Dryden tried to hire his old friend and teammate Bob Gainey, general manager of the Dallas Stars, to be the Leafs' general manager, but Gainey decided to stay where he was. Dryden then interviewed David Poile, Mike Keenan and John Muckler, all of whom had previous general-managing experience, but none of them panned out. So in mid-August, after he had taken a battering in the Toronto press for his failure to make a hire, Dryden said goodbye to his fantasy of being a part-time president and named himself general manager.
Dryden's vision of what a franchise should be is taken from his years with Montreal, the most successful franchise in pro sports, with 24 league championships. "The essence of what made the Canadiens great still holds true," Dryden says. "You need strength in your organization through and through. In the scouting. In the farm system. In the coaching. In the front office. So the players don't feel they're being compromised."
Can Dryden succeed in returning the Leafs to their former glory? Even those who know him best wonder if he can make the transition from insightful, dispassionate observer to bottom-line pro executive, capable of firing a coach or trading a friend. "I have a lot of respect for Ken," says Edmonton Oilers president and general manager Glen Sather, who played briefly with Dryden in Montreal, "but it's a different racket he's in now. The primary goal [at general managers' meetings] is screwing the guy next to you while not letting it hurt the game. Sometimes you have to be a street fighter to do that, and Ken has to learn some of that. I don't know if Ken has that mentality."
Dryden's meandering, if eloquent, speeches at the meetings have also elicited some rolling of eyeballs. During one particularly rococo soliloquy, one general manager muttered loud enough for Dryden to hear, "Do we have to listen to this s—-?"
"Ken has a way of circumventing what he wants to say," says Sather. "He gets his point across, but not right away. Maybe he'll change."
"Will he be accepted by all [general managers]?" asks Doug Risebrough, the Oilers' vice president of hockey operations and former general manager of the Calgary Flames. "No. But will he be blocked out? No way. Remember, he's in a powerful position. They're going to be forced to listen to him."
"I saw in the last few G.M. meetings how much respect there is for him," says Rejean Houle, the general manager of the Canadiens and a longtime teammate of Dryden's. "If his way of talking is a problem, he's smart enough to adjust."
He'll need those smarts if he's to turn around the Leafs, who in 1992-93 and 1993-94 enjoyed a brief resurgence, advancing to the Stanley Cup semifinals. A series of bad trades for veteran players, coupled with an already aging roster, brought Toronto to its current state of misery. At week's end the Leafs were at the bottom of the Central Division (8-13-3) and last in the league in scoring, averaging a pitiful 1.96 goals per game. Toronto lacks a star, and the farm system—the rebuilding of which Dryden calls his first priority—is threadbare. The Leafs didn't have a draft choice until the third round last summer and haven't had a first-round pick since 1995. "The problem when you miss the playoffs is not only do your players miss that important development time, but also the teams that make the playoffs get better," says Dryden. "Our goal in the short run is to make the playoffs."
To help in that regard Dryden signed a pair of workmanlike unrestricted free agents during the summer, forwards Derek King and Kris King, both over 30. But their impact has been minimal. In fact, the two Kings (they're not related) have combined for two goals. Dryden also signed talented restricted free agent defenseman Mattias Ohlund to a five-year, $10 million offer sheet, but the Vancouver Canucks matched it. Dryden is reluctant to go after star restricted free agents such as Anaheim Mighty Ducks right wing Paul Kariya and Detroit Red Wings center Sergei Fedorov because, even in the unlikely event that their teams did not match, either player would cost Toronto five first-round draft picks as compensation.
"In this league five or six teams are at the top," says Dryden. "The other 20 teams aren't a heckuva lot different from one another. The addition of one special guy might push our team toward the top of the pack, maybe as high as the top nine. But how do you get from ninth to first? First-round draft choices. We need to improve a little bit in a lot of areas and add another special player or two."