The winner of the Ballard Memorial Award, as the person who has done the most to perpetuate Leaf futility, is not even close. Without a doubt, that award has to go to the man who pulled JFJ’s strings, and who handed the reins to BB under a dubious mandate to turn the team around quickly, with trades. That man is Richard Peddie.
Peddie was the executive of the Teachers’ Fund, that owned the Leafs and several other franchises. They were all financially successful, and I won’t judge whether this was because, or in spite of, Peddie. But across the board, they were failures at competition.
When you have a metric-driven financial maven at the helm, responsible for delivering on quarterly earnings, and paid large bonuses for exceeding estimates, the urge to sell the future in order to meet or exceed this year’s numbers, is overwhelming. Going into the playoffs this year is essential, from that frame of mind. “Let tomorrow take care of itself, I need today.” This leads to some really, really bad decisions, and robs the franchise of future playoff appearances. But that doesn’t penetrate the bean counter’s head in any way that can compete with the pressures to deliver today.
The farm system was not in great shape when Pat Quinn was given the boot, but JFJ denuded it far more than ever. Like a dog on a leash, he was instructed by Peddie all along the way as to what he could and could not do. Not that I fault him overly for that part: JFJ was grossly unqualified for the job. But I do fault the hiring of JFJ, thinking that he could micromanage him to success.
When JFJ failed, as could have been predicted, Peddie brought in the one guy that he remembered as having the biggest mouth at ownership conferences. He also mistook the amusement others had for his comments for actual respect. Add one other factor – one that has never been admitted, or even alleged, to my knowledge – the pressure to win NOW, and you explain Burke’s tenure. I’m suggesting here that Burke was hired after promising a quick turnaround. Reportedly, Bowman interviewed for the job, and that never went anywhere. Knowing Scotty, he would have flatly rejected the quick and dirty route. He would have insisted on doing it the right way. The slow way. Again, I have no proof, but Burke’s actions in Toronto, starting with the Kessel trade, can really only be explained if he was trying to keep a promise to turn things around in a hurry. One hopes that BB would have acted smarter, if he did not have those pressures, though one never knows.
The other factor that comes with this kind of management is in the way the team treats draft choices. Luke Schenn comes to mind. Cliff Fletcher drafted him, if I remember correctly, as interim GM. Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether the elderly Fletcher thought he was drafting Brayden (or signing Jonas Frogren, rather than Jeff Finger), he was picked because he was considered a complete player. Not because of expected upside. And whatever upside he had may never be known, because he was rushed into the pressure cooker. A proper development plan would have seasoned him a bit more in the minors. Witness Toronto’s leading prospects, Nylander, Connor Brown, and others, who could probably give the team a shot in the arm now, but it would stunt their growth into what Toronto hopes they’ll become.
It takes courage, and patience, to do things right. It sometimes means the GM threatens to resign in protest, when told to “just make a big trade and shake things up.” It might have to be backed up with the threat of talking to the press, even at the expense of remaining years on the contract. Ultimately, ownership has to buy in, and then stick with the plan. That’s a risk that is always present, especially as this year’s losing record mounts. There are no signs, yet, of ownership losing patience, but it’s not time yet to relax. There are probably two or so years of futility ahead, before the new approach bears fruit. So far, current ownership passes the test, although the appointment of another bean counter as President, is a worrying sign. Peddie, overwhelmingly, failed that test, and guaranteed today’s futility. The joke is, as he was shown the door, he demanded a Stanley Cup ring for him, if they turned it around imminently. Call it posturing, call it naivete, whatever you like. But in an honest moment, he has to admit that he was responsible for today’s sorry state of the team.
And since this was written on the eve of the appointment of the new President, whose expertise is financial, here’s one tip that will tell you things have gone bad: If he comes to you, and says, “What can we do to speed up the rebuild? To make the playoffs this year?” Even next year, if he asks for it as a guarantee, then that means he’s going to emulate Peddie, and you have to threaten to resign on the spot. That’s the only way to preserve your integrity against what is sure to come. The same goes for Brendan. In fact, he’ll probably be the canary in the coalmine.