GM knows its judgment time

TERRY KOSHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 3:55 PM ET


 Underneath John Ferguson Jr.'s steely exterior there's a bundle of nerves waiting to get out.

 But in the eyes of the 36-year-old general manager of the Maple Leafs, that's just fine.

 "It's a good nervous, it's a competitive nervous," Ferguson said. "It's that feeling you get when you are being challenged and you respond, and you are confident that what you are doing is going to be the right thing. But you don't know what the results are, and that is really where we are."

 Ferguson may be new at the GM game but he knows this -- little of what the Leafs have accomplished this season will matter to the legions of fans unless the team gets past the Ottawa Senators and advances deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs, if not all the way to the final.

 Ferguson has known that since he was hired last August. So he set out to build the best team he possibly could, and the result -- a slew of veterans, including forwards Joe Nieuwendyk, Ron Francis and Chad Kilger and defencemen Brian Leetch, Ken Klee, Calle Johansson and Drake Berehowsky were added -- is that the Leafs begin their march for the Stanley Cup with the deepest roster in recent memory.

 MANAGED EXPECTATIONS

 "We have put together a group that is very capable and we have relied on them to be professional," Ferguson said. "Our coaches have done a real good job managing players' expectations. Everyone who is in the lineup knows they are going to be relied upon and that is one thing (coach) Pat (Quinn) does very well."

 Even those players who may be inserted in a moment's notice during the playoffs because of injuries or inferior play have some degree of experience. If, for example, Klee returns tomorrow from a shoulder injury, who sits? Bryan Marchment? Aki Berg? Berehowsky and Karel Pilar, both serviceable performers, may not get a sniff of playing time at all.

 At forward, rookie Matt Stajan appears to be relegated to watching for now, even though he plays with smarts beyond his 20 years.

 It's one thing to have minor-league recruits on hand and ready to go; it's another to have people who have taken part in a few battles in their careers.

 "One of the reasons I think I chose here was because I was used to having a veteran room and it's what we have here," said Klee, a former Washington Capital who joined the Leafs as a free agent.

 "It's a kind of thing where older, more mature guys don't get caught up in petty stuff or things you can't control. It makes for a much happier room not worrying about who is in and out and who is getting more minutes in certain situations."

 Said Francis: "You hate to lose anybody but if you lose a guy and you can replace him with someone who has experience, it is not a big hole to fill. That's crucial at this time of year."

 Ferguson was impressed at one point in the second half when Marchment was a healthy scratch for a spell yet sucked it up without whining. Tom Fitzgerald has done the same thing.

 "Marchment had a couple of days to watch, and it fired him up," Ferguson said. "He came back better than he has been. Is it because he was challenged? Is it because he wanted to hold on to his job? I'm not sure. But it really doesn't matter, because he demonstrated the character and the professionalism that has been exhibited by others."

 Ferguson hasn't been witness to character and other intangibles just on the ice.

 Off the ice, when the situation has been right, he has sought out his players for their opinions.

 "We have some real experienced people who deserve to be talked to and communicated with," Ferguson said. "I think they understand that and feel that and we are very comfortable with them in that regard. I foster debate, I foster a broad spectrum of ideas to make the most fully informed decision. Open communication is really important."

 Learning the ropes has been challenging for Ferguson, but has he been having fun?

 "When we win, yes," Ferguson said. "That's what it is all about."


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