Cliff tired of the tease

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:52 AM ET

Cliff Fletcher had only a butter knife to hack away at the Maple Leafs roster on trade deadline day, vowing to come back swinging an axe in the summer.

Handcuffed by five no-trade clauses -- $5 million defenceman Pavel Kubina changed his mind on Monday night and decided to stay -- and miffed by a late-season run that might only ruin a high draft pick, Fletcher squirmed while rivals used big-name assets to either secure playoff fortunes or start from scratch.

But at least the interim general manager now can set his own course for an aggressive rebuilding plan of trades, buyouts, free agency and drafting, before handing the keys to the incoming Leafs general manager in six to 12 months.

"I can assure the fans that this team will be different than it is right now," Fletcher said yesterday at the Air Canada Centre, after trading spare parts Hal Gill, Chad Kilger and Wade Belak for a total of four draft picks this year and next.

"We've finished stage one. We will replace the traded players with Marlies and at the end of the year, we'll look to trades, some of which started in preliminary discussions in the past few days, and then look at free agents on July 1.

"Sometimes you don't need a lot of pieces in place, but you need some important ones. And we're going to change this hockey team."

Far from being satisfied that the team is putting together an overdue playoff push with a record of 8-6-1 since he replaced John Ferguson, Fletcher indicated he's tired of the tease.

"Well, I've learned that last year they started to play very well when nothing was on the line, as they got closer to the trade deadline," he harrumphed. "Whether we miss the playoffs or make the playoffs by two or three points, that's not what I was brought in for, and that's not what my successor, the ultimate man, will be brought in for."

You can bet the five Leafs who stuck to their no-trade guns, all of whom have obviously grown very comfortable here, will be under extra scrutiny this year and next to produce and live up to their lavish words of praise of all things blue and white. There might also be a coaching change if Paul Maurice can't deliver a playoff spot for a second straight year.

In another era, Fletcher traded two Leafs captains in bold moves to re-make the franchise, but was denied a third when Sundin refused a request to waive his no-trade. Meanwhile, Atlanta acquired Erik Christensen, Colby Armstrong, first-rounder Angelo Esposito and a future first-rounder from Pittsburgh for Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis. An envious Fletcher thought Sundin could've fetched more on the open market.

MISSED OPPORTUNITY

"There definitely would have been opportunities there that would have looked pretty good for the future of the Leafs," a wistful Fletcher said. "But that doesn't mean that those opportunities won't be there in the off-season."

But his highest pick acquired yesterday was a second-rounder for Gill from Pittsburgh, replacing one dealt by Ferguson last year to Phoenix for Yanic Perreault. The Leafs could end up with a top-10 selection or, with yesterday's moves further weakening the team, a top-five lottery selection.

At least their modest February success shows they can't be accused by other cellar-dwellers of tanking.

"You play to win," Fletcher said. "We have a lot of fans who pay a lot of money and they deserve to see the best effort."

There were 25 trades involving 45 men yesterday, one player short of the NHL deadline record. But Fletcher, who usually is the star of the show, was forced to be a spectator. Other teams pursued 20-goal winger Nik Antropov and No. 1 goalie Vesa Toskala. but Fletcher already had determined they are part of the Leafs' solution.

"We were skating in a different area than other teams," he said. "I'm dealing for draft picks and Pittsburgh (where his son Chuck is assistant GM) is dealing for Hossa."


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