TORONTO - Trader Cliff has his work cut out.
Toronto Maple Leafs interim GM Cliff Fletcher won't be able to slice and dice as easily as the old days. The NHL's post-lockout landscape features a salary cap that has decreased trade activity around the league. The new NHL is also littered with no-trade clauses, more than 100 of them in some shape or form among the NHL's 700-plus players contracts.
And the Leafs have their fair share.
Core players Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe, Pavel Kubina and Tomas Kaberle all have some form of no-trade clauses in their contracts, very much limiting Fletcher's ability to so-call "blow up" the current edition of the Leafs if that's what he eventually determines needs to be done.
Given Fletcher's history of blockbuster deals, he won't back away from the challenge. For now, he's going to sit back and gather all he can from the current roster.
"I'm going to meet internally with the coaches, the management group and the scouts, and get their opinion on how they see the team playing, where they see it can progress to, rate all the players in terms of value, and eventually come up with a consensus and a plan in how we're going to attempt to move forward," Fletcher told The Canadian Press on Wednesday.
As Fletcher no doubt knows already, Sundin and McCabe have no-movement clauses, the most powerful clause in the new NHL contracts. It means not only can't you trade the player without his consent, you also can't put him on waivers or send him to the minors. Tucker also has a no-move for the first three years of his four-year deal.
Kubina and Kaberle have limited no-trade clauses so there's a little more flexibility there.
Jason Blake does not have any form of no-trade protection and former GM John Ferguson, it's believed, tried to trade him over the last few weeks. But with only nine goals in 49 games before taking the ice Wednesday night against Washington, the Leafs winger is hard to move in the first season of a US$20-million, five-year contract.
He may be easier to move as time goes on, however. His salary decreases from $5 million this season, to $4.5 million next season and in 2009-10, down to $3 million in 2010-11 and 2011-12. While the salary cap hit remains the same, $4 million per year, some teams still care more about real-money budgets and at $3 million for the last two seasons that's an easier pill to swallow.
Much like McCabe. He's earning $7.15 million this season, but goes down to $6.15 million next season and then $4.15 million in each of the final two years of his deal. His cap hit remains $5.75 million for every season, but the real money is lesser as times goes on. A club with lots of cap room may deem that appealing at some point. But again, McCabe would have to agree to a move.
Kubina will be hard to trade. He's earning $5 million a season through 2009-10 and hasn't played up to the level of a $5-million player. Tucker, who will be the first to admit he's not having the kind of year he had expected, is down for $3 million a season through 2010-11.
Kaberle has plenty of takers around the league. But there's no reason for Fletcher to move him. He's still only 29 years old and at $4.25 million a year (through 2010-11) that's a relative bargain when you consider most of the top puck-moving defencemen in the NHL are in the $5-million to $6-million range. That was an excellent contract by Ferguson.
Then there's Sundin, the classy Leafs captain who no doubt must be getting tired of being asked about his future. It's been well-documented that the $5.5-million centre will be an unrestricted free agent July 1. The 36-year-old, should he agree to waive his no-trade clause, would help the Leafs fetch a handsome ransom come the Feb. 26 trade deadline in terms of draft picks and prospects.
But the loyal Sundin has repeatedly stated this season, and again on Tuesday, that he doesn't want to leave Toronto. And quite frankly, he owes the Leafs no favours after everything he's done for the franchise over the past 14 years.
"I believe him when he says he does not want to move," teammate Wade Belak said Wednesday. "I don't think he wants to go somewhere and be a rental player for two months. I think that's a sign of a good leader right there, one that's not going to abandon the team that goes somewhere where the pastures are greener. I think he wants to ride this thing out and win a Cup in Toronto. He's said that since he's been here.
"I can't see him waiving his deal at all just to go somewhere just to satisfy his need to win a Cup when he really wants to do it here."
That's how Sundin feels right now. But Fletcher will no doubt check the captain's pulse again over the next few weeks.
In the meantime, there are no untouchables on this roster. Fletcher comes in with a fresh set of eyes.
"He has a job to do," Leafs forward Matt Stajan said of Fletcher. "But he's not just going to give everything up that's in here. There's a lot of quality individuals in here that can play this game. We just haven't jelled. I think we have the talent in here."
Belak echoed Stajan's comment, saying he doesn't think Fletcher will tear it all up.
"I don't think he's going to come in here and make some drastic changes," said Belak. "You look around, we have good players. Yeah some of us haven't had good seasons like in the past, but I don't think that's any reason to blow this team up and start from scratch. If there's a deal to be made, I'm sure Cliff is going to do it. To make the team better. But I can't see him completely dismantling the whole team.
"We already have good young guys, guys in place that once we start to play better, we should be all right. I don't think anybody wants to start from the basement up."