Leafs' plan is developing

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:54 AM ET

Is Alexei Ponikarovsky, who has scored one goal in 23 playoff games as a Maple Leaf, worth $15 million to the hockey club?

At first glance, that appears to be a most ridiculous question.

But the sad truth is, the Leafs spent some $15 million operating their American Hockey League farm team in St. John's from 1998-2004 and in that time produced just one player who has had any impact in Toronto.

If you want to characterize a nine-goal scorer as having an impact.

On the grand scale of money wasted, this almost makes Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment's buy-out of Alonzo Mourning seem fair. Fifteen million dollars spent to produce a third-line winger with better size than hands. Just another reason to wonder about the skewed economics of hockey at a time when just about everything in the sport is being re-examined.

SPLIT SQUAD

During the weekend, it was reported that the Edmonton Oilers will suspend the operation of their local AHL team and almost will certainly operate a split squad next season -- most likely in partnership with Montreal.

It isn't hard to understand why more teams will head in that direction. As we've discovered about hockey this winter, the ends rarely justify the means. Player development is hugely expensive and pays off only in the most unique of situations.

The Leafs have represented the worst of examples over the years. The New Jersey Devils probably have been as consistently sharp as any team when it has come to development.

And in the precise time frame in which the Leafs developed Ponikarovsky -- again, if you want to call him developed -- the New Jersey farm system delivered John Madden, Colin White, Brian Gionta, Ken Sutton, Mike Danton and a few spare parts to the Devils.

It is John Ferguson's intention as general manager -- no, it's almost a campaign promise -- that the Leafs will begin developing their own players, something that hasn't been seen around here since the days prior to draft-schmaft when the convenience of buying ready-made assets took precedence over waiting for the next Carlo Colaiacovo to not develop.

"We may have to make some decisions that are unpopular in order to do so," Ferguson said. Translation: Look for at least one popular veteran free agent, maybe two, to not be offered contracts when hockey eventually returns.

To be completely fair, the St. John's team actually churned out three marginal NHL players over the past seven seasons, but only one helped the Leafs in any way. Nathan Dempsey played four years in St. John's and became a full-time NHL defenceman somewhere else. Adam Mair, who played 184 games for St. John's, was part of a deal that brought Aki Berg to Toronto.

So if you want to blame the Leafs development system for anything, blame it for Aki Berg.

Ferguson, meanwhile, is steadfast in wanting to re-make the Leafs as a team that can do more than simply write cheques.

"It's not 'if' it's going to happen," he said of his emphasis on development. "It is going to happen. We have to be better at identifying players, acquiring players and developing players. The plan is already in motion."

For now, they have only Alexei Ponikarovsky to show for all the years of minor-league neglect, poor decision making and parting with draft picks.

WORTH

So we had to ask Ferguson the question.

Is Ponikarovsky worth anywhere near the $15 million the Leafs spent to develop him?

"I guess we'll find out what he's worth when we sign him," Ferguson said, actually displaying a rare sense of humour. "I think he'd be happy to hear he's worth that much."


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