Ferguson's situation remains clear as mud

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:47 AM ET

For a small price -- or about one-twentieth of what it cost to make Alonzo Mourning go away -- the Maple Leafs have put the John Ferguson Jr. story to rest.

For now.

It is a cheap piece of nasty business, unfair to the general manager whose status remains truly unchanged, unclear to Leafs fans, who haven't figured out yet whether to love or loathe Ferguson.

The lack of commitment -- either way -- just makes it all the more murky.

Yesterday, one of two things happened: Either the Leafs provided Ferguson with another season to do his job by exercising the option in his contact or they gave him advance notice on his severance pay.

Either way, it was the wrong answer at the wrong time.

In the very expensive world of professional sport, Ferguson is a bargain-basement general manager. Hell, Wade Belak earns more per season.

The low-end salary and the one-year option buys the Leafs time to consider what to do with Fergie and gives them an inexpensive out should they decide he is not the general manager they require.

"This is good," Ferguson said, "for now."

If Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. truly believed Ferguson was the guy, he would be the proud owner of a long-term contract today.

That is simple sporting logic.

If it didn't believe in him at all, he'd be out of work.

Instead, MLSEL kind of, sort of, maybe, thinks he is on to something. Or not. It's just not certain. Which is a helluva message to send Ferguson.

In fairness to the GM, who has made more errors on the job than Detroit Tiger pitchers, this Maple Leafs season has been a surprise. The team is better than we thought, more competitive, more fun to watch.

Ferguson took stock at the end of last season and focused on areas in need of upgrade:

1. They needed more progressive coaching;

2. They needed better goaltending;

3. They needed to be a harder team to play against, with better penalty killing;

4. They needed a stronger defence.

So he hired Paul Maurice, traded for Andrew Raycroft, signed Mike Peca as a free agent, re-signed Bryan McCabe, added Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill on the blue line and rid himself of Pat Quinn, Tie Domi and Ed Belfour.

Expensively in a salary-capped world, Ferguson made this team better: Or Ferguson's hiring of Maurice made this team better.

But you can't very well credit Maurice for an impressive job done without giving some credit to Ferguson for recognizing that possibility. Seven NHL teams made coaching changes over the summer and two more have made them since the season began. You can argue with some certainty that none have had the kind of impact Maurice has had in Toronto.

One inept season followed by one-quarter of a season of promise, that's the two-year resume post-lockout. Ferguson has become the Raycroft of general managers: We still aren't sure what he is.

We do know this: He speaks with more confidence and clarity, no longer seems to trip over his own bafflegab, has grown into the job. You can't help but grow when you are put in charge of the Maple Leafs.

But has he grown enough?

Is he the best the Leafs can do? That debate remains on the inside and the outside. If CEO Richard Peddie, for example, had his way, Ferguson would have a long-term contract already. Peddie got his way in exercising the option: It means he no longer has to entertain questions on a daily basis a bout Ferguson being lame-duck and all.

The truth is, Ferguson is still lame-duck, a term Peddie doesn't believe in, it's just a different kind of lame-duck.

Meanwhile, other members of the MLSEL board are not so sold on Ferguson. Some wanted him replaced at the end of last season. Some weren't crazy about giving him this extension.

The split on Ferguson's capabilities are not only in the media and the public -- they exist among his bosses as well, some of whom wouldn't know Jeff O'Neill from Ryan O'Neal.

"I plan to be here a long time," Ferguson said, well aware of the politics that surround him. "I'm proud of my record here thus far, both on and off the ice."


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