Deal with the devil

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:56 AM ET

MONTREAL -- The ardent defence of Ed Belfour's bloated contract may be John Ferguson's way of fighting to keep his job.

It may be his only way.

But almost everything about the contract -- the terms, the cost, the circumstances -- weave a telling case for the removal of Ferguson as general manager of the Leafs.

What do you want from a general manager of your hockey team?

You want foresight. You want insight. You want cost efficiency. You want expediency. You want someone with vision, who understands your team today, tomorrow and next year, all at the same time.

We now take you back to June 2004, three months before the lockout, minutes before the July 1 deadline for free agency, with Belfour unsigned by the Leafs.

The prudent move was to sign the veteran goaltender who had played so well in his first two Toronto seasons. That was the easy part.

What followed, however, displayed an inability to read and understand the nuances of the market that was shown just a few months earlier when Ferguson acquired defenceman Brian Leetch from the New York Rangers for a first-round draft pick, another draft pick, and two prospects.

Leetch played 15 games before the lockout. The price for a roll of the dice was exorbitant.

The first of the many misreads in the Belfour contract was the timing of the signing. The Leafs signed him minutes before the period of free agency was to begin.

Had they waited another 10 minutes or so, and signed him on July 1 instead of June 30, by the rules of free agency in the National Hockey League, Belfour's contract would not have become official until he passed a team physical examination.

Because he signed before the deadline, the contract was valid without a physical. And Belfour required back surgery almost immediately upon signing the deal.

Would the deal have been negated -- or re-written -- had Ferguson waited just a few more minutes?

That was just the first problem in a game of due diligence.

The next troubled area was the bonus to sign. Many player agents, aware there were likely to be no NHL games in 2004-05, structured contracts so that players might be accommodated in the lost season. Belfour was rewarded with a signing bonus, which was the equivalent of lockout pay.

The agent looked at it that way. The Leafs did not.

If the Leafs had anticipated the lockout, they never would have signed Belfour at all in 2004 and they never would have sacrificed as much for Leetch as they did in the end.

Many general managers cleared their rosters, preparing for the likelihood of the lockout. Ferguson did not.

So, Belfour got a contract he wasn't healthy enough to receive, got bonus money for time not played and then was paid -- mostly in insurance money -- for part of the lost season he wasn't healthy enough to participate in.

But that wasn't all.

Ferguson made two concessions to Belfour's agent, Ron Salcer, that are indeed confounding. First, he gave the 40-something goaltender a no-trade clause.

Second, rather than sign Belfour for two years, he signed him for two seasons plus a club option for the third. But if the club doesn't exercise the option on the third year, they were originally to pay Belfour $2 million US to go away.

After the rollbacks, that is now a $1.5-million kiss-off.

Now, it's easy to understand a player of Belfour's status receiving either a no-trade clause or a final year option pay out.

But not both.

Belfour, who got a bonus to sign, was paid for some of the lockout, was paid for this season, and will be bought out next year, now turns out to be somewhere around an $11-million purchase for Ferguson and the Leafs. And he ends up in almost precisely the same situation he began when the contract was signed -- requiring surgery in order to play anymore.

You would think, after all this, that Ed Belfour would be a big John Ferguson fan. But he's not. He's not a fan at all.

He played this season with a bad back, behind a terribly weak defensive team. An old ailing goalie, behind a slow, sagging defensive team. That didn't build anyone's trust.

Ferguson's summer additions to the Leafs -- Jeff O'Neill, Jason Allison, Alex Khavanov -- have all been weak defensively. Now he has a Leafs team that can't score at even-strength and also can't stop anyone.

Maybe John Ferguson learns from being taken to the cleaners over Belfour. Maybe.

But his strong defence of the deal should serve as indication that it's time the Leafs began to search for his replacement.


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