Leafs bring Coates aboard

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:57 AM ET

Cliff Fletcher's hiring of Al Coates seems more to do with re-assembling his Calgary Flames posse than rebuilding Brian Burke's Anaheim front office in Toronto.

With the National Hockey League already scrutinizing the Maple Leafs for any funny business where Burke's remaining year of his Ducks contract is concerned, Fletcher raised eyebrows yesterday by hiring Coates, Burke's senior adviser, to be the Leafs' player personnel boss.

Fletcher now has filled the lesser of two major hockey department posts he advertised last week, albeit with a 60-year-old crony, linked to the man everyone thinks will be team president here in the next year. The Leafs already have a Burke-friendly coach in Ron Wilson, while Fletcher's contract can be re-fit for any change in Burke's status between now and next summer.

Fletcher has cited the Ducks' front office setup, as well as Detroit's, as the model for the rebuilding Leafs, but reminded the conspiracy theorists that his friendship with Coates pre-dates Burke's.

"I don't care what spin people put on this," Fletcher said yesterday. "Al and I go back to 1980, when the Flames moved from Atlanta to Calgary. He was the first person I brought in (for public relations and marketing). Al has worked at all levels, (as Flames' GM) he made the trades for Jarome Iginla and Robyn Regher and with his knowledge of free agents, he'll be very involved with us immediately."

All eyes will be on Fletcher's next hire, someone to fill duties ranging from assistant GM under the current set-up to vice-president under an incoming club prez. If it's another Burke connection -- Ducks vice-president Bob Murray and assistant GM David McNab appear set with their boss in Anaheim -- the fallout would go right to the league's New York office.

But it's more likely Fletcher will resume his pursuit of Joe Nieuwendyk after the latter's consultant's contract with the Florida Panthers expires on July 1. The Leafs already were turned down by the Panthers when they asked about Nieuwendyk last month. The latter played for the Cup champion Flames in 1989, when Fletcher was GM and Coates his assistant.

"Who we get for that job depends on who is available," a coy Fletcher said. "Right now, we're settled on the task at hand, the draft this week and then free agency toward July 1.

Then I want to look at bringing in as many as three more people (an exec, plus another pro and amateur scout)."

The unrestricted free agency clock also is ticking on captain Mats Sundin, with no sit-down yet in the cards that will shape his decision to stay with the Leafs and talk contract.

"There are no meetings planned, but we are in communication with Cliff on a regular basis," J.P. Barry, Sundin's agent, said in an e-mail.

Fletcher insists he is able to wait until next week for Sundin, saying that would be enough time to re-deploy cap space slated for the captain's contract, which is estimated at $7 million to $8 million US for next season.

Coates said he was excited about being re-united with Fletcher.

"My clear mandate is to start putting building blocks together," he said. "I did a lot with Cliff in Calgary, going to the final in 1986 and winning in '89, but we had fun doing it and that's important, too.

"My coming to Toronto is completely independent of Brian. He has been very good to me (keeping him as interim GM after Burke came from Vancouver), but Cliff asked the team for permission to talk to me."


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