TORONTO – The face-lift has begun for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“You’re going to have new management, you’re going to have new coaching, and you’re going to have a number of new players,” interim GM Cliff Fletcher said Wednesday. “This is the start of a new era for the Maple Leafs.”
Fletcher fired head coach Paul Maurice on Wednesday morning, not a total surprise after two years out of the playoffs. The veteran caretaker Fletcher felt it was important for the next GM to start fresh.
“I think it was obvious that new management would want new coaching,” Fletcher told a news conference at the Air Canada Centre.
“Ideally the new person who is going to be here in the future should be the one selecting the coach because they have to work together,” he added. “Obviously it has to be someone that the new general manager is comfortable working with and someone who the new coach is working with as a manager.”
On this front, it appears the Leafs have learned a lesson. When John Ferguson was hired as GM in the summer of 2003, he inherited a coach in Pat Quinn. It was an awkward situation from the get-go.
While not mentioning that situation specifically, Fletcher made it clear he doesn’t think that method works.
“It doesn’t make sense,” said Fletcher. “Because they have to work together and they have to interact with each other and know each other.”
Maurice, for one, was not completely caught off guard when Fletcher informed him of the decision.
“You know the way the season ended up and the changes that are going to take place on the team,” Maurice told The Canadian Press on Wednesday. “So I was very aware that it was a possibility.
“I can’t say that I was surprised.”
Fletcher met with the board of directors of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment on Tuesday and his request to fire Maurice was rubber-stamped. Assistant coach Randy Ladouceur was also fired while assistant Dallas Eakins has been offered a position elsewhere in the organization. Keith Acton will remain as an assistant.
Fletcher also announced that Mike Penny, the assistant GM and director of hockey operations, would become Toronto’s director of pro scouting.
“The board approved the plan yesterday,” said Fletcher. “As the general manager of the hockey club, I laid out a plan. The one thing we can’t do is be spinning our wheels in sand. The organization has to move forward.
“There are decisions that have to be made.”
The next big decision is finding a permanent GM. A search committee spearheaded by Toronto lawyer Gord Kirke has yet to find its man. Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke was widely believed to be the No. 1 choice but when the California club announced he would be serving out his contract through next season, MLSE knew it had to wait at least a year for him.
A source said Wednesday that MLSE has asked the Canucks for permission to speak with former GM Dave Nonis, who was fired in April but is still under contract with the club. It’s not clear what role MLSE has in mind for him. A call to Nonis was not immediately returned.
Other names that have been rumoured as possible fits include former Dallas Stars GM Doug Armstrong, NHL executive vice-president Colin Campbell as well as a long list of currently employed GMs such as Ken Holland in Detroit, Jim Rutherford in Carolina, Darcy Regier in Buffalo, Doug Wilson in San Jose, Doug Risebrough in Minnesota and Wings assistant GM Jim Nill.
In the meantime, a new coach won’t be hired until a new GM is found. With Ottawa, Atlanta and Florida already looking for a head coach and possibly other NHL clubs soon to create coaching vacancies, are the Leafs risking losing out on some top choices?
“I think the coaching job of the Toronto Maple Leafs is the plum in the National Hockey League,” said Fletcher. “And I feel that any serious candidates won’t mind marking time a little bit until our situation is resolved.”
Fletcher dispelled any notion that the organization was on shaky ground right now.
“It’s not in as much flux and transition as you may suggest,” he told a reporter. “I’m running the team the same way I ran teams for the past 25 years as a general manager. …
“We’re conducting our business like any other team in the league,” Fletcher added. “And when the new management team joins us, then hopefully they’ll be off and running.”
With Fletcher still calling the shots, the Leafs may be active on the trade front around the NHL entry draft in Ottawa in June, while also contemplating contract buyouts of certain players during the June 15-30 window.
“We’re moving ahead in a normal fashion and there will be substantial news coming from the hockey club in the next six to 10 weeks.”
There is substantial change coming because the Leafs missed the playoffs for a third consecutive season, the first time that’s happened in 80 years. Toronto finished 12th in the Eastern Conference this year with a 36-35-11 record, missing a playoff spot by 11 points.
Maurice, a 41-year-old native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., has one guaranteed year left on his contract. The quick decision by the Leafs allows him to look for other work around the NHL.
“I appreciate it happening sooner rather than later,” said Maurice.
Maurice was also fired as head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2003. He said the second time is slightly easier to take.
“You don’t take it nearly as personally I don’t think,” said Maurice. “It’s always a very difficult thing because it’s a competition every day and when you lose that competition it’s difficult. The fact of the matter is, the first time is more difficult.”
Maurice’s job was spared in January when the team axed Ferguson and replaced him with Fletcher on an interim basis.
Maurice and Ferguson both stated that the Leafs would be a playoff team competing for the Stanley Cup. When asked to analyze the good and the bad during his two years behind the Leafs bench, Maurice wasn’t quite ready to answer that.
“I don’t know that I’m in the right state of mind to go through them right now,” said Maurice. “The fact of the matter is that there are always things – even in good seasons – that you would like to have changed.
“At the same time, you made the decisions with experience, with your entire staff on board, and you live with those results.”