Wednesday, January 23, 2008

It's Not What the Leafs Do, It's How They Do It

As everyone knows, the Leafs have fired John Ferguson Jr. and hired Cliff Fletcher to replace him.

It reminded me why I dislike the Leafs and how they do things.

(NOTE: I judiciously use the term dislike here, since lately I have been indifferent about the Maple Leafs. Hate takes more emotional commitment than distaste, and so hate goes beyond what I am feeling at the moment.)

Back to the point. I'll be the first to admit that Habs fans are no angels and can be just as annoying as Leafs fans, but that's not what I am talking about. Let's face it, what fans do only matters to other fans (and if enough people agree on one idea (cheering or booing) then possibly the team for a few minutes during a game. What I am referring, when I talk about disliking the way the Leafs do things is the way people within the Maple Leafs organisation do all of the things I noted above.

Habs fans will know what I mean when I say I dislike the Leafs. It's the way they play, the way they "develop" players, the way they score goals, the way they defend, the players they go out and get, the way they react to losses, the way they react to wins, the way they treat people on the way out...

Their latest - the long, drawn-out, lay-off of John Ferguson Jr. was the antithesis of both forethought and class in a hockey club.

I respect that they had a need to fire JFJ after the Leafs poor first half has them looking at a third consecutive season on the golf course, but the way the whole thing was done made me realise what I dislike most about the Leafs – how they go about doing the things that all hockey clubs do.

When it comes to their former GM, it's worth remembering that they hired Ferguson Jr. as green as they come. That first season, from what I remember it took about 5 minutes of baying from the fans, and the poor guy was already setting about fighting for his job - something he never really got a break from until yesterday.

In my book, if you hire a rookie GM, you must as his employers at least, be prepared to stick out one or two tough seasons. Sure, they did that, but at no point was Ferguson ever left to learn without the unrelenting pressure of playoff money and fans demands following him around. Furthermore, if you say in the summer he is not qualified for the job, surely you put your money where your mouth is and find someone else before starting a torturous 5-month stay of execution for the poor guy.

Even as recently as Gainey's takeover, the Canadiens showed that they care about the way they do things. I thought they did some nice things for the outgoing GM. I'm not sure how Andre Savard took the news of demotion at the time or how he would speak about the Canadiens organisation now, but it must have been semi-acceptable as he stayed on a while in the new position of assistant GM to Bob Gainey. The Canadiens knew he was a good man with a future as a GM, but thought they could do better in the near future with a different man at the helm. As it was, they let him stay on until he found a new post of his own. From an outsider's perspective, things like that give off the appearance that Canadiens actually do care about such things.

Though my distaste rests primarily on the way they do things; admittedly, I am not entirely convinced by what they do either. As such, I can't resist putting down my thoughts on the hockey decisions they made yesterday.

Take the hiring of Cliff Fletcher. In my opinion, the move is a perfect mirror to what the Leafs have been doing for as long as I can remember – that is giving up on a younger candidate, bringing in veteran help (usually washed up) to remedy the situation short-term while they save the long-term plan for later. It is the same approach that a team who has the young talented centre they crave (Brad Boyes), but gives him up for the dream that is Owen Nolan. Then there's that Fletcher trade to get Wendel Clark back for the fans at the expense of the Roberto Luongo pick.

Young is good, but nothing beats NHL experience to get you one round of playoff revenue, eh? And, who can wait around for those youngsters to get experience on their own? That's 7 years without playoff home games for some stupid Cup...

Cliff Fletcher is Owen Nolan and he is Wendel Clark. He is both old and overrated by the fans in Toronto. Like the playoff rentals before him, his job security is short-term and will rely on how things turn out in the near future.

For a team that could benefit from a good long look in the mirror and a couple of hard years (Washington-style), the stop-gap that is Cliff Fletcher is a puzzle to me.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on what I think will be the most interesting hockey story of the week. If you want to get an experienced opinion from a thoughtful commentator, I suggest taking a look at Damien Cox's piece on the story in today's Toronto Star.

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