Leafs GM right back on free-agency hot seat

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:22 AM ET

Sam Pollock or Sid Dithers? Punch Imlach or punch-drunk?

John Ferguson can redeem himself as an NHL general manager starting today or become the latest Maple Leafs executive to be overwhelmed on the opening day of free-agent shopping.

After missing the playoffs, and given that the final year of Ferguson's contract begins today, there will be extra scrutiny on him as GMs commence business at noon.

Patrik Elias, Martin Straka, Mike Peca, Jason Arnott, Zdeno Chara, Rob Blake, Pavel Kubina and Jay McKee could be had, barring last-minute deals with their old clubs.

Ferguson has about $15 million to $16 million US to play with under the new $44-million cap, with a defenceman topping his list and some badly needed character players to be added at lower prices or via trade. Arnott, a big 32-year-old centre from Collingwood, has been on the Leafs' radar for awhile, but it's expected he will be grabbed fairly quickly.

Last year, Ferguson let Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk escape a half hour into the race and didn't sign his first free agent until five days later. Of those he did sign -- Alex Khavanov, Mariusz Czerkawski, Eric Lindros and Jason Allison -- none are back, and his major off-season trade for Jeff O'Neill nearly was a bust.

But this time, Ferguson has more cash, is set in net with Andrew Raycroft and he's not butting heads with Pat Quinn. Toronto remains a desirable city despite a 39-year Stanley Cup drought.

Forty-year-old Gary Roberts has asked to be traded here from the Florida Panthers to be with his 16-year-old daughter following a broken marriage. Ferguson hinted that deal won't happen until today, if at all, as Florida makes a last stab at keeping him or trading him for better return.

For much the same reasons, with three kids in Oshawa and in the midst of a separation from his wife, 97-point Thrashers centre Marc Savard told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution yesterday he has targeted the Leafs. Ferguson was non-committal, but a club source said the Leafs believe Savard's numbers are inflated from playing with Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa. The source said Toronto has no interest.

Jeremy Roenick, who will be 37 this year, has made another pitch to join either the Ottawa Senators or the Leafs.

"I don't want to go to a place where hockey is buried on page D4 of the sports section," the former Los Angeles King told Sun Media. "Toronto is the Mecca. People live and breathe the game. What player wouldn't want to be part of that?"

But Ferguson should be eyeing bigger fish, at least today.

"You do the math and look at everyone's (cap) commitments and see what they have," Ferguson said.

"(There are) clubs that may not go toward a reasonable number that leaves a little room for flexibility, injury and maybe a little something at (next March's) trade deadline. We're going to try to adjust."

The Leafs would love to snag the 6-foot-9 Chara from their hated rivals in Bytown, or shot-blocking specialist McKee from next door in Buffalo. But Kubina or Willie Mitchell also would work. Elias also would be tempting as Mats Sundin's winger.


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