GM ruining Leafs

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:34 AM ET

Two days into the brave new hockey world and already John Ferguson's reputation is taking a pounding.

What, players and agents are wondering, is the general manager of the Maple Leafs doing?

The answers, however varied, are not encouraging.

Ferguson's clumsy handling of negotiations with Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk -- where he attempted to have close friend Roberts undercut close friend Nieuwendyk -- sent a cryptic message to those within the industry. And then, to follow that up with a desperation offer to Nieuwendyk, after first trying an end run on him, only demonstrated his own inexperience in deal making.

Players talk. Word gets around fast. The Leafs have suddenly become an exit ramp instead of a destination. Those who play for the team and those who want to play for the team now wonder amongst themselves about the lack of buyouts, about free-agent qualifying offers, about a team that appears to be heading nowhere.

There were 57 messages on Roberts' cellular phone on Monday, almost of all them from players around the NHL. Not coincidentally, Adam Foote, hoping to play for the Leafs, signed a long-term contract in Columbus, where no one grows up dreaming of playing for the Blue Jackets.

Just last week, board chairman Larry Tanenbaum described the Leafs as the "No. 1 franchise in the National Hockey League." Today, we might demand a recount, as the No. 1 franchise is finding itself forced to dine out on other people's table scraps.

The way Ferguson has positioned this team in the post-lockout NHL has one wondering exactly why Pat Quinn was replaced as general manager in the first place.

Ferguson insisted the Leafs would be competitive this coming season. He has not wavered from that stance. But how is that going to be possible?

Ferguson has said he had a plan heading into the re-establishment of the NHL, but no plan is evident. And the notion that he is clearing cap room to take a run at younger free agents a year from now makes nice logic if: a) you believe it; b) you think players such as Vinny Lecavalier, Joe Thornton and Jarome Iginla won't be signed long term by then; c) he has the foresight and long-term confidence to write-off an entire season and deal with the fall-out from that.

The largest problem for the Leafs is how little money they have and how the player market -- post lockout -- hasn't corrected itself as much as many expected it to. Conventional wisdom was there would be a significant drop in player contract values in the new economic world.

So far, that hasn't been the case.

Quality defenceman such as Foote, Adrian Aucoin, Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje have all signed in the $3-million to $4-million range per season. That's more money than even some optimistic of agents were banking on.

Yesterday, quality forwards but not star players such as Glen Murray, Bobby Holik and Pavol Demitra all signed contracts for more than $4 million a season. Which is out of the Leafs' price range because of the way they've bungled their cap situation.

With only a maximum of $9 million left to spend -- and remember, the Leafs and every team have to leave some room available in order to make moves during the season -- Ferguson has the ability to sign one reasonably priced player and not much more than that.

So he will gamble on Jason Allison, who hasn't played a full season in four years and he will hope. And he likely will gamble on Eric Lindros, who he can afford because Lindros missed 100 days of hockey last time there was a season and qualifies for performance bonuses and he will hope.

The No. 1 team in hockey, built on gambling, hoping and inexperience.

A year ago, the Leafs had Nieuwendyk and Roberts and Alexander Mogilny and Owen Nolan and Brian Leetch and Tie Domi -- all of them real pros -- on a team that wasn't considered good enough.

How is John Ferguson going to fix that now?


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