On the night the Maple Leafs were last eliminated in the Stanley Cup playoffs this much was evident: For the Leafs to reach the next level, they had to significantly upgrade their defence.
That was 21 months ago.
Since then, Brian Leetch left in free agency, Bryan Marchment was let go, Calle Johansson went back to retirement and the general manager on training wheels -- isn't that the credo of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment? 'We hire them young.' -- watched as his team has become less and less a contender.
In free agency after the lockout, John Ferguson added Alexander Khavanov. That was it, really. The only relevant move to address the Leafs largest weakness. He added a weak defenceman to a weak defence.
Ferguson chose to re-sign Aki Berg when he didn't have to tender an offer. (In fairness, he also chose not to buy out Bryan McCabe, Ken Klee or Tomas Kaberle, which was a two-for-three proposition for those scoring at home.)
Now the Leafs are injured and exposed and the cupboard is bare. The defence is the weakest it has been in years. Now all you get is other teams scraps and bad contracts.
Ferguson likes to insist this is all part of a plan. If the plan is to miss the playoffs, it appears to be working.
THIS AND THAT
Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment Ltd. needs a corporate restructuring. Keep Richard Peddie in charge of the money side, insert Paul Beeston in charge of the sporting franchises. It would save the company the constant embarrassment Peddie's forays into sports bring ... There was laughing around the NBA when the Raptors hired Rob Babcock and there is laughing around the NBA now that he has been fired. You want a general manager? Maybe they should hire Jackie Mason ... Misinformation is spreading regarding the status of Owen Nolan. Here is the truth: The ex-Leaf can sign anywhere he wants right now and his contract grievance with Toronto has no bearing on his free agency ... Heading into last night, the Leafs were 0-and-7 without McCabe in the lineup, and 5.28 goals against in the games he didn't play. Wonder if his agent knows that heading towards free agency.
HERE AND THERE
One day after congratulating themselves on the play of rookie Jose Calderon and having two fine youngsters waiting in Europe, the Raptors fired international scout Scott Howard. Word is, interim GM Wayne Embry didn't like him ... Ron Francis had his jersey retired by the Carolina Hurricanes. When last he played, he only looked retired with the Maple Leafs ... In response to the terrible play of the Montreal Canadiens, GM Bob Gainey has claimed Aaron Downey on waives. Like that's going to matter ... If it was anybody else you might not believe it, but when there are allegations against Isiah Thomas, no matter what they are, you spend a minute thinking 'maybe.' ... Little known fact: Kobe Bryant's highest and lowest scoring games this season have come against the Raptors. The high: 81. The low: 11 ... It has to be eating up Toronto running back Kerry Carter to see his Seahawk friends in the Super Bowl and he's not part of it. Carter was let go by Seattle in training camp and didn't play this season.
SCENE AND HEARD
There's nothing wrong with Danielle Goyette as a decent third or fourth choice to carry the Canadian flag at the Olympic opening ceremony in Turin. But it's unlikely she would have been chosen had Beckie Scott, Cindy Klassen or Clara Hughes not declined ... Hughes would have been a terrific choice, having won medals for Canada at the both the Summer and Winter Games ... Another Leaf number: Ed Belfour's goals against average is 3.07 against all NHL teams not called Ottawa. Against the Senators, the number is 5.58 ... Chris Drury, the leading point-getter on the impressive Buffalo Sabres, is the 65th leading scorer in the NHL. Jarome Iginla, for the record, was 66th as of yesterday ... With a defence of Chris Pronger, Jason Smith, Steve Staios and Marc-Andre Bergeron, Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe is still picking up veteran defenceman. Does that mean he is worried he's not going to be able to upgrade his goaltending? ... An amazing statistic: the Pittsburgh Steeelers have only had two head coaches since 1969, Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher.
AND ANOTHER THING
The longer Mario Lemieux played, the less aloof he became, the more his love for hockey seemed to grow. To watch him develop before our eyes, personally, professionally, in so many ways, was indeed a privilege. Hockey has been blessed to have Bobby Orr meld into Guy Lafleur meld into Wayne Gretzky meld into Lemieux ... Should the Tampa Bay Lightning win the Stanley Cup again, who carries the Cup? The Lightning won't name a captain this season, perhaps out of respect for Dave Andreychuk, or perhaps because no one fits the title ... Wouldn't you love to be a fly on the wall when Bills owner and president Ralph Wilson, 87, talks football with general manager Marv Levy, 80 ... When Mike Babcock was still coaching Anaheim, he told more than one person that he thought Martin Gerber was a better goalie than J.S. Giguere. Management didn't agree. And now Gerber is having a fine season in Carolina and the Ducks are looking to deal Giggy ... The single most dominant athlete in the world -- assuming he wins today -- is tennis player Roger Federer, who has lapped the field in his sport but doesn't seem to get the credit for it ... And hey, whatever became of Bill Nyrop?