Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Ferguson Out, Fletcher In

Yesterday, the Toronto Maple Leafs made their long anticipated move in firing GM John Ferguson Jr and replacing him with interim GM Cliff Fletcher. Although replacing Ferguson was an obvious move, it does little to solve the Leaf problems. The Leafs have suffered from meddlesome ownership that have undermined the franchise and from a continued belief in the missing piece myth that the team is on the verge of competing as soon as they get their "final piece", mortgaging the future to do so. The Leafs have not appeared in the Stanley Cup finals since their 1967 cup victory. They have not had a significant run in the playoffs since a 2002 trip to the semi-finals. However, they have always acted as though they were on the verge of contention and can afford to give up their future to attempt to win now.

John Ferguson Jr did nothing to stop this situation and is thus the fall guy. He was left twisting in the wind for far too long because of the cheapness of the Ontario Teacher's Pension Plan who are their owners. Ferguson was hired, instead of a bigger name GM, because he would work cheaply and his firing was delayed because he was under contract and would be paid anyway, thus forcing the Leafs to have two GMs under contract at the same time.

Cliff Fletcher, his replacement, was a solid General Manager. His biggest success was as the Atlanta/Calgary Flames long running GM. He was the team's original GM hired when they expanded in 1972 and remained with the team until 1991. He is the architect who built the 1989 Stanley Cup champion Calgary Flames. He left for his first run as the Toronto GM in 1991 and gave the team their most successful run in recent history. He brought in Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk and made the team a contender. He was willing to begin the process of mortgaging the Leafs future to try to win now. This was a calculated risk that ultimately failed and led to his dismissal in 1997 after the Leafs failed to qualify for playoffs in two successive seasons. From there, he moved into a more advisory role with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Phoenix Coyotes. This seemed to be his way to slip into retirement, though out of necessity he served as Phoenix GM for about a season in between Bobby Smith and Mike Barnett. He returns to the Leafs on a 19 month contract, where he will be GM for the first six months before a permanent replacement is found.

Cliff Fletcher was a very good General Manager and is in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The problem is that he is 72 years old and will not be around for the longterm. Rebuilding the Leafs will not be a simple task. It will take a few years of struggle. Fletcher cannot offer this to the team. He will start on a rebuilding plan and very quickly give up the reigns to somebody else. Somebody else will have to live with the moves Fletcher made, though they likely would have rather had the chance to make their own moves. Worse, Fletcher will be still around in the organization to be involved in its management and thus the new GM won't fully be given the reigns.

The only way to build a winner in the NHL is to hire a very good hockey man as GM and leave him alone to let him build your team. Offer him the resources, but do not have ownership or upper management interfering. In the Leafs situation, ownership is still there to interfere. Another figure is brought in to upper management to interfere in Cliff Fletcher. A disjointed rebuilding plan will have at least two architects, since Fletcher is not staying around to finish what he will start. I am not optimistic that this plan will work out well for the Leafs, but it is par for the course from recent ownership.

It was clear that the Leafs needed to do something, but it is not clear this is the correct something. The best case would have been to get a competent GM in place last summer. The next best case is to replace Ferguson now with somebody competent who will stick around long enough to complete a rebuilding plan. Having Fletcher act as a middle man who starts the process then stick around to advise the person who eventually takes control likely will lead to the length of the process being increased. After all, Fletcher's interim role as GM in Phoenix did nothing to speed up that team becoming respectable.

Here is the TSN story on the Toronto moves.

1) As the saying goes: " Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic"
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