Is Fletcher in for long haul? Maurice's firing makes us wonder

You don't know whether to feel sorry for Paul Maurice or celebrate his firing by the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday morning.

In some ways, this was an act of mercy from a franchise that epitomizes soullessness.

Maurice was in limbo from pretty much the moment former general manager John Ferguson Jr. was canned before the trade deadline and Cliff Fletcher took over as interim GM. At least by doing the right thing with Maurice, the organization doesn't let him twist in the wind like it did in the spring of 1998, when Ken Dryden left coach Mike Murphy hanging for weeks before he was fired in favor of Pat Quinn.

The more intriguing issue is whether Maurice's firing was a presumptuous move by Fletcher or the first in a series of moves by a man who isn't in any hurry to leave what was to have been an interim post.

If, indeed, the Leafs are moving forward and trying to bring in a new GM, how is Fletcher to know that person might not want to give Maurice another chance?
Maybe that's a moot point given that Maurice's Leafs missed the playoffs two straight seasons and slumped to last in the Northeast Division in 2007-08. Still, shouldn't that call have been made by Ken Holland or Jim Rutherford or Neil Smith or whoever else the Leafs can convince to take over the reins of the most dysfunctional team in the NHL?

And if Fletcher has the mandate to make a crucial decision like this, what others is he prepared to make? Is he preparing for a key draft in Ottawa next month? Will he determine whether players like Darcy Tucker will be bought out of their contracts? Will he be trying to move defenseman Bryan McCabe? Will he re-sign stubborn captain Mats Sundin and, if so, will he consider giving Sundin the same no-trade contract that left the Leafs unable to move forward at this season's trade deadline?

The clock is ticking on when those decisions must be made, yet they are also decisions that will have a direct and long-lasting impact on the team. Shouldn't those decisions, starting with the future of the team's coach, be made by someone who's actually going to be with the team?

This offseason, the Leafs initially looked to be in a position to move decisively to fill the GM position. But when Brian Burke agreed to fulfill at least the final year of his contract in Anaheim, the Leafs were left to look at Plan B, assuming there was a Plan B in place.

Regardless, Plan B should have included immediate calls to Rutherford in Carolina and David Poile in Nashville. Either way, a decision should have been made quickly. If there is interest in Doug Wilson in San Jose, the Leafs' search committee should be on the phone now that the Sharks are done.

For a team that has consistently been immobilized by its own dysfunction, the Maurice firing suggests maybe they're content to let Fletcher mind the store for a year and then hope Burke is available then.

That's not much of a plan -- hoping a guy doesn't sign a long-term contract extension with another team -- but these are the Leafs, and in Leaf Land, that kind of thinking qualifies as Mensa-like.

With Burke remaining in Anaheim and the Leafs unlikely to land any of the top GMs in the business (let's be honest, if you were Holland or Wilson or Rutherford or Poile, would you come to the mess that is the Leafs?), they will have to settle for something less than what they want. In this case, that may be Fletcher.

Settling is a way of life in Toronto.

They settled on Ferguson back in 2003 because neither Dryden nor Quinn could decide on a candidate and both wielded considerable power within the Byzantine boardrooms at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. Ferguson wasn't keen on Quinn, whom he inherited as coach, and fired him after the 2005-06 season. Ferguson brought in Maurice, who had once guided the Carolina Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup final, but who had otherwise distinguished himself by coaching mediocre teams to mediocre finishes. His tenure in Toronto was marked by more mediocrity.

Still, you have to give Maurice all the credit in the world. With things in disarray this season, Maurice coached his brains out. He got production from third- and fourth-line players and coaxed the Leafs, at least temporarily, back into the playoff hunt after the trade deadline, when Fletcher was unable to convince any of the five roster members with no-movement clauses to accept a trade.

He rode netminder Vesa Toskala like an old mule, even though it might have been better to use rusty backup Andrew Raycroft in the hopes the team might find a taker for the former rookie of the year in the offseason.

Maurice didn't do anything but what he thought was right for the team on any given night. His job was to coach, not save the team for a future in which he had no role. In some ways, Maurice has been one of the few people within the organization to act honorably, or at least do the job he was paid to do.

He may get another chance to coach an NHL team. It would be interesting to see him work with talent and within an organization that wasn't set on eating its own. Los Angeles might be a nice fit if the Kings grow tired of Marc Crawford's act. Florida, too, perhaps.

But, in Toronto, the Maurice firing simply leaves more questions unanswered.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.