TORONTO - In 1993, Cliff Fletcher liked to tell people he had the best coaching depth in the National Hockey League.
He had Pat Burns in charge of the Maple Leafs, Marc Crawford running his farm team in St. John’s, and Joel Quenneville, one year out of retirement, ably assisting Crawford with the American Hockey League team.
“There’s no way I’m going to be able keep all three long-term,” Fletcher used to say. “Somebody’s going to want to hire those guys.”
Over time, he was proven correct. After great seasons in Toronto, Burns went on to have all kinds of success elsewhere, including winning a Stanley Cup in New Jersey. Crawford went first to Quebec, then Denver, where he won a Cup with the Colorado Avalanche. Quenneville won his Stanley Cup in Chicago, where he currently coaches, after having strong runs with St. Louis and Colorado.
In his best days, Fletcher was as shrewd a coaching talent evaluator as there has been in hockey. He brought the innovative Bob Johnson to the NHL. He hired the colourful Terry Crisp right out of junior to run his farm team. And the trio he had in Toronto — Burns, Crawford and Quenneville — all have had their name on the Jack Adams Award. In fact, if you go back to 1990, seven of the past 22 coach of the year winners were either brought to the NHL by Fletcher or, in the case of Burns, was hired after working for another team. And the number probably should be eight because the late, great Badger Bob never did win coach of the year, which only slightly discredits the award.
And all this is relevant today because the last coaching hiring Fletcher made as an NHL general manager, albeit interim, happened to be Ron Wilson, who is on his last year of his Leafs contract. The same Wilson who is working for an extension that Brian Burke would love to give him but until recently hasn’t had anything positive to trumpet about.
The Wilson hiring, as things have gone, hasn’t exactly been one of Fletcher’s best. But if the Leafs have benefitted in any way from the way Fletcher conducted his business, it has been in the belief that coaching depth brings a certain strength to any organization.
And unlike the Washington Capitals or Carolina Hurricanes, who fired popular coaches Monday in Bruce Boudreau and Paul Maurice, there will be no need in the future for the Leafs to go outside their organization to replace Wilson, should they want to replace him.
They have that next coach in Dallas Eakins. He is NHL-in-waiting. He is probably ready now. The next time a team makes a coaching move, he may well be on their speed dial.
The London Knights lost a pretty good junior coach in Dale Hunter when he took the NHL bait and moved back to Washington. Kirk Muller listened to those who said he had to be a head coach, so he left his assistant’s job with the Montreal Canadiens for Nashville’s farm team in Milwaukee: Now the Predators have done fine work in preparing Carolina’s coach for the future.
This is where the Leafs are now. They can’t be completely certain about Wilson, even in this turnaround season, because of his previous history here. This is his fourth year in Toronto. There has been more bad than good. Making the playoffs will almost certainly save his job and earn him a contract extension — and that seems entirely plausible right now.
But the question may be: If you re-up Wilson, what will it cost your organization?
If you sign Wilson long-term, does that happen at the expense of losing Eakins to another team? Because after Anaheim fires Randy Carlyle and after Columbus fires Scott Arniel and Colorado fires Joe Sacco and Calgary fires Brent Sutter — all of which can happen shortly — somebody is eventually going to make a play for Eakins, who was first brought to the Leafs by Maurice.
Fletcher knew one day he would have to make a decision on Burns. He just hoped the timing would have been better. When he finally chose to replace Burns in 1996, Crawford had been long gone for Colorado and Quenneville, assisting him, would soon be in St. Louis. When the time comes to replace Wilson, they will be better off if Eakins is still around.
But the odds, and the current climate of coaching changes, make it something worth thinking about.