Cliff Fletcher is assuring long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs fans that better times beckon.
"The message is simple," the interim general manager told the media Monday. "The team is going to get better.
"It's going to be a team starting next October that the fans are going to get excited about and be able to become proud about again."
The Leafs missed the NHL playoffs for the third year in a row — this time by 10 points — and the players went their separate ways Sunday.
The transformation won't happen overnight, Fletcher warned.
"Back when I was in Calgary and we looked up the road at the Edmonton Oilers … I had lunch with a rancher one day," Fletcher recalled. "I said, 'Boy, we've got to straighten this thing out in a hurry.'
"He said, 'Cliff, the corral is full of horses but you can only bring one into the barn at a time.' That's basically it. It's not necessarily a quick process. You just do what you can and methodically, to the point where the team just improves with every move you make."
'We have a plan'
Toronto lawyer Gord Kirke has been enlisted to interview GM candidates. A list has been drawn up; no interviews have been conducted yet, said Fletcher. Candidates currently with teams in the playoffs won't be free to discuss the Toronto job until their teams are finished.
Fletcher said he won't decide the status of head coach Paul Maurice, who has a year left on his contract. That'll be a decision for the new GM.
Fletcher was asked if he'd recommend that Maurice be retained.
"There will be discussions, but you can be sure of one thing: The person coming in is going to be a strong hockey person and he's going to have very definite opinions of his own," he said.
Meanwhile, Fletcher can make any roster moves he wants.
"As far as player personnel decisions go, they're under my jurisdiction completely right now until such time as a new person comes on board," he said.
"We have a plan. We know what we'd like to try to accomplish. When it gets to the point I turn the team over to the new person coming in, I hope I will have saved him at least six months of work to familiarize himself with the team. So what has to be done in whatever time frame will be done."
He was asked if he'd be keen on moving up in the drafting order in June.
"My history dictates I'll explore all options, all possibilities, whatever they may be, to try and improve the Toronto Maple Leafs," he said.
Improvement in less than 5 years
Fletcher declined to finger underachieving players.
"Each year in hockey, some players have good years and some players have less than good years," he said. "That's never changed, and never will change.
"You're always disappointed in some players when you don't make the playoffs — particularly when you don't make them, in Paul's case, two years in a row — and in our case overall, three years in a row.
"There were some players I thought performed well, particularly after the trade deadline. But the overall picture hasn't changed. There'll be a number of new players in the Leaf lineup come the first league game next October.
"There are several moves that the hockey organization would like to try to see happen. Naturally, they might not all happen. Some may, but we're moving forward. We know where we'd like to be and we have a plan on how we can get there."
He declined persistent prods to offer a timetable, but he emphatically ruled out any five-year plan.
"If you're talking five years from now, that's totally inappropriate," Fletcher said. "The team is going to start to get better [sooner than that]."
The most important thing an organization can do in the salary-cap era is to draft well and develop a base of home-grown players, something that Fletcher says takes some time.
"That is absolutely critical," he said. "That isn't done overnight.
"We have 10 draft choices this year — eight in the top 130."
Should re-sign Sundin: Maurice
Maurice, as up-front and intelligent a coach as there is in the NHL, didn't pick the players he had to use. The onus for building the non-playoff roster falls on John Ferguson, who got the axe during the winter. But Maurice is well aware most new GMs pick their own head coach and that he could be gone by summer.
"It's a rumour," he said. "It's going to be out there from now until the time the next general manager is hired.
"It'll be talked about and contemplated. Things that went well will be talked about occasionally and the things that didn't go well will be talked about repeatedly, and then a new guy will come in and take a look at the hockey club that is and make a decision on where he thinks we should go."
Maurice wouldn't knock his players.
"I still have a higher opinion of this hockey team than everybody else does," he said.
He mentioned Matt Stajan, Alex Steen and Ian White as "good, developing, mid-range players" with bright NHL futures. The Leafs have a keeper in goaltender Vesa Toskala, too, Maurice said.
Mats Sundin, the Leafs' all-time scoring leader, becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1. While some Leafs fans prefer the roster be blown up, which would preclude the return of Sundin, Maurice says the team should re-sign the Swede.