We have a chance: GM

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:15 AM ET

John Ferguson isn't about to pull a Rob Babcock.

Aware of the backlash that befell his corporate colleague when the Raptors general manager admitted his team would likely win fewer games in 2005-06 than the 33 recorded last season, Ferguson is typically careful with his words when asked if his Maple Leafs will make the post-season.

"I'm optimistic we'll reach the playoffs," Ferguson said yesterday. "We've got a real solid group of returnees."

Hardly a Joe Namath "We are going to win" guarantee. Yet for the normally tight-lipped Ferguson, it is a statement that reflects the quiet confidence of the young Toronto GM.

We could just leave it at that, accept Ferguson's word that everything is fine, and end the interview.

Besides, because we are sitting in the upper deck of the Air Canada Centre watching U2's sound crew put together the enormous stage for the band's upcoming concert, you never know if the always-positive Ferguson will break into a rendition of the band's song, It's a beautiful day.

But with training camp beginning tomorrow as players report for medicals at the Ricoh Coliseum, we put to Ferguson some of the issues concerning this season's team.

SUN: Are you aware of the Leaf-bashing that already has started around town?

JF: We're going to be successful near term and long term. That is our sole focus. Paying attention to any outside influence would merely distract and negatively impact the decision-making process. I won't allow it, we won't allow it and, frankly, there's no other way to run a business.

SUN: Why didn't you buy out goalie Ed Belfour and free up some much-needed cap room instead of being saddled with his $4.56 million US salary?

JF: If you take a look at (Nik) Khabibulin, he received $2 million more than that in the open market ($6.75 million). He was the sole true No. 1 otherwise available who went to a team (Chicago) that, let's face it, had a significant amount of cap room. It was a tough decision for the defending Stanley Cup champions (Tampa Bay) not to re-sign their own goaltender. It indicates that we're dealing with a new economic model. In that regard, we think we have value with (Belfour).

SUN: Who needs to step up this season?

JF: We are expecting more from Alexei Ponikarovsky, Nik Antropov and some others. We also expect some younger players to graduate to the big club and contribute. Our guys started 3-0 at rookie camp in Ottawa and indicated some might be ready to make the step earlier than anticipated.

SUN: Is this the year you expect Carlo Colaiacovo to earn a spot with the parent club?

JF: I spoke with him number of times last season. He had a strong start, then ran into injuries. I know he has trained as a professional and committed himself to be stronger and more explosive. But it's not just Carlo. There are going to be competitions at both the back and front from our young guys.

SUN: Steve Thomas and Bryan Marchment are among the lengthy list of Ontario natives with a desire to play for the Leafs. How difficult is it to decide who, if anyone, gets a shot?

JF: We're fortunate there are so many people whose families are from this area who want to come back and play. It's a great problem to have, if you consider it a problem. It needs to be balanced. I've said this before. If I was to take each guy that may want to finish their career in Toronto, it would finish mine.

SUN: Did the amount of money being thrown around at free agents in the early going catch you off-guard?

JF: Certainly with the flurry of activity that reflected what became a new market, I think a lot of people, myself included, were surprised not only at the dollars but the term length of contracts given out. No one knows today how it will play out. No one knew then, either, what impact those moves will have and whether or not those were the right decisions for the right players. We had a plan and we are sticking to it.

SUN: While on the subject of your plan, was it not a risk bringing in Jason Allison and Eric Lindros, two players with histories of health issues?

JF: Injuries happen. It's a contact sport. These players have been checked out. We're comfortable and they are comfortable with assuming that risk. Having said that, these players are proven NHL producers with great size. They will be surrounded with a mentally tough, physically tough group that will watch out for their teammates.

SUN: With all these big bodies, won't this team be too slow, especially with all the new rules aimed at opening up the game?

JF: We are more than adequate in terms of transitional speed. Our defence is exceptionally mobile. Our forwards are not only big but skilled and smart. In a hockey sense, that is the biggest difference maker. Speed with no hands and no sense results in a lot of activity with no results. We've got some speed. More important, we've got a resilient team that is tough to play against.

SUN: While you lost offensive punch in Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts, Alex Mogilny and Owen Nolan, are you aware that those four players were in the lineup together just 19 times during the 82-game schedule in 2003-04?

JF: Yes. There were many times during the last (season) we played when we were nowhere near our full payroll. We had some key injuries to some high-dollar players. We still found ways to be successful and we'll continue to be successful. We are confident in this group. Obviously Mats Sundin is a prototypical No. 1 centre, an exceptionally durable guy and a real strong leader. We are strong in goal. Our top five on defence are solid and we augmented our group of forwards by bringing in Lindros, Allison and Jeff O'Neill.

SUN: Excited to get going?

JF: Very much. I got a little taste of it at rookie camp in Ottawa ... And now the real stuff starts (tomorrow).


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