Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Dave being Dave

Come on, we should all know by now that whenever I say 'I'll finish this later', I don't mean 'later in the day', I mean 'next week', or (more likely) 'not at all'.

Last time, I looked at the problem this team has in a very general sense. You know, the players aren't good enough to win more than they lose regularly in the National Hockey League, the front office is filled with people who probably shouldn't have the jobs they do, and the people who run the team from the board room are a meddling group of incompetents on a good day. Everyone knows the problems with the Toronto Maple Leafs. If you couldn't figure it out just from watching the past few years, you've surely figured it out by the non-stop media bombardment over the past month or so. The Leafs are a mess, people, we all know it, let's go a little deeper today, shall we? I want to look at what this franchise needs to do to get back on track - from a hockey perspective, obviously, as everyone with money invested in the organization is sitting pretty.

The first step, I think, is pretty obvious. Richard Peddie needs to be removed from the hockey operations side of the company. He's done a wonderful job of making money for MLSE. That's great. I'm happy for him and them, I truly am. More power to Peddie for doing... well, whatever it is that he does that makes them so much money. Good for Richard Peddie.

But that doesn't qualify him to be making decisions about the day-to-day hockey operations. It doesn't qualify him to be anywhere NEAR that department. And yet, there he sits, president of the Toronto Maple Leafs. So the first thing that needs to be done is move him out of the job.

(I'm not going to suggest that Peddie be outright fired - are you kidding? From 1998 to 2003, when Steve Stavro sold off and Peddie got involved in the hockey operations, he did nothing but make fistfuls of money for MLSE. He's not making them lose anything now. He won't get fired, and doesn't deserve to. But they should move him back to his old job so he can make them money while not hampering the hockey team.)

Many people, apparently including myself, looked at the chain of events that happened with the Raptors as a good model to take. Peddie hired someone as GM of the Raptors, it didn't work out, so he snaked a proven, young executive to be the new GM. Most importantly, he gave Bryan Colangelo the unilateral power to reshape the team however he saw fit. Colangelo was hired in February of 2006. The Toronto Raptors made the playoffs in 2007. This is the model the Maple Leafs need to adopt.

But if Peddie does not step aside, back to the money-making shadows of the board room, and give control of the actual hockey team to the new people in charge of building it, nothing is going to change, and nothing will matter. As long as Peddie remains president of the hockey team, the team will spin its tires. Period.


Next step is removing John Ferguson, Jr., from the position of general manager. Now, I like Ferguson. I like that we hired a young guy (he was 36 when hired, and is still only 40), and I feel really bad for the situation he was thrown into. Let's be honest with ourselves - Ferguson was never going to succeed regardless of how good he was at the job. And, again, being honest with ourselves - he didn't do a very good job. Is he capable of doing better? I'd think he'd have to be. Does he deserve a shot somewhere else? Maybe. Does he need to go now? Absolutely.

Again, this is someone I don't know if I'd fire outright. It's not like he made the Owen Nolan trade or anything. All kidding aside, can't we give him a scouting job or something? He's a young guy who was handcuffed by the situation he was given. He's worked as a professional scout before, re-assign him to that department. Just keep him away from contracts.

At this point, we've removed the president (Peddie) and the GM (Ferguson Jr.), which brings us to the next guy on the blame train: Paul Maurice.

I personally believe Maurice is the right man for this job. I enjoy his personality, I believe in his style, and I think the blame should fall to the inferior player personnel, not the coach.

That said, I give him one more year. Ideally, the roster is so dramatically reshaped next year that you're able to get a real sense of what he can do with this team. If the results aren't strongly positive, go back to the well. I'm not saying "get us to the playoffs next season or you're gone", but he has to prove that he can steer this ship back to respectability. I keep him on, but with the understanding that he's out of a job if things don't change.

More or less, that takes care of the office jobs that are already filled. I'm still on a very light hockey diet these days - I read a ton, but I don't watch all that much or follow the inner workings of the organization closely, so I'm not the guy to tell you that, say, the head European scout isn't doing his job. Now we need to look towards filling them.

One of the fun parts about this entire mess (assuming you're neither Maurice nor Ferguson, that is...) is that things are changing more or less by the hour. I was fully PLANNING to this post last week the day after I wrote the last one, but then it took a big part of the day to get caught up on what I missed while I was sleeping, and then by the time I was caught up, I had a host of new things to read. And by the point that the day's news had finally slowed, we were all expecting Cliff Fletcher to come back and blow the team up. The tone of my post would have changed, since I was planning on saying something like "I have absolutely no fucking idea who we hire right here and now", so I decided to wait things out. And I waited, and waited, and we still don't have Fletcher making his triumphant, Rock-esque return speech, and here we are a week later. But I digress.

The point of that was to segue to my suggestion for the GM spot: hire Cliff Fletcher. I know, ground-breaking and all, given that the entire mainstream media and blogosphere has been buzzing about this for a week. But still, I'm sticking with it.

I like the idea, a lot. The only condition is that it has to be understood that it's an interim position. We all love Fletcher, but he hasn't executed a successful, long-term plan on a hockey team since he worked for the Calgary Flames. And he left them in 1991.

However, we're looking for a short-term thing at the moment. Specifically, I want Fletcher to come in, cut the fat, stock the cupboards, and position the team to be young and competitive in the coming seasons. His track record (joined the Maple Leafs in 1991, traded five players to Calgary for five better players - including Doug Gilmour - the next season, had the team in the playoffs the season after that; joined the Coyotes in 2001, had the team in the playoffs by the next season when he was kicked upstairs so that Michael Barnett could destroy the team; and I thought he did more with Tampa but Wikipedia has nothing and I can't be bothered to look elsewhere) suggests he can do that. Really, what is he being asked to do? Fill the job until someone with a long-term vision can come in. Until then, clear out as much dead cap space as you can, get whatever young players, draft picks, and general assets as you can, leave the new guy with cap room and young talent to work with, and then sit back in a nice, comfy advisor's job. In the process, you're throwing the fans a bone by bringing back a name from the Passion teams. Why not?

However, I wouldn't expect Fletcher to be calling the shots by the draft, when I'd hope that THE new guy is in charge. So, who is that guy going to be?

Well, I don't have the first fucking clue.

Darren Dreger and other MSM outlets like throwing around names like Ken Holland, Jim Rutherford, and Brian Burke. Holland is the best GM in the league and has some serious tenure with Detroit, as Rutherford does in Carolina. Burke and Rutherford are no slouches, either. How the hell does anyone figure that they're going to bail on their jobs to come and work for this team? ESPECIALLY if Peddie doesn't get out of the way and give them complete control? Don't get me wrong, I'd be utterly ecstatic if MLSE convinces Holland to jump ship, but I'm not counting on it. Most of the other presently employed GMs aren't particularly desirable to me, and the ones that aren't employed, well, aren't employed for a reason. We're not going to be able to go and steal the direct architect of one of the best teams in the league like Peddie was able to do with Colangelo and the Raptors (unless, of course, there's fire to the smoke re: Holland), so I think that means we should look at the best and brightest 'understudy' executives working for other teams who haven't got a shot yet. I'm talking specifically about hiring either Jim Nill from Detroit (he's highly regarded, and if we can't take Holland, why not swipe his assistant?) or Wayne Thomas from San Jose (another well-thought-of guy who's working in a successful organization). My personal pick is Thomas, but I'd be satisfied with either one.

Then you have the president's spot, and I want Scotty Bowman for that - assuming he's still interested, that is. I don't know that he really wants to have the day-to-day grind of the GM job, but hiring him first (and yeah, I wrote it backwards, whatever) and letting him pick his own GM (and if Bowman is doing the hiring, you have to think the chances of it being Holland or Nill increase) and then letting him sit back and get involved when necessary might be tempting. If you can't get Bowman, give Fletcher the president's job when you hire a new GM. Or make the next GM take the president's job, too. I don't know. The goal should be Bowman.

So, if we follow, we're replacing Richard Peddie with Scotty Bowman, John Ferguson, Jr. with Cliff Fletcher and then Wayne Thomas, and giving Paul Maurice one more year. Cool.

Dealing with the mess of the actual team is both way more complicated and way more simple. Get rid of the old guys with big salaries. I'm not one of those message board Leaf fans that dramatically overvalue all of their own players, nor am I expecting significant returns. But, come on. It's trade deadline season. You're seriously going to tell me that in a market with MAYBE five teams committed to selling (Tampa, Los Angeles, Toronto, Edmonton? Buffalo?) and everyone else within striking distance of the playoffs, you're not going to be able to find someone to flip a draft pick or prospect of some sort for some of what needs to be moved? You're going to tell me that Columbus, the last NHL team to have never made the playoffs, sitting on the bubble with ten million in cap space and another ten million coming off the books next year in Sergei Fedorov and Adam Foote's expiring contracts, are going to tell their fans that "sorry, Bryan McCabe doesn't fit in with what we're trying to do here"? A team like Chicago, desperate to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002, isn't going to think long and hard about bringing Hal Gill (who's actually having a pretty good year, oddly enough) on board? Phoenix, in a similar situation as Chicago but a lot more cap space, is going to pass on secondary scoring players in the form of a Jason Blake, Darcy Tucker, or Mark Bell?

Again, I'm not saying get huge returns for them. You can't. McCabe has three years and a 5.75 million cap hit left, Kubina has two years and 5 million per, Tucker has 3/3, Blake has (an absolutely FUCKING insane) 4/4. Bell and Gill each have one more year left at 2.5 and under, so they're actually not entirely that unreasonable, except that Bell pretty much sucks and Gill likely isn't going to play this well anywhere else, ever again. But that isn't the point. Cliff Fletcher does not need to hit a home run with a Pavel Kubina trade, he needs to clear Pavel Kubina's salary off of the books and get him out of here. And, by being aggressive and ruthless and playing on all the factors of a seller's market at this time of the year when teams have cap space and prospects to spare and need to show their fans they're serious... I think at least a few of these guys can be moved.

If I'm running the team, the only three people I DON'T trade are Mats Sundin, Tomas Kaberle, and Vesa Toskala. I'll look at my evidently contrarian stance on Sundin later in the week, but I think you can build a solid team around those three in the short term. I'm looking to the New York Rangers here. When they blew their team up in 2004, they kept Jaromir Jagr. So I keep Sundin. Trade him if you can get a massive return and you know he's coming back next year, but keep him otherwise. Other than those three, everyone is available.

I think Fletcher, or whoever is hired to stick and light the dynamite, has a few goals in order to get the team ready for next year:

1) Clear out as many of the Tucker/Blake/Kubina/McCabe/Bell/Raycroft sucktet as possible. Bryan McCabe is a very useful player in this league, no question, but at 5.75 million on a team that needs to be blown up, he's worthless. Get what you can for these guys. Don't try to swing for the fences unless you're given your pitch, just try to get on base. Clearing these guys out cleans up a LOT of dead cap space and opens up a lot of roster spots. And all of them are moveable. All of them. But do it in the next month, while teams are making retarded decisions. If you can get someone to give up something of value for Raycroft right now, you're not getting it any other time. Pull the trigger.

2) Trade Hal Gill. He's having a good year, he's got one more year at 2.075 against the cap, he's big and he's a veteran. I would never have predicted it, but Gill is pretty much our best non-Sundin/Kaberle trading piece. You should be able to get something decent here. I mean, realistically, how many teams are going to be dedicated sellers? If we go with the five listed before, what is everyone's options on defense? Rob Blake and Brad Stuart from the Kings, Steve Staios and Dick Tarnstrom from Edmonton, Brian Campbell from Buffalo, and then the Toronto guys. Play the market. Play it hard. Teams like Columbus, St. Louis, Chicago, Phoenix, Florida... they're not going to be able to NOT make moves at the deadline unless they fall way out of the hunt.

3) Get Andy Wozniewski off of the team. He's a UFA at the end of the year. Good. Keep it that way.

4) Explore trading Alexei Ponikarovsky, Nik Antropov, and Ian White. Ponikarovsky is the guy I'd most be satisfied with moving, since I think he's pretty much reached his ceiling. While 20 goal, 35 point guys have a place, at his price tag, I'd see what you can get for him. Antropov is finally having the great year he's been teasing since 02/03, and White is a young, puck-moving defenseman. These are players that will help for the future, but if you can get something that will help more, look into it.

5) Stock up on prospects and draft picks. Look, when New York did this in 2004, I remember looking at a lot of the returns they got and thinking "wow, they stacked their cupboards". They didn't. Prospects don't always turn out. Toronto gave up a lot for Brian Leetch - two prospects and a first round pick for Leetch and a swap of mid-round picks - but neither of those players turned out and the pick ended up being flipped to Calgary for another pick - and neither of THOSE two players, Lauri Korpikoski and Kris Chucko, have done anything of note yet. Hell, neither have even played an NHL game. The point is, by getting lots of prospects and picks, you're increasing your odds. Think of it as buying lottery tickets. The more you have, the better shot you have at winning, right? This is the same thing. Get in bulk and hope enough of it turns out so that you break even.

6) Stay away from retarded contracts like those of everyone in point 1.

Now, obviously, there are no guarantees with anything, especially in this business, but I think that if the interim GM can come in and execute these steps, it will clear the slate nicely for the permanent GM. Yeah, it's asking a lot, but what the fuck is the point of doing this if you aren't going to do it right?

This weekend is the All-Star Game, and after thinking about it over the last couple of days, why did any of us really think a big move was coming last week? The ASG provides the perfect opportunity to give everyone a chance to regroup after a big change like this. So I really think that something is coming down the pipe this weekend. I'm guessing Ferguson gets fired and Fletcher is given the interim job. Peddie won't go anywhere, at least not yet, and probably not at all. Why now? This year is a write-off anyway, and Fletcher isn't the guy who's going to get the long-term power. Peddie will step back in the summer, or this team is fucked, period.

Ah, but who are we kidding? This is the Toronto Maple Leafs, people. The three game winning streak we had last week wasn't a fluke, it's how things are going to be for the rest of the season. They're going to pick their game up, McCabe is going to come back, and we'll have another ninth-place, one-point-out finish. Ferguson will keep his job, sign Brendan Morrison to a stupid contract, and trade Jiri Tlusty for Dwayne Roloson. I'll be writing this exact same post next January, just like in March, I'll be writing the exact same "holy shit guys we can make the playoffs for really real" posts I wrote last year.

The sad part is, I actually believe that that is probably what will happen. I mean, this is Toronto. Nothing is ever, EVER, going to change.

That's about it for me. I'll leave with a link to Tom Benjamin's take on the crisis. I need some sleep.

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