August 8, 2005 (TORONTO)
-- So what exactly is John Ferguson doing? I thought Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund were coming to Toronto as a package deal to play with fellow Swede Mats Sundin? I thought Adam Foote was a slam dunk in Toronto so he could play in his hometown? Pronger to the Oilers? Surely the buds could've given the Blues more than that for a guy who wants to play here anyway, right? Right?
While the bulk of LEAFS NATION spends most of their day screaming these questions at fellow fans, call-in shows and unlucky family members who are in the room while the free-agent ticker gets updated, Leafs GM John Ferguson continues to hold his cards close to the vest.
Granted, while this column is being written, or soon after it gets posted -- the Leafs may have another significant announcement or two that might ease the stress of the aforementioned members of the ""What is he doing?"" committee. But, there is a bigger picture to look at here.
Just for a second come with me to a place that few Maple Leaf fans dare to tread ... a step back. I know, I know, for some of you it's a scary thought, but you can do it and I can help.
Pull yourself slightly away from the situation. Try and hover above it ... or around it ... or beside it even. For just a moment, instead of assuming you are the GM of the Leafs -- assume for a second that someone else has the job. You know like John Ferguson. A guy who was hired as much for his vision of the NHL's future landscape as he was for his numerous and varied former roles within it.
Remember this is a guy who was vice-president and director of hockey operations for the St. Louis Blues, and before that, was their assistant general manager. He evaluated talent at all levels for the Blues, negotiated a multitude of contracts and had a major role in their hockey operations. He's also been a player agent, a scout, and spent a couple of summers in the hockey operations and legal departments of the National Hockey League itself. His resume is impressive. He's done a lot. In fact you could say that he's done it all. But, getting back to the original question ... what is he doing now?
Lets analyze the reality of the ""new"" NHL. The only thing you need to remember is this ... a $39 million cap. Period.
Historically the Leafs have been one of the highest spending teams because they are without a doubt one of the highest revenue teams. Historically the Leafs have been able to mortgage the future for the present because winning ""now"" has been paramount.
Well, guess what Leaf fans, history is just that ... history. Winning ""now"" is still paramount, but with the salaries already committed to Mats Sundin, Ed Belfour, Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle, Ken Klee and Matt Stajan the Leafs are in a very tight spot this year with their payroll. Because of that, the moves they've made so far have been inexpensive ones like the acquisition and signing of Jeff O'Neill, Tie Domi and Jason Allison.
But here's the deal -- look around -- the Leafs are not the only team that's been relatively quiet.
You will notice that most of the notoriously high payroll teams are all of a sudden severely handcuffed with the introduction of a cap on team payrolls. Detroit had to let Darren McCarty and Derian Hatcher go. Colorado had to watch Peter Forsberg leave in order to hang on to a couple of really big tickets in Joe Sakic and Rob Blake. St. Louis has rid themselves of Pronger and Pavol Demitra, and other than re-signing Mike Modano, Dallas has also done very little on the open market.
Then there's the Rangers and Flyers. New York has always spent money like it grows on trees in The Garden, but they clearly saw this new landscape coming because they dumped as many of their high priced, big ticket contracts as they could at the trade deadline in 2004 to give themselves wiggle room -- not to mention the fact that they bought out Bobby Holik and what was left of his asinine five-year $45 million contract as soon as they could this summer. As for Philly, well that's an easy one ... they're this season's exception to the rule. It's quite obvious Bobby Clarke is going for it now ... and by now, I mean RIGHT NOW. Out are Amonte, Leclair, Markov and Roenick. In are Forsberg, Hatcher, Rathje and 2 very good young prospects in Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
So that means the Leafs and the rest of the big spenders are up that well known creek without a paddle right? Yes ... and no. John Ferguson knows he's limited this year, but he is also well aware of the fact that (despite the beliefs of some doomsday theorists) hockey will in fact be played beyond the 05-06 season.
Life goes on and so will hockey. Don't worry about Glen Murray staying in Boston, Mike Modano re-upping in Dallas, or Paul Kariya going to Shania Twain-country to play for the Predators. Don't fret over how much better the Leaf defence would have looked with Adam Foote steamrolling opposition forwards into the platinum seats or with Scott Niedermayer sending tape-to-tape passes to Peter Forsberg at the opposing blue line. Instead, remember that the season actually starts at the beginning of October. It doesn't start at the beginning of August -- there is PLENTY of time for more moves.
Will John Ferguson make this a playoff team again this season? Yes. Will they be a Cup contender? In my opinion; no, but a lot can happen before puck drop on October 5th, and after it for that matter. And if you believe that Ferguson does indeed have a plan then give him a chance to play his cards. That plan could very well be to tread a little water this season, stay competitive and squeeze every ounce of talent he can out of his roster -- whatever it may be -- while the troublesome contracts begin to fade away.
At the same time, he and his staff will spend the season feeling out the new landscape, watching where the dominos fall and then position himself and the team perfectly for next year's crop of unrestricted free agents. A crop which could include the likes of Vincent Lecavalier, Wade Redden, Jose Theodore, Marian Hossa, Joe Thornton, and Zdeno Chara.
Are you feeling better yet? Perhaps this will help ... the unrestricted free agent crop will likely be very good every year from now on because the age for free agency is going down and I mean way down. How about Sidney Crosby a Maple Leaf at age 25, in the prime of his career? Could happen. Now I know you're feeling better.
The new NHL will command a tremendous adjustment the likes of which the Maple Leafs have never seen before. But know this LEAFS NATION, whether it's Clancy, Horner, and Day ... Bower, Mahovlich and Keon ... or Stajan, Wellwood and Colaiacovo ... the ultimate goal remains the same.
Just win baby. Whatever your plan may be.