Leaf brass in dire need of rethink

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 12:40 PM ET

Every decade or so in their long history, the Toronto Maple Leafs have undergone retoolings from modest to sweeping.

The time has arrived for another.

Not just because they are plummeting out of playoff contention. Who, in their most charitable of minds, thinks any postseason Leaf presence will be anything but a few rich gates for ownership?

It is time. It is time because the same most charitable people are aware this team is simply not good enough and will continue to be not good enough until some form of rebuilding takes place.

That includes a rebuilding of goals at the top.

What is needed in the corporate towers of one of the richest franchises in sport is a major philosophical rethink, as the 40th anniversary of the franchise's last Stanley Cup looms next year, about the importance of winning it all.

The problem is this: It is not critical for the Leafs to win. Each playoff game and the attendant gate receipts are nice, particularly when salaries are not a factor, but it is not essential beyond bragging rights.

The Leafs, you see, win even when they lose because they have a built-in safeguard. It is no surprise that souvenirs and concessions income skyrockets when the team is in a slump.

That's because a lot of people are at the Air Canada Centre on tickets they've bought or been handed from frustrated season ticket-holders. Newcomers seeing the team live for the first time represent a fresh and excited market for overpriced beer, snacks and gee-gaws and the cash registers' hum.

The last time the Leafs made an appreciable roster renovation was in 1991, when Cliff Fletcher made the deal Calgary wants to forget and got Doug Gilmour, Jamie Macoun, Ric Nattress, Rick Wamsley and Kent Manderville for Gary Leeman, Michel Petit, Jeff Reese and Craig Berube.

Fletcher lucked out a bit -- Calgary ownership wanted Gilmour out of town -- but the slick little centre was pivotal to the team's presence in the conference final in 1993 and 1994. Interestingly, the team was operated by an individual, Steve Stavro, not corporately at the time.

Accountability becomes blurred by the immense profits Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment realizes from hockey operations.

General manager John Ferguson has said he has a plan. Maybe he does and is not about to reveal it for the consumption of 29 opposing teams. Maybe whatever it is will come to fruition sooner or later.

All we know is that when the Maple Leafs were eliminated from their last playoff game two years ago, Ferguson stated the obvious when he said the defence had to be improved.

Yet the defence has gone in reverse. Poor Aki Berg is still looking for a puck that seemed to go all the way through his digestive tract en route to a Buffalo scorer Thursday night, for example.

Ferguson is faced with a daunting task. With the salary cap, a team can no longer buy its way out of trouble.

There are no quick fixes. Any team seeking to improve has to do it over time and the best place to start is have a good look down the middle, centre back to goal. In Mikael Tell-qvist, it appears the team has a replacement for aging Ed Belfour and junior Justin Pogge might turn out to be everything people say he is.

Leader Mats Sundin has some years left. There are some promising kids. But the defence that needed upgrading two years ago -- defensively, not Bryan McCabe's offensive explosion this season -- has remained static.

The Maple Leafs are rich and comfy. They need to be more hungry and that starts at the top.

If they fail to make the playoffs, coach Pat Quinn probably will be fired. That's an old Band-Aid that no longer covers the real problem.

The brilliant guys making all the dough for their business acumen have to stand up and be brilliant on the wins and losses sheet as well as the profit and loss sheet.


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