That's true, Nick. At other times, that animal seeks out a secluded place in which to expire, which is what most of the Maple Leafs seemed content to do against the Caps. It did not reflect well on Toronto's veterans that the most energetic Leaf was a 5'9" sprite of a center named Steve Sullivan, one of the players acquired from New Jersey. Sullivan, 22, set up Toronto's lone score. Converting his feed was creaking 30-year-old winger Wendel Clark, who can still pop the odd goal but who no longer intimidates anyone.
Now in his 12th NHL season, Clark can't mete out the punishment or play the physical style that once made him one of the scourges of the league. After trading him to the Quebec Nordiques two years ago, Fletcher brought Clark, who had subsequently been dealt to the New York Islanders, back to Toronto last March. As has often been the case of late with Fletcher's transactions, a team other than the Leafs ended up congratulating itself. To get Clark and defenseman Mathieu Schneider, Fletcher surrendered to the Islanders promising 22-year-old defenseman Kenny Jonsson and Toronto's first-round pick in this spring's entry draft.
Thai draft choice stands a strong chance of being the top pick overall. The first player likely to be selected is Joe Thornton, a 6'4", 200-pound forward of vast skill and promise who hails from London, Ont., 100 miles from Toronto, and whose every NHL goal will prompt people in the province to remark, "He could've been a Leaf, eh?"
Well, this is supposed to be the deepest and most talent-laden draft in years. Can Toronto surprise everyone and come up with a stud in the second round? No, it can't, and not just because scouting has never been a Maple Leafs strength. The Leafs don't have a pick in the second round: Fletcher sent it to the Philadelphia Flyers two summers ago—along with last year's first-round pick—for Dimitri (-19) Yushkevich, a defenseman Toronto had not thoroughly scouted, who turned out to have a chronically bad knee and who through Sunday had all of two goals this season. Toronto is now trying desperately to peddle him.
Enough Fletcher-bashing, however. The Leafs would not be in the NHL's subbasement without the underachievement of such players as Mats Sundin, a talented center who has been invisible since the All-Star break; goalie Felix (the Cat) Potvin, who has been a dog since last season; and defenseman Larry Murphy, Toronto's highest-paid player ($2.35 million) and biggest disappointment.
Word around the Gardens last spring was that the Leafs' board of directors pressured Fletcher into reacquiring the popular Clark. Fletcher, a company man, neither confirms nor denies this. Nor will he attribute his off-season jettisoning of Andreychuk, Gagner and Gartner—combined goals this season at week's end: 71—to the need to dump salaries to meet the budget imposed on him by Stavro.
Fletcher at least deserves some credit for the respect he has shown Toronto's tradition. Shortly after joining the organization in 1991, he hung the Leafs' Stanley Cup banners from the rafters and opened his arms to team alumni, two things the previous regime had not done.
Harold Ballard, the colorful convicted felon (47 counts of fraud and theft) who owned the Leafs from 1971 until his death in '90, was much more concerned with his revenue stream than tradition. During his austere regime Toronto's Stanley Cup banners were not on display in the Gardens; painters, in fact, once used them for drop cloths.
Yet even while Ballard ignored the Leafs' heritage, put a crummy product on the ice and watered down sodas to squeeze as much profit as he could from concession stands, the Gardens sold out. In fact, it still sells out. As bad as the Leafs are, no team draws higher TV ratings in Canada. No NHL ticket is tougher to get.
However, when sellouts are assured, win or lose, an owner's incentive to improve his team can disappear along with his sense of accountability to the public. This might explain the Leafs' six-day delay in holding a press conference after the Gardens sex abuse scandal erupted. It might explain why Stavro took a powder when the press conference finally occurred. It was left to Fletcher, Murphy and the players to express sorrow for what had happened.