Ferguson hanging by a thread

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:41 AM ET

Before John Ferguson Jr. was ever hired by the Maple Leafs, Pat Quinn looked him in the eye and with some disdain said: "You're not qualified" to have the job of general manager.

That was the beginning of their relationship. Yesterday, was the end.

For now, Ferguson has emerged the victor in a political battle that defines the sporting awkwardness of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. For now, having missed the playoffs, signed no one of significance, traded for no one important in this lost season, misread the market, fielded a slow team in a fast league, and fired the coach he agreed to extend, Ferguson is alone in charge for the Leafs.

For the moment.

Richard Peddie, who presided over his ninth hiring or firing of a coach or general manager in his short time as CEO, insists that this is now Ferguson's show.

That's what he says. He says that as other board members whisper about looking for another general manager.

Clearly, Ferguson is hanging by a thread. The Leafs, as always, are on the clock. What may seem apparent outwardly is rarely apparent inwardly.

What Peddie insists -- and what is being done on the outside -- are not necessarily one and the same. But from the Leafs we have come to expect nothing different.

Ferguson calls his apparent trouble with Quinn "media-generated fiction." And with that, he was only partially correct. It was media-generated.

In fairness, Ferguson had to fire Quinn in order to begin to establish himself as a GM. That part made sense from his perspective, even though Quinn has a track record and Ferguson does not.

"I'm accountable, I'm responsible," Ferguson said, talking about the state of the Leafs. He's accountable and still employed. Quinn, accountable until yesterday, was fired for only the second time as an NHL coach.

The MLSEL board, with many Quinn fans on it, reluctantly agreed to pay the coach $1.5 million to go away. On the MLSEL scale of buyouts -- considering what they paid Lenny Wilkens or Alonzo Mourning to go away -- this is almost cheap. Ed Belfour will get the same courtesy soon.

The mistake MLSEL made here is not telling Ferguson he can take the final year of his own contract and eat it also.

If Quinn deserved to be fired, so did Ferguson. In Los Angeles, both Dave Taylor and Andy Murray were let go after missing the playoffs. In Pittsburgh, Craig Patrick, author of two Stanley Cup championships, was relieved of his duties. The GM job, once a senate appointment, is no longer for life.

But what exactly has Ferguson done to earn anyone's trust?

INJURED SIGNINGS

The best hockey the Leafs played this season came after his summer signings -- Jason Allison, Eric Lindros, Alex Khavanov -- all went down with injuries. The prospects he talks so proudly of developing were drafted before he was hired. The goalie he gave the world to, Belfour, didn't produce. Yes, he hired Paul Maurice, built up the scouting staff, made the organization stronger and more accountable, but that's what he was trained to do.

That's what an assistant general manager is supposed to do.

But this is Toronto, where you're supposed to be important. This is, in Larry Tanenbaum's own words, the No. 1 team in the National Hockey League.

But the general manager, to use Peddie's words, is on a "steeper learning curve." With one year left on his contract and no plans to extend it at this point.

Pat Quinn didn't need a learning curve here. He knew how to do his job. He left his impact on the market, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively, but always there was impact. He made a difference. You didn't have to agree with him. But he made you think. He did succeed.

Before the Leafs hired him, Ferguson last worked for the St. Louis Blues. In case you hadn't noticed, he left them in such great shape they finished last in the NHL this year.

He is in charge here now. Pat Quinn is gone. John Ferguson has one year, maybe less, to get this right.


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