JFJ's credibility crisis

STEVE SIMMONS

, Last Updated: 7:00 AM ET

The problem with John Ferguson -- aside from the obvious -- is that he manages the Maple Leafs as though every day on the job is his last.

We should be so fortunate.

Every time you want to believe in him, every time you hope he has turned a corner, the fallback position remains: He seemingly has no plan for the Maple Leafs.

Everything, including his status as general manager, appears to be day to day.

He talks about the future but remains forever nearsighted.

He contradicts himself regularly, espousing the values of scouting and drafting then undermining his own staff by dealing his draft picks away.

Tripping regularly over his own expiring contractual status, Ferguson now specializes in the stop gap, his solutions are singular and momentary rather than thoughtful and insightful.

The deal he made yesterday with the San Jose Sharks is partly laughable (mostly from the San Jose end), partly puzzling, and barely understandable.

As a singular move, the acquisition of goaltender Vesa Toskala makes the Leafs more formidable than they were yesterday. But at what price?

At what price in the context of this deal -- and at what price in the context of previous deals?

The consensus among most hockey people is that Toskala can't possibly be as ordinary as Andrew Raycroft was last season. This means the Leafs either have a) a new starting goalie; b) two goalies to split time; c) a competition to determine who does what; d) an untradable $2-million US backup.

All at a cost of two first-round picks. Two of the four first-round picks Ferguson has overseen during his time in Toronto.

He came here selling draft and youth and building the old-fashioned way. Wasn't that the story? He told the board members at MLSEL that and they bought it.

He told that to the man who hired him, Richard Peddie, and Peddie has tripped all over himself to tell everyone what a great job Ferguson has done in building 18th-place hockey teams.

That's not the way it has worked out.

Ferguson traded his first and second-round picks in 2004 for Brian Leetch. The 2005 pick, Tuukka Rask, went to Boston in exchange for the dubious Raycroft. Last year's pick, Jiri Tlusty, has yet to play, and this year's first and second-round picks belong to San Jose in the deal for Toskala and troubled winger Mark Bell. (San Jose has the option of taking the first rounder in 2008 instead.)

Turn the deal around for a moment and look how a high-end team operates.

The Sharks acquired first and second-round picks without giving up a single player who played regularly for them during the playoffs (Bell managed to get in four pointless playoff games).

That's not another Joe Thornton coup for Doug Wilson, but it's a steal nonetheless. The Sharks cleared upwards of $4 million in cap money to take a run at Chris Drury.

This is a team that operates with a blueprint.

The Leafs' acquisition of Bell is so typical of what Ferguson has done in Toronto. Bell was traded to San Jose by Chicago because of "off-ice issues." In San Jose, things didn't work out because of "off-ice issues."

A little due diligence on the part of the Leafs would have indicated that Bell isn't a player you want any part of. But instead, Ferguson will sell him as a young, talented, oversized winger who will make the Leafs better.

Especially "off the ice."

That will be just another example of the fiction he seems to have been spreading recently. Just the day before this deal, Ferguson told a well-regarded Toronto radio reporter that he had complete faith in Raycroft as the Maple Leafs goalie. The day before that, he told a Toronto newspaper reporter that Carlo Colaiacovo wasn't close to signing with the Leafs. The next day, the defenceman signed.

Learning to lie is part of being an NHL general manager. Doing it for public consumption at a time when your credibility is in disrepute is a questionable practice at best. Ferguson's job as general manager is to make the Leafs better, today and tomorrow.

But his dubious management of the salary cap, his constant parting with draft picks -- three first-round picks and three second-round picks in four years -- with only two goalies (only one can play at once) and a highly doubtful $2-million winger to show for it -- isn't exactly awe inspiring.

But honestly, we've come to expect nothing more than uninspired choices from a general manager who manages like his contract has run out, when only his credibility has.


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