That was the game plan going in to the off-season after another abysmal season from our boys in Blue and White.
Given this arduous task was veteran GM Cliff Fletcher. I mean, it's not every day that MLSE realize their failure and place this kind of responsibility on their GM (or... is it?).
Fletcher got to work right away, trading a 3rd round selection in the 2008 draft for Jamal Mayers. While this received mixed reception, the presence of Mayers to the Leafs' now young line-up is going to add some leadership to a team sorely lacking it.
Next on the list was buying out the contracts of veteran-Leaf Darcy Tucker, and the incumbent Andrew Raycroft -- Kyle Wellwood was also left to pursue his career elsewhere. The loss of Raycroft is an obvious plus to the Leafs, but the subtraction of Tucker is a puzzling one. He's proven he can score goals, be a threat on the PP, drop the gloves, and bring some leadership. It was a bumpy ride last season, and Tucker is one the decline, but he can still contribute in the NHL. Holding on to a player of his caliber seems more logical then simply wasting 3-million dollars on nothing.
Before I bring up the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, let's view how many draft picks Fletcher has brought in and out this off-season:
2008 - 2nd (PIT for Gill)
2008 - 3rd (FLA for Kilger)
2008 - 5th (FLA for Belak)
2008 - 5th (PIT for Gill)
2008 - 3rd (TOR) to NYI for Schenn
2008 - 3rd (FLA) to STL for Mayers
2008 - 5th (TOR) to MTL for Grabovski
2009 - 2nd (TOR) to NYI for Schenn
2009 - 5th (PIT) to NYR for Hollweg
2010 - 2nd (TOR) to MTL for Grabovski
2010 - 4th (TOR) to FLA for Mike Van Ryn
Draft Picks Remaining
2009 NHL Draft
2nd NO PICK: (NYI for Schenn)
4th NO PICK: (SJ for Toskala, JFJ)
2010 NHL Draft
2nd NO PICK: (MTL for Grabovski)
4th NO PICK: (FLA for Van Ryn)
Looking at that, the draft doesn't seem to be the chosen route to build upon our weak prospect pool. With that said, however, Fletcher did manage to attain Luke Schenn (The Human Eraser) and that alone impacts our prospect cupboard to quite a degree (quite sadly I might add). Fletcher's feelings on building through the draft have long been long summarized by his infamous quote, ''Draft shmaft''. With that in mind, one could hope John Tavares is a Leaf at next years draft to atleast make up for the two quality picks we'll be lacking.
Going into the UFA frenzy period, the Leafs, for once, didn't throw ridiculous amounts of money at players for the purpose of reaching their mediocre 8th place goal... but they were given the Finger, quite stiffly I might add. Yes, Jeff Finger and his new 3.5-million dollar contract stole the show -- completely putting Niklas Hagman and co. in the shadows and perhaps for the better. While Finger's presence should help the Leafs' defensive woes, Fletcher should have known better than to give a player with 94 games of NHL experience, at 28, a four year 14-million dollar contract. On top of that, Fletcher has created quite the log jam on the back-end, hurting the chances of the Leafs' young defensemen at cracking the line-up. To further the problem, he then signed defenseman Jonas Frogren, from the SEL (Swedish Elite League), to play in one of top 6 positions. And when the Leafs were finally granted permission to trade the struggling veteran and longtime-Leaf Bryan McCabe, they brought in Mike Van Ryn, an offensive defenseman who is essentially a lesser-version of McCabe but comes with a smaller price tag. Excuse me, but is cap space really all that important for a team that is rebuilding anyway? If you ask me, this will be another transaction that Fletcher will be regretting when McCabe is back in form.
On a more positive note, the best move by Fletcher may be the acquisition of head coach Ron Wilson. Wilson is under the belief that this team will only turn it around when a stronger defensive game is in place. ''Do you care if you win 2-1 or lose 6-5? How do you protect a smaller defense? You forecheck like mad men.'' Explained Wilson, ''Look at Detroit. It's no fun to play against them when you never have the puck.'' Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Wilson though is that he understands good things take time, ''I think the last few years it's been 'We need to make the playoffs, we need to do this, we need to do that. And you start start cutting corners to satisfy all these other people's needs and you end up not doing the right thing.'' The Leafs will be a lot more interesting -- and promising -- with him behind the bench.
All in all, this was a rather perplexing rebuilding plan from Fletcher. We've lost more draft picks then gained, and we're forced to put our hopes in cloudy prospects such as Mikhail Grabovski. While parting ways with Sundin was crucial, the Leafs can acquire many assets if they were to trade their remaining veterans - Vesa Toskala's name comes to mind.
Fletcher's Grade: C (Ironically, that forms a sad face if you look sideways)