In all my years of watching sports, I have never seen anything quite like what is transpiring at the ACC right now. Cliff Fletcher was hired with a mandate to gut this team, move some of these "untradeable" contracts and begin the process of rebuilding this Leafs team from the ground up. Funny thing happened along the way though. All of these players that no one else would want, suddenly had significant value. The unexpected however was the Leafs core players, all with No Trade Clauses, dug in their heels and refused to move. Never have I witnessed anything like this before. This team certainly has enough talent to make the playoffs, yet, having missed the playoffs for 2 years in a row, and barring a miracle, are destined to miss the playoffs again, the core players have all stood up and publicly admitted they are willing to accept mediocrity and do not want to be moved. The very essence of what is wrong with this team has slapped us in the face. It is impossible to miss now. There are no more questions surrounding inconsistency. Why can they be so good one night and so bad another. This has become a country club, where players are more concerned about "playing and living in Toronto" then they are about winning.
I have flopped a couple of times on this whole "no trade" issue. End of the day though, my original premise is the one I believe to be correct.
Sundin is the ONLY player I give a free pass to. Whatever he wants to do is fine and I can accept it. I do believe he should have waived his no trade, and I do believe this whole "we are sticking with our team" line is a load of cow bung. Sundin should have waived and come back next year - that would have been the mature thing to do, and that would have been the best thing for this Leafs team. Having said all of this, I will give Sundin a pass simply because he is one of the best of all time, Leafs or otherwise.
As for everyone else, I am embarrassed. I am embarrassed to be a Leaf fan and I am embarrassed for them as professionals. They are the core of the team, they are certainly good enough to be a solid playoff team, yet, here they are AGAIN needing to win 15 out of 17 or something similar to simply squeak into the playoffs. The fans, who ultimately pay their paycheques, deserve better. Simply no other way to word it. I am also tired of hearing "they have a negotiated right" to stay. Sure, that is technically true, but, VERY VERY rarely in the NHL has no trade literally meant no trade. Traditionally, no trades have meant that the player would be involved in the process. Look at Weight, Stillman and Brad Richards this year - all with no trades, and all agree to move when their teams approached them and indicated they needed to move. Can you name 5 players EVER who have excercised a no trade to literally mean "no trade" - I think it has happened twice until these 5 Leaf players decided to be smart @$$'es. So sure, they technically had the contractual right, but, they have broken the generally established meaning of a No Trade and essentially spit in the face of the fans who pay their very high wages and fund their pretty sweet lifestyle...
Dont get me wrong, I really like this Leafs team - I think they have alot of the needed components - but, this country club environment needs to end and this core has proven they care more about hanging out and living the TO lifestyle then coming to play each and every night. Lets face it, when they want to play, and they play hard - not many teams can beat them. But, when they take the night off (as they are prone to doing alot) - they get it handed to them. The parity in the league now does not allow even the best teams to take nights off. Look no further then Ottawa to realize this.
Fletcher is serious about breaking this up - and it is bound to happen. He cannot, and based on his comments, will not have a group of players control the future of the team. I for one was thrilled to hear Fletcher speak the way he did. No trades have never traditionally been used to hand cuff a team into a keeping a player when the team wants to move them. This has now become a war between the Leafs dressing room and the management, and the management needs to break this alliance. I for one believe Ciff will, and I do not believe his announcement of war during his post trade deadline press conference was a hollow threat.
This group must be broken up and Cliff has made that apparently obvious to anyone who listened to his press release. Since the time has passed where he could get the biggest return for these players, he must now turn to breaking this group up, at whatever cost, in order to gain control of this team and begin to build the team the way he believes it needs to be built. He started by trading a couple of very popular players for a handful of mid round picks. This was an obvious first volley and was obviously meant to send a message to the rest of the team. It also acted to clear up some salary and stock pile some picks, so, on the whole, a win all around for Cliff considering the circumstances.
For my money, here is what I see happening:
Kubina - The Leafs have an out in Kubinas NTC this summer if the Leafs miss the playoffs (likely to happen). Expect Kubina to be traded to the deepest, darkest corner of the NHL this off season for ANYTHING he can get in return. I wouldnt even doubt him trading Kubina and the Leafs 2nd rounder (acquired from Pits for Gill) to simply move up the drafting order in the 2nd round. Certainly he could get more, but, I think Kubina's destination is more important to Cliff then the return at this point.
Tucker - Cliff wants to show he is serious about taking every action necessary to break up this group. Tucker is the cheapest of the 5 at $3M per year. Expect Tucker to be bought out and made a free agent. The leafs will have to swallow 60% of his salary against the cap for the next 6 years. Many will say the best thing for a player is to be bought out, because they are then a free agent, plus they have their money. Although this is true, for Tucker, he cant play in Toronto anymore - and that is the worse thing you could do to him. Additionally it sends to the message to the remaining players that you are serious about moving these contracts - one way or another.
Although not part of the NTC5 - but, expect Cliff to demote Andrew Raycroft and Mark Bell to the marlies. If anyone picks up those players contracts on the way down, the Leafs are off the hook. However, if there are no takers, do not expect the Leafs to recall these 2 players. This is $4M they can remove from the books, and if they clear waivers, expect them to play out the year in the Marlies.
Kaberle - The Leafs will have a chance to trade Kaberle next off season IF they miss the playoffs again. Normally, I would say Kaberle is a player they should consider keeping and a player that can be very valuable in this rebuilding process. However, considering what has gone on here, Fletcher is more interested (as he should be) in taking back control of this team, and sending a very clear message to the youngsters he will be keeping that are currently in that change room. Kaberle will be given 1 chance (after the Kubina excile and after the Tucker buyout and Racyroft and Bell demotions) to negotiate with Cliff and work with Cliff to choose his destination and waive his no trade contract. If I were a gambling man, Cliff will not even need to initiate this discussion, because as soon as Kaberle sees what happened to countryman Kubina and seeing the resolve in the Leafs management in buying out Tucker - he will want to get out of dodge quickly and he will certainly want to have some say in choosing his destination. He will negotiate a destination in the off season so as to avoid the chance of the "Kubina fate" in next years off season. Good news here for Leaf fans is that Kaberle will garner a very strong return
McCabe - It should be obvious to anyone who listened to Cliff speak that McCabe is the player he is most angry with. His "no interest" comment when specifically asked about McCabe was a clear message to his player. Cliff can say what he will, everyone knows there was at least some interest in McCabe and enough media channels were reporting at least 1 deal with the Rangers was on the table and just needed McCabe's approval. However, with McCabe, Cliff has the least amount of leverage. McCabe has a flat out no movement clause and no openings to trade him until the end of his contract. A buy out is an option, however, I doubt the Leafs would want to swallow that sort of hit against their cap. Unlike Tucker, this hit would be significant and I would speculate they may threaten that action, but, probably will not follow through with it. With the current signing of the Boyle contract in Tampa and the way the McCabe contract is structured, he has actually become quite affordable moving forward. I believe there is a market for McCabe. More then likely, Fletcher is counting on McCabe wanting out once all of his friends and team mates are gone. But, if this doesnt work, do not be surprised to see McCabe in the press box for most of next year, until he agrees to waive that no trade.
Sundin - this is probably the most interesting situation of them all. Cliff was obviously frustrated that Sundin would not waive his no trade, but, it is also obvious he views Sundin in a different light then all the other players. He was careful to stress that Sundin had earned the right to be a Maple Leaf for life if he wanted to be. However, he also clearly sent Sundin a few messages. 1) he indicated the return for Sundin would have been much higher the Atlanta got for Hossa. 2) he indicated that the core of the team will not be the same next year. and 3) the Leafs will have enough cap space to go after which ever free agents they desire come July 1. Sundin has backed himself into a corner here. As I see it now, he really has 2 viable options. He can retire this off season - in which case, he will retire a hero and a legend and receive a massive celebration in Toronto. His other real option is to return to the Leafs at whatever contract terms Cliff feels is reasonable. This will be a Steve Yzerman situation where he plays at a dramatically reduced rate because Cliff wants the youngsters to take over as the core of the team. Of course Sundin has a 3rd option - and that is to sign a big contract in another city. However, this option would completely vilify Sundin in Toronto and would essentially make him out to be a liar and would certainly ruin his legacy in Toronto. I would fully expect Sundin to be back in Toronto next year at a very reduced salary. I know many are discussing the possibility of his retirement, but, Sundin will want to ensure the city of Toronto holds no ill will towards his refusal to waive his NTC - and no better way of doing that then staying true to your word about wanting to end your career in Toronto and coming back at a discount to help a younger team, with a new core - make a good run at the playoffs and beyound. I am also fairly certain that Cliff will pursuade Sundin to make a very strong pitch for Bruunstrom and provide him the opportunity to play and learn from his idol in Toronto.
After these 5 are dealt with (7 if you include the Raycroft and Bell demotions), I expect Cliff to stand by his words. I love when public figures speak with emotion as Cliff did at that press conference, this is the only time you can believe what they say. Antropov, Toskala, Steen, Strahlman, Coliaiacovo, etc will be their core. He will give ample opportunity for players like Williams, Stajan, Earle, Kulemin. Expect Cliff to make a big splash in the off season. Either in a trade including Kaberle or in free agency (or both).
Cliff has made this much obvious - the NTC group of 5 have won this battle, but, the war is just beginning. This will be a very interesting off season for the Toronto Maple Leafs.