By John McCauley
March 4, 2004
(TORONTO) -- For quite some time scribes and pundits have been scribbling and yapping about the Toronto Maple Leafs needing to upgrade that sad-sack backend.
The acquisition of former Calder, Norris and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Brian Leetch should give even the most cynical "expert" an opportunity to laud and praise GM John Ferguson.
Leetch made his debut and did nothing but set up three goals in a 6-2 victory over the New York Islanders. Now that's an impressive first showing. Although it was against a team that clearly had other things to do, the accomplishment should be no less significant for the veteran blueliner.
|Leetch was impressed with the depth of Toronto's talent. |
(Graig Abel Photography)
Paired with Bryan McCabe, the career Ranger admitted to the last 24 hours being a complete blur and not feeling that great out on the ice early on.
"To get that lead made it a lot easier. It's been a bit of whirlwind day and to get that lead simplified things," Leetch said. "Everything went well right off the bat."
Obviously when you live in a city for as long as Leetch did there's going to be emotion involved. Right now Leetch hasn't had time to really digested the situation and is disappointed he couldn't finish his career with the team that drafted him back in 1986.
"It's done with now," said Leetch when asked to look back at his time in New York. "I'm a Toronto Maple Leaf and I'm lucky to be here. Lucky to be on a great team that has a chance to do some things in the postseason."
Ferguson and Pat Quinn posed with Leetch after the game. The Leafs' brass were obviously thrilled with the addition.
"This move fits within our plan and is the primary component of that plan," said Ferguson. "I'm confident Brian is going to bring us great transition play, puck movement, punch in the offensive zone and puck possession. I think he'll augment our group tremendously."
Sure the Leafs gave up a couple of primo prospects in Maxim Kondratiev and Jarkko Immonen plus a couple of picks, but Ferguson protected a core of young talent including Carlo Colaiacovo, Alexander Steen, Nik Antropov, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Matt Stajan.
"Make no mistake I didn't part with these assets easily. A premiere defenceman comes at cost and ultimately we were comfortable with that cost," Ferguson said.
The deal came together over the last week or so while speculation pointed primarily at Sergei Gonchar, who was snatched up by the Boston Bruins on Wednesday. Ferguson stepped up his offer for Leetch after that and ultimately it got the deal done.
"I'm not sure exactly what the last piece would be. It certainly went back and forth, but when Immonen's name came into the picture that certainly upgraded what they were getting back," Ferguson explained.
It was the first major acquisition of the Ferguson era in Toronto, but he was quick to point this isn't about him.
"I don't think I need to prove myself. This is not about me. This is about our organization and our commitment to winning," Ferguson said.
"Pat (Quinn) was consulted on a regular basis throughout. He was aware and certainly other important people in our organization, upon whom I rely, were as well. The significance of the support I received from our board can't be underestimated here. This is a significant financial commitment and one done for what we needed to do for this team, this city and this organization."
Looking down the road at the Leafs' roster, the organization can continue its winning formula. With key prospects still in place and the likes of Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle, Aki Berg, Karel Pilar, Wade Belak and Darcy Tucker entering the prime of their careers (26-31 age group), it's very possible for Toronto to remain a contender for years to come.
As is always the case in Toronto though, the only thing that matters is winning the Cup and if the Leafs wanted to improve their chances of doing so this season, adding a player with the credentials of Leetch was needed.
|The two newest Maple Leafs. |
(Graig Abel Photography)
"These types of deals are made to hopefully put you closer to winning the Cup and there's always a price to it. This year it seems to be a higher price for defencemen of this quality than, say forwards this year," Quinn said.
What can't happen to the even older Leafs now is another bout with the injury bug.
Leetch missed 31 games last season after an ankle injury, which continued to haunt him this year after taking a puck off the same ankle. He missed almost all of training camp and the first nine games of the season. That puts him in a category with Gary Roberts, Mikael Renberg, Ed Belfour and Owen Nolan who have had some chronic injury problems in the past.
Joe Nieuwendyk left the game with back spasms after just one period, but it doesn't sound as though it is expected to be a serious thing.
Toronto's depth proved to be an asset earlier this season and if history repeats itself -- it always seems to be the case in these parts -- it will be again.
If you can scratch a quality player like Tom Fitzgerald as coach Pat Quinn did for Tuesday 3-2 win over the Bruins, it's clear your organization has talent. Even more impressive is the way veterans like Fitzgerald and Bryan Marchment have handled heading to the press box. You haven't heard a negative word and that hasn't always been the case on recent teams.
More tough decisions are to come, but clearly with one goal in mind.
"The next month will be a real learning curve about our team and what our capabilities are," said Quinn. "(Leetch) has displayed that ability to adjust to situations well. He hasn't been playing in robot-ish sort of system and people give him freedoms to make decisions because obviously he's shown he can make good ones."