Cliff Fletcher is sincere when he says how excited he is not only to be back as an NHL general manager, but also to be back as the interim GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs
“I’m thrilled to be back here and feel totally comfortable in this position, having been here before,” the 2004 Hall of Fame inductee said. “I enjoy the job, the fans here and the passion for the team and the game. This is where I wanted to finish things off.”
Fletcher knows the next two weeks may be difficult as he may have to “finish off” the tenure of one of the team’s most storied players, Mats Sundin, who Fletcher brought to the organization during his first stint between 1991 and 1997.
On June 26, 1994, Fletcher pulled off one of the most monumental trades in Leafs’ history, acquiring Sundin, Garth Butcher, Todd Warriner and 1994’s 10th-overall pick in exchange for Wendel Clark, Sylvain Lefebvre, Landon Wilson and the 22nd overall pick that year. Toronto was coming off back-to-back appearances in the Western Conference Final and Clark was one of the most beloved players to ever play in Toronto, so the deal received mixed reviews at best.
Over the last 13 seasons, though, Sundin became the heart and soul of the Maple Leafs, becoming a captain and, this season, the team’s all-time leader in points and goals. But with the Leafs the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference with only 55 points, and in the midst of a tumultuous season that cost John Ferguson Jr. his GM job and prompted the organization to bring in Fletcher, Sundin is besieged by constant trade rumors.
Fans and media are hounding management to dismantle the team and deal veteran players to build for the future. With Sundin being the team’s leading scorer and an unrestricted free agent after this season, he is by far the most marketable commodity Fletcher holds heading into the Feb. 26 trade deadline. But if a Stanley Cup contender believes Sundin is the missing piece to the puzzle and wants him as a playoff rental, they should be prepared to pay a high price.
“You’re not talking about just some regular player here,” Fletcher said. “This is one of the best players in franchise history, still an elite player in the League, the face of the franchise, and we will treat him as such.
”We’ve explained the situation to Mats and respect him tremendously. If someone comes along and blows me away with an offer, we’ll examine it, but we’re not soliciting any offers, and until such an offer comes along, it’s a non-issue to us.”
Sundin also has a no-trade clause which he can invoke to block any deal Fletcher may find enticing. Throughout most of Fletcher’s 50-plus years in hockey management, he never had to deal with players having no-trade clauses. But Fletcher respects the current rules and will treat all five Leafs players (Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Tomas Kaberle, Bryan McCabe and Pavel Kubina), who have no-trade clauses, accordingly.
“We have players with no-trade clauses and we have to deal with that,” Fletcher said. “You have to respect that because that’s a right that the players earned and negotiated in the new CBA and it’s part of the game now.”
No-trade clauses are not the only thing that makes wheeling and dealing difficult under the current CBA. There’s the salary cap, and the importance of building from within and not through expensive free-agent signings. But the man who helped build a Stanley Cup champion in Calgary and also brought the beloved Doug Gilmour to Toronto in 1992, is ready for the challenges of the next two weeks.
“Well, at least the intense scrutiny of being in the hockey capital of the world is familiar,” Fletcher joked. “But we feel we have certain objectives to achieve, and that is to build for the now and the future. We have played well over the last 10 games, with the exception of a stinker to Florida, and if we play well and earn points in the next five to six games we’re still in it as a contender to make the playoffs.
“But that being said, the primary objective here is to put a team in place to succeed for the next GM and the next decade.”
So Fletcher, who earned the nickname “Trader Cliff” for trades like the one that brought Sundin and Doug Gilmour to Toronto, will do his best to help resuscitate this organization.
“You try your best and hope its good enough,” he said. “This is a great place for hockey and the fans deserve a winning team.”
Trade Summary -- On Monday, with his team in the midst of a 4-6 slump, Ottawa General Manager Bryan Murray pulled off a two-for-two swap with the Hurricanes. The Senators received forward Cory Stillman and defenseman Mike Commodore in exchange for defenseman Joe Corvo and forward Patrick Eaves.
Murray and Senators coach John Paddock believe this deal brings the team depth and toughness on defense with Commodore and scoring depth up front with Stillman.
“I'd like to see a few more than three guys scoring a lot of the points here and I think that's an area I tried to address,” Murray told the Canadian Press regarding the two veterans who played key roles in Carolina’s Cup run in 2006.
“This is a guy who's used to playing in the top six forwards, that's one reason we acquired him, and he addresses that need when we've talked about a goal scorer,” Paddock said of Stillman.
He also likes the grit Commodore brings.
“We wanted a more physical presence in the back end and I think he's a real competitive player with size,” Paddock said. “We said after the playoffs last year that size matters.”
In other possible trade news, the Buffalo News reported Wednesday that the agent for Buffalo defenseman Brian Campbell met with Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier. Campbell is an impending unrestricted free agent and the two sides have struggled to come to an agreement, prompting Campbell to be the subject of numerous trade rumors. No agreement was reached, but Campbell reiterated his desire to remain a Sabre.
“Buffalo is where I believe I’ll be at the end of the year,” Campbell told The Buffalo News. “I feel strongly about it, but I do know it’s out of my control. I’m focused on the Sabres and that’s it. Any time (trade) deadline day comes around for any player, you never know. For me, I hope that never is the case that I get traded.”
Who’s hot? -- Jason Spezza had a monster week for Ottawa, with nine points (three goals, six assists) in three games, including a six-point performance against the Canadiens in a 6-1 win Saturday. Dany Heatley wasted no time lighting the red light in his first game back last Thursday, scoring twice and adding an assist in a 5-4 win over Florida Thursday. He followed that with a four-point outing in the win over Montreal Saturday, for seven points in three games.
Sabres forward Thomas Vanek finally is regaining the form that netted him 43 goals last season. He had a hat trick in a 5-1 win over Ottawa Tuesday and has five goals and one assist in his last three games. Brian Campbell has provided offense from the blue line with six assists in three games. Ryan Miller continues to hold the fort for the Sabres, going 2-0-1 with a 1.92 goals-against average and .930 save percentage over the last three games.
The Maple Leafs have won two straight heading into Wednesday’s game with Buffalo, and Vesa Toskala has been the main reason. The Finnish netminder is 2-0 with a 1.98 goals-against average and .943 save-percentage in his last two games.
Shootout Summary -- The Sabres were involved in two shootouts during the past week, going 1-1. On Feb. 6, Drew Stafford and Henrik Tallinder beat New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur in the shootout for a 3-2 Sabres win. On Friday, the Sabres blew a 2-0 lead in regulation and lost to the Bruins 3-2 in the shootout. Bruins forward Phil Kessel scored the lone goal of the shootout.
Black and Blue
Boston – Defenseman Andrew Alberts remains on injured reserve, but after seeing a specialist, it has been determined that Alberts is suffering from a neck injury and not post-concussion syndrome, as originally thought. Alberts will be joining the team on its current five-game road trip in hopes that he can begin practicing with his teammates. The Bruins also got encouraging news when they discovered that Manny Fernandez may not be done for the season after all. Fernandez, who had knee surgery two months ago, has been working out and recovering sooner than expected. He is scheduled to resume skating next week, and there’s a chance he could be back before the end of the season.
Unfortunately for Boston fans, the news remains the same on center Patrice Bergeron, who still is feeling the effects of post-concussion syndrome and remains on injured reserve.
Buffalo – Forward Maxim Afinogenov still is on injured reserve with a strained groin. Drew Stafford is day-to-day with an ankle injury.
Toronto – Forwards Mark Bell (broken orbital bone), John Pohl (sprained ankle), Alexei Ponikarovsky (dislocated shoulder), and Darryl Boyce (dislocated shoulder) all remain on inured reserve.
The Week Ahead -- The Senators try to rebound from a 5-1 loss to Buffalo Tuesday when they face Martin Brodeur and the Devils in New Jersey Wednesday. The Maple Leafs and Sabres hook-up for a divisional game in Buffalo, the Bruins take on the Penguins in Pittsburgh and the Canadiens play at Florida.
The Leafs are the only Northeast team in action on Thursday, as they host the Islanders.
The Sabres are at Madison Square Garden to face the Rangers Saturday, while the Bruins visit the Air Canada Centre for a battle with the Maple Leafs. Also, the Canadiens host the Flyers in the first of a home-and-home, and the Senators meet the Devils again, this time in Ottawa.
On Sunday, the Penguins are in Buffalo and Montreal finishes off the home-and-home with Philadelphia at the Wachovia Center.
On Tuesday, Boston is at Carolina, Columbus is at Toronto, the Rangers are at Montreal and the Flyers are in Ottawa.