Don't judge Leafs GM yet

GEORGE GROSS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:21 AM ET

It has often been said that the thing about opinion is that everyone has one.

And so, over the past week, the Toronto media and fans have seen fit to vent their collective frustrations over the perceived lack of activity by one John Ferguson Jr., general manager of the city's beloved Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club.

To the critics, Ferguson Jr. first failed to clear cap room by not buying out some of the major salaries on the team. The last time I checked, those salaries belonged to Mats Sundin, Ed Belfour and, to a lesser extent, Bryan McCabe. To my recollection, not one team bought out its leading scorer who, in this case, also happens to be the team's spiritual leader. So that eliminates Sundin.

Which brings us to Belfour. The critics wanted him bought out. Do those same critics think Mikael Tellqvist is ready to be an everyday starting goalie? Or do those same critics expect that Nikolai Khabibulin, the only star-quality goaltender on the market, would've jumped at the chance to come to Toronto? Even if he had, his salary would have cost $2 million more than Belfour's. I guess that strategy wouldn't have worked either.

I don't recall any team buying out its best defenceman in the prime of his career. While one might argue that perhaps McCabe is not the best defenceman the Leafs have had, he certainly is the best of those in the prime of their careers.

And that does not even address the probability that Ferguson Jr. didn't even have the power to buy out those contracts even if he wanted to! We all know how much Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., and the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan enjoy paying players not to play as they have done several times with the Raptors.

Next, the critics weren't happy to see Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk head off to retirement in the Sunshine State. They wanted to keep a pair of 40-year-olds who would not play in Toronto on a one-year contract basis.

Yet those same critics didn't want a 40-year-old all-star goalie who gets 20-25% of the games off.

The critics then called Ferguson Jr. out for not being able to trade players to get around the cap and cited the glorious job done by Bob Clarke and the Philadelphia Flyers in getting three free-agent defencemen and superstar Peter Forsberg. Most of those critics have anointed the Flyers as Stanley Cup champions even though not a single game has been played. Heck, why not just cancel another season and put the Flyers' names on the Stanley Cup?

If the critics think Belfour is too old and not worth his salary, what the heck do they think other general managers would be thinking if it was true? So, trading Belfour to make the cap is out.

Do the critics really think that the St. Louis Blues would have taken McCabe or Tomas Kaberle plus Karel Pilar and Carlo Colaiacovo for Chris Pronger? And even if they did, cap room would've still been a problem for the Leafs let alone finding three other defencemen to play with Pronger.

Finally, the critics bemoan the fact that Ferguson Jr. doesn't have a plan because he hasn't circulated it to the media or public. Since when is it the job of a general manager to give away his strategy to the public?

On the day that the NHL's new cap structure became public knowledge, did I miss the public statement by Clarke saying he was going to go after three big defencemen (Darien Hatcher, Mike Rathje, Chris Therien) and then sign a superstar forward (Forsberg) and after all that trade one of his best players (Jeremy Roenick)?

My opinion, for what it's worth, is that the only way to judge Ferguson Jr.'s ability to lead and manage is to wait until the cap structure has been in place and operating for at least three years. Just as you shouldn't get Stanley Cup rings made after a 10-game winning streak during the season, or trade all the players and fire the coach for a 10-game losing streak, so critics shouldn't judge performance until the entire saga is played out.


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