January 20, 2006
Ferguson's team needs fixing
By STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun
John Ferguson has been the author of his own inactivity, his hands tied together by circumstance and salary restrictions.
As the Maple Leafs' freefall continues, a hockey team cries out for change -- but no moves of consequence can be made when there is no room for flexibility on the roster or on the payroll.
This is Ferguson's plight as general manager of the Leafs. He misread the marketplace and misplayed the salary cap. That doesn't make him unique: Many others of more experience and greater resume have done the same.
But what's clear in this losing streak is what has been clear in basketball for some time: There is a basic flaw in a sport ruled by a salary cap that doesn't include wiggle room.
There is a flaw that doesn't account for injured players.
There is a flaw that astute GMs must adhere to: Finding a way to deal with 'what if?'
So what if Bryan McCabe, Darcy Tucker and Eric Lindros are all out of the same lineup at the same time with different injuries? What is a GM without cap room to do?
Ferguson, in fairness and in despair, is doing next to nothing and that is all he truly can do. By spending to the limit before the season began, he is left to hope that in the trade market someone will take on an expensive piece of hockey trash and exchange it for something more attractive of similar price.
Other than that, it is same old, same old, with the only hope being that historically, the larger the crisis Pat Quinn seems to face as coach, the more likely he seems to find a way to overcome it. It has been inexplicable at times but that has been the his way and that is what the Leafs must pine for now at this time when a playoff spot, for the first time since the season began, seems suddenly in peril.
McCabe began the month as a Norris Trophy candidate and may end it as an injured Hart Trophy contestant. The more he is out, the more valuable he becomes. It is clear that he, not Mats Sundin and not Ed Belfour, has become the Leafs' most indispensible player. He has missed four games with injury, the Leafs have lost all four and been scored on 18 times in those defeats.
The longer McCabe remains out, the more naked the Leafs appear on defence. When Alexander Khavanov went out with an injury Wednesday night -- not that he is anything special -- there was reason to cringe almost every time the puck was pushed in deep against the Leafs.
There was no way out -- and that was against the Minnesota Wild, last place in the Northwest Conference.
That came a few days after a home crash against the Phoenix Coyotes, last place in the Pacific Division. The Leafs aren't being beaten up by the giants of the National Hockey League:
Teams that may not make the playoffs are scoring four and five goals exerting pressure against a team missing parts.
Part of this has to go back to Ferguson because this is his team, a slow team, and he had every opportunity to remake it however he chose. He made four major acquisitions in the busy summer, all of them somewhat flawed.
Jeff O'Neill was benched the other night and some nights it's hard to tell whether he is playing or not.
Khavanov has been a below average NHL defenceman,
Lindros played well early, disappeared after and then injured his wrist.
Jason Allison has numbers that are better than his game. He looks good from afar, but far from good.
And Ferguson's two big-ticket returning players -- Sundin and Belfour -- have done little to justify their lofty salaries.
Which means what, now, for the Maple Leafs?
They play Ottawa in their next two games, Buffalo after that, then Montreal before heading off for games in Florida and Tampa Bay.
The longer McCabe stays out, the longer this team remains vulnerable.
Ferguson needs to do something, but what?
There is no clear path here. These are uncharted waters and the Leafs are left paddling in circles, undermanned, injured and going nowhere fast.