GM fun just beginning in Toronto

November, 14, 2008
If Brian Burke does indeed end up here in Toronto where everyone believes he will, it will end a little rumor/theory that has been gaining some momentum lately in Maple Leafs land.

My Hot Stove colleague, Al Strachan, was the latest to spin it last Saturday night on "Hockey Night In Canada," suggesting that there are some who believe caretaker GM Cliff Fletcher should maybe be allowed to stay on and mentor Joe Nieuwendyk in the GM post.

Personally, I like the idea. But personally, I also think Burke is one of the top five GMs in the NHL.

The safe move, obviously, is hiring Burke, especially since as an ownership group you've long ago laid out the lofty criteria of the guy who would eventually replace John Ferguson, and Burke easily meets those standards.

"Brian Burke is an excellent hockey executive," Fletcher himself told Thursday from Edmonton.

Leave it to Fletcher to take the high road in all of this. The 73-year-old Hockey Hall of Famer is a classy guy. He won't make this ugly, not in public and not behind the scenes I don't think. He's going to accept whatever Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment deems the right course of action, even if deep down I suspect he'd be up to the challenge of living up to Strachan's theory.

"When I was hired originally in January, it was to run the hockey team for the balance of the year until they came up with their leader for the future," Fletcher said. "And then when the candidate, or one of the candidates that they were really interested in wasn't available, they asked me to stay on for another year, which I agreed to do.

"But it was always on the understanding that if and when they got whomever they were going to get to lead the team through the next long period of time, then I would step aside. This was how the job was laid out to mem and I was happy to accept it on that basis."

Fletcher's contract expires in July. That's not the case, however, for Nieuwendyk, the former NHL star center turned executive. He signed a three-year deal last summer to be the Special Assistant to the General Manager.

He's obviously heard the Burke rumours. He's no dummy.

"I don't think this affects me in any way," Nieuwendyk told, also from Edmonton where the Leafs played last night. "I signed a contract with the Leafs and with Cliff. I don't know where this is all going to end.

"I'm not really looking too far ahead. I'm just learning about the job and about our league. Things will happen as they happen."

But make no mistake, Nieuwendyk is getting the bug for it. Many people around the league view him as a future GM.

"I certainly enjoy it," said Nieuwendyk. "I haven't been at it that long. I'm gaining valuable experience just hanging out with Cliff. And from the Florida people last year."

The bond between Fletcher and Nieuwendyk goes way back. Fletcher drafted him with the Calgary Flames in 1985. They won a Cup together there four years later. And now Fletcher gave him a job with a high-profile Original Six franchise.

"I think Cliff has done a terrific job here," said Nieuwendyk. "He's come on board and done exactly what's needed to be done. He's changed the culture of the team and put together a young and energetic team. I'm not saying what should happen either way, that's out of my control. There will be lots of speculation. But it's important to remember what Cliff has done. He is the ultimate professional."

The question you have to ask yourself is whether Burke and Nieuwendyk could coexist. I don't see why not. Burke is not insecure. He has worked with qualified front-office men before, people like Dave Nonis, Steve Tambellini and Bob Murray, who have all become GMs in their own right.

Either way, the drama is just beginning here in Toronto. As one NHL GM said in a text message to me Wednesday night after Burke stepped down in Anaheim, "Get ready for some fun!"

Just a thought on the Burke-to-Boston rumor. Has anyone looked at what Peter Chiarelli has done in Boston? Up and rising team that's challenging Montreal and Buffalo for the division? I know Burke is a top-notch GM but maybe they've already got one in Boston? Just a thought.





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