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Fletcher Has Turned Leafs Around

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

Cliff Fletcher may have played himself out of a job soon, what with the sudden availability of Brian Burke.

But if he stays, hangs around as an advisor or happily packs his backs for Phoenix, Fletcher has done what he set out to do. The unexpectedly sunny prospects for the job that will attract a successor is largely Fletcher’s doing.

Since taking over the Maple Leafs on an interim basis last January, Fletcher has refashioned the hockey operation and dramatically changed the culture inside the dressing room.

There is plenty of work to do, but the Leafs are dramatically faster and hungrier than they were a year ago. The Leafs have 18 points in 17 games. They sit in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They compete most every night. Nobody is talking Stanley Cup but all would agree that a veneer of respectability has been returned to the franchise.

Fletcher’s biggest conundrum is an enviable one. Will the Maple Leafs solid play rule out a lottery pick or the acquisition of more fledgling talent at the trade deadline?

One thing we know now. The Silver Fox has not lost his fastball.

Here’s how he did it.

  1. Fletcher changed the culture of the dressing room. It’s a little cheesy to say that dealing Bryan McCabe and buying out Darcy Tucker and Andrew Raycroft straightened out the room. Clearly though, the team needed a new dynamic and the acquisition of solid citizens such as Jamal Mayers, Nik Hagman and Mike Van Ryn did just that. There is a reinvigorated sense of respect for the franchise: when players are interviewed in the dressing room, they wear Maple Leafs’ caps, not caps bearing their individual agendas. It’s a little thing, but it means a lot.

  • Fletcher boosted the organization’s hockey IQ. The addition of Al Coates last June as director of player personnel brought to Toronto one of the architects of the Anaheim Ducks. Equally important was the establishment of a line of succession. Once again, Fletcher delivered with the hiring of Joe Nieuwendyk as an assistant to the GM. Nieuwendyk carries immense credibility from his days as a player. When a confused Jason Blake needed to talk after being scratched from the lineup Tuesday in Calgary, one of the people he spoke to was Nieuwendyk. The difference between the John Ferguson era and the Cliff Fletcher era is security. Fletcher, who came out of retirement to revive the Leafs’ fortunes, wasn’t encumbered by the dynamics of day-to-day survival. He could and perhaps soon will, go back to Phoenix and retirement. This is his legacy.

  • In hiring Ron Wilson, Fletcher brought to Toronto a prime-time personality and a coach with a Hall of Fame (525 wins) record.  Clearly, Wilson has shifted the leadership responsibility from the dressing room to the coach’s office. That was a necessary move, especially with the departure of Mats Sundin. Wilson has spared no one, Matt Stajan, Jason Blake, his goaltenders, from criticism but he has also rewarded unrecognized talents such as Dominic Moore and John Mitchell with ice time. Stajan is averaging a point a game and leads the Leafs in scoring. Wilson sat out Ian White for 11 games and then turned him into a super-sub by rotating him between forward, defence and the point on powerplays - sometimes in the same game. Those are not the actions of someone looking over his shoulder. Wilson, like Fletcher, has little left to prove. He is immensely secure and, therefore, beyond question.

  • Canny player acquisition remained a Fletcher hallmark. Niklas Hagman would be high up in anyone’s list of the best free agent acquisitions of the summer. Mikhail Grabovski cost the Leafs a second rounder in 2010 and University of Michigan prospect Greg Pateryn. Grabovski’s eight goals put him in a tie atop the rookie leaders. Despite those expenditures, the Leafs are flexible, they have about $7.5 million left under the cap. Mike Van Ryn came to Toronto in the McCabe deal. A run of injuries decimated his value in Florida but he was very good prior to being knocked out of the lineup. Fletcher moved up in the draft to land Luke Schenn who, as a 19-year-old will one day stand as the Leafs flagship player and even a future captain. Free agent Jeff Finger has helped solidify what had been a porous defence. One final element: Darcy Tucker has three goals this season and is minus 2. McCabe has a goal and two assists and is plus one in five games after returning from a back injury. Believe it or not, the ex-Leaf faring best is six-goal scorer Kyle Wellwood and I doubt Fletcher is kicking himself over that one.

  • Fletcher lowered expectations. It sounds funny to say, but lowered expectations were exactly what the Leafs needed after John Ferguson and Paul Maurice were shown the door. The two, saddled with a mediocre team, tried to goose the club’s self-esteem by declaring the Leafs a Stanley Cup contender. Instead, the Leafs missed the playoffs for the third straight year. The only way up was, once again, to start over and to that end, Fletcher dramatically lowered expectations. Guess what? Freed of the choking ambition of hockey’s most success-starved market, the Leafs have played above everyone’s expectations. Even if they fall short of the playoffs, Fletcher or his successor can draw on an overflowing bank of goodwill and point to better days in the future. It’s a no-lose scenario.
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