Cliff caught in the middle

STEVE SIMMONS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 11:29 AM ET

Cliff Fletcher walked in on the mess that was the Maple Leafs with something of an open mind.

But it didn't take long for him to determine that there were serious internal problems with the hockey team he had inherited.

It meant Bryan McCabe had to be traded -- essentially given away -- even though he had a no-trade contract.

It meant Darcy Tucker had to be bought out, even though he had just completed the first year of an expensive four-year arrangement.

It meant the once promising Kyle Wellwood had to be let go.

"It was my opinion, and the opinion of the people who surround me here, that we had to change the complexity of the dressing room," Fletcher said. "I'm not saying Darcy Tucker is a bad hockey player or a bad person. I'm not saying Bryan McCabe was a problem or the same thing about Wellwood. I'm just saying the combination of what was going on in that room, whatever dynamics, wasn't working.

"We couldn't just make one change or two changes. We needed to make dramatic changes. Something had to be done to change the culture of this hockey club. If you're losing too many years in a row, you have to change the culture. I felt this team accepted defeat far too easily. I thought they were satisfied much too easily. I didn't think we competed at the level you have to compete to be successful in the National Hockey League.

"It wasn't one guy. It wasn't one bad guy. It was the core of that team. We had to change that. Or, we would have just been repeating ourselves year after year."

All of this, the current state of the Leafs, a team with more time than promise, comes courtesy of the three post-lockout seasons of John Ferguson Jr., as general manager. The recovery won't be quick or easy.

"The first time I was general manager of the Leafs, if you made a mistake, you could buy your way out of it," said Fletcher. "With the salary cap, post-lockout, you don't have that luxury. You make a mistake on a player or a contract and it comes back to bite you."

What he didn't say was: You make a lot of mistakes and you end up, as the Leafs did under Ferguson, missing the playoffs three consecutive seasons and leaving behind a prospects cupboard that is nearly bare.

TOUGH TO DEFINE

The current state of the Maple Leafs is indeed difficult to define. If the Ferguson years were about fighting -- and losing that fight -- for the last playoff spot each and every season, it is hard to know what these Leafs are. They are neither young nor old. They are neither fast nor slow. They are neither equipped up front or gifted in the back end, with the exception of Vesa Toskala in goal. They have a GM in Fletcher who won't be the general manager come next summer and a coach, Ron Wilson, who is better prepared and organized to make something out of nothing -- which is his job description for the coming season.

But if anything, Fletcher's Leafs are somewhat of a contradiction. They are a team looking to youth, but constantly in the background talking about moving draft picks, which is their future. After criticizing Ferguson for dealing too many draft picks away, Fletcher dealt a second-round pick to Montreal for centre Mikhail Grabovski. If Grabovski can earn a place on the Leafs' top two lines and deliver something of consequence, it's a great trade for the Leafs. But if he ends up as just another guy on just another team, it's a weak deal for Toronto, which has to stockpile picks to rebuild a system sorely in need of it.

The truth? They have one big-time prospect in defenceman Luke Schenn. After that, it's nothing but questions.

They have a solid top 10 NHL goalie in Toskala.

They have decent offensive-minded defencemen in Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Kubina and, if healthy, Carlo Colaiacovo.

And that's about it.

The three Ferguson teams that didn't make the playoffs had Mats Sundin. If those teams were as thin up front as Sundin's hairline, imagine the team without him.

The best of the off-season acquisitions in free agency was Niklas Hagman, signed away from the Dallas Stars. But the players Ferguson left behind -- Alex Steen, Nik Antropov, Alexei Ponikarovky, Matt Stajan, Jason Blake -- hardly inspire offensive confidence in a division where there are Sidney Crosbys, Alexander Ovechkins, Dany Heatleys, Alexei Kovalevs and Mike Richards on the teams they hope to compete against.

The Leafs, again, may be caught in the middle, in no man's land, not lousy enough to get a high draft pick, not anywhere near talented enough to make the playoffs. It would be in Fletcher's best interest -- and in the interest of Leafs fans -- to monitor the progress of this team early in the season and then begin to move assets for draft picks. But with Fletcher, who has shown a lack of patience in some of his dealings, even talking about moving the Leafs first-round pick, he must stay the course.

He has done something dramatic already. He has hired a quality coach and strengthened the front office. What he needs to refrain from is getting caught up in unlikely possibilities. He needs to be as disciplined as his players.

Long-term, the lower the Leafs finish this season, the better it will be for their future. It's in his best interest to lose. But typically, it's hard to convince players and coaches they are playing for next year.


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