decade, to guide them in their first steps toward respectability.

With all due respect to Cliff Fletcher, the new interim general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, there can be only one reason to bring him in and kick GM John Ferguson out at this point of the season -- to move captain Mats Sundin.

And Fletcher's hiring will be for naught if he can't move the player he acquired almost 14 years ago.

Mats Sundin
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesMats Sundin would have to waive his no-trade clause before the Leafs could make a move.

If Fletcher can parlay his long-standing relationship with Sundin into achieving that goal, if he can convince the Maple Leafs captain to waive his no-trade clause and deal him to a contending team for a package of top draft picks and prospects, then the moribund organization may actually be in a position to take a rare, positive step forward.

But don't count on that happening.

The Leafs, after all, rarely do anything the logical way as witnessed by a four-decade-and-counting Stanley Cup drought. The decision to hire Fletcher follows a trend of major decisions that seem at best unlikely to succeed and at worst doomed to fail.

First, there is no indication Fletcher can get Sundin to agree to a move, and the interim GM seemed to suggest at a Tuesday press conference that it wasn't a priority.

"The most important thing is to do what's right for Mats," Fletcher said.

Huh?

Asked whether it might be more important to do what's right for the team, Fletcher explained that "Mats is driving the engine here," given that the veteran center is set to become an unrestricted free agent and has the no-trade clause.

If Sundin sticks to his publicly stated sentiment to go down with the ship in Toronto, then whatever moves Fletcher makes in the coming weeks will be window dressing, leaving the team in no better position than it is now.

Let's assume for a moment that Fletcher can convince Sundin to move, perhaps suggesting that the new GM re-sign Sundin in the offseason as was the case in recent season when Keith Tkachuk and Doug Weight were both dealt by St. Louis at the deadline and re-signed as free agents in the offseason. What is there to suggest Fletcher can pull off the deal? Fletcher hasn't been a full-time GM since 1997, when the Leafs fired him. Does he know the hockey world well enough to get full value for Sundin or any other part of the Leafs' lineup he might be able to move?

To suggest he can get the first-round pick, top prospect and position player Sundin should yield is more than a small leap of faith from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.

Fletcher was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004 in the builder category. His résumé shows he deserved that honor, going back to the days when he established a franchise in Atlanta and oversaw the move of that team to Calgary. The Flames would win their only Stanley Cup under Fletcher's expert guidance in 1989.

He went on to Toronto and, eschewing drafts and player development (his famous "draft schmaft" line will live in infamy), wheeled and dealed the Leafs to two conference championships in 1993 and 1994.

Those two seasons would be the high-water mark for a team that last won a Stanley Cup in 1967.

After the Leafs were dispatched by Vancouver in the 1994 Western Conference finals (the Leafs' conference home at the time), Fletcher created a firestorm of controversy by trading popular captain Wendel Clark for a strapping young Swede named Sundin during the offseason.

The Leafs, however, were dispatched in the first round in 1995 and 1996, and then missed the playoffs the next two seasons. By then, Fletcher was gone.

He would emerge from retirement and work in both Tampa and Phoenix, but his role with both teams was largely advisory and he was fired along with Phoenix GM Mike Barnett last summer.

Fletcher on Tuesday alluded to the fact that he was "setting the table" for Toronto's new GM. The job of identifying and hiring that person will be made significantly easier if Fletcher can provide some crucial rebuilding elements in the interim. Fletcher was signed to a 19-month contract, which will include a short stint as interim GM and a longer term as an adviser; but his value to the team will be entirely measured in what he does between now and the Feb. 26 trade deadline.

The team also announced it has commissioned high-profile sports lawyer Gordon Kirke to spearhead the search for a permanent president and general manager.

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president and CEO Richard Peddie, the man who earlier this season acknowledged it was a "mistake" to hire the inexperienced Ferguson, insisted Tuesday the new GM will have complete autonomy over the hockey operations. And while Peddie insisted it was a "myth" that the board has been meddlesome in the past, there is little doubt one of the stumbling blocks in hiring a quality GM will be ensuring candidates they will have the autonomy that Ferguson did not.

No doubt Kirke's search will include thorough, if quiet, examination of the interest and contractual status of the game's finest team-builders, most notably Brian Burke in Anaheim, Ken Holland in Detroit, Doug Wilson in San Jose, Jim Rutherford in Carolina and David Poile in Nashville.

An organization as wealthy as the Leafs has no excuse for not hiring the finest hockey talent available, especially as it applies to upper management, where there is no salary cap.

The fact that management has not done just that up to this point is a reflection of a group that appears incapable of grasping the most basic hockey tenets -- hire the best and let them do their job.

Perhaps Fletcher's hiring will be the first step down that long road to respectability. The next few weeks will tell us if that's possible.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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