Target on JFJ

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:42 AM ET

John Ferguson Jr. might never get his name on a Stanley Cup with the Maple Leafs, but he's determined his fingerprints will be all over it.

The question is, which will terminate first, the Leafs' encroaching 40-year Cup drought or the general manager's contract? After three years' wait for full control -- a hand-picked coach, his own free agents and a modestly productive farm system -- Ferguson now must make the playoffs or at least stay in the hunt to the end with a minimum 90-point standard.

Coach Pat Quinn got the kudos for six consecutive playoff appearances and a kick out the door when he failed on a seventh. Now it's Ferguson turn on the firing line, to show his nervous bosses that his "plan" has merit and those post-season revenues and fan adulation will return.

Ferguson struck a defiant tone when the Toronto Sun asked him how he'll operate in 2006-07 without a contractual net.

"I intend to be here a long time and my decisions reflect that," he said. "I'm not afraid of free agency.

"No one plans on missing the playoffs. I called it unacceptable then and I still do. But this isn't about me, and it never has been. It's about putting this organization in the best position to win. We are well along in addressing many of the areas we needed to."

While maintaining an uneasy alliance with old-school ex-GM Quinn (who had pushed for Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson as his successor), Ferguson re-built areas such as scouting, drafting and player development, added more specialized coaches, a new medical staff, a hockey administration director (capoligist) and brought the club's farm team from across the country to across the street.

When he hired Paul Maurice for the Marlies last season there was no doubt he'd eventually replace Quinn, and up to 10 former Maurice farmhands could be up here this year.

"There might have been one and possibly two players from the system when I got here," Ferguson said. "We've exceptionally improved our ability to develop players, specifically homegrown picks.

"This organization is still feeling the effects of 10 years of almost a wasteland of either poor selections or traded selections. All of last year's (Cup) final four missed the playoffs going into the lockout and (Buffalo) missed it for three straight years. So they went through four years of having high draft picks and some of that depth was reflected."

With the Leafs no longer able to spend their way out of that same hole and encumbered by big contracts such as Ed Belfour's, Ferguson found the new landscape and salary cap tough to negotiate. He couldn't re-sign both Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk, made some low-risk gambles on free agents such as the injury-prone Jason Allison and Eric Lindros, as well as Alexander Khavanov and Mariusz Czerkawski. But it had to be galling to the GM when the Leafs played their best hockey last year with most of his players hurt.

This year, Ferguson was quicker off the mark, trading for goaltender Andrew Raycroft at the draft, landing proven NHL defencemen in Hal Gill and Pavel Kubina on the first day of free-agent shopping and setting up Michael Peca as second-line centre.

"We missed qualifying for the playoffs by a couple of points, which could have been made up in a lot of areas," Ferguson said. "We lost a lot of shootouts, games within the division and we had goaltending, that was on average, below what we were used to."

While he once maintained a stiff public persona, (some nicknamed him Johnny Tight Lips, the reticent cartoon gangster from The Simpsons), Ferguson has slowly let his wry sense of humour come through. He's writing a blog on the team's website and he has a boyish enthusiasm about the new season, even if it could be his last.

The Leafs get tossed right in the frying pan tonight with back-to-back games against the Ottawa Senators, part of six divisional games in October, with seven of their first 10 tests providing a chance for key points at home. But what happens if the Leafs stumble out of the gate or are still mired in the eighth-place scramble at mid-season? Would Ferguson start making out a new resume or at worst, become the first Leaf GM to get axed in mid-season since Gerry McNamara in 1988?

Richard Peddie, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., naturally would prefer the re-vamped Leafs continue their pre-season momentum and make a contract extension an easy call for the board of directors.

"I'm not a believer in the lame-duck theory," Peddie said when asked about the GM's status. "We're not negotiating with John now, but we'll be starting to look at it in the new year.

"A lot of it is tied to how Maurice does, what (new Marlie coach) Greg Gilbert does and other things. John's performance is judged every year, the same way as many people in this company are judged."

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HITS

- Moved the farm team to Toronto from St. John's, improved scouting and player development.

- Oversaw the draft where goaltender Justin Pogge was picked 90th overall and became Canadian junior player of the year.

- Signed defenceman Tomas Kaberle to a five-year contract extension.

- Eight players made NHL debuts last year on a team with a spotty development record.

MISSES

- Signed Ed Belfour to a multi-year contract, knowing there could be an issue with his back.

- Expensive buyouts/grievance money for Belfour, Owen Nolan and Tie Domi, all ending in acrimony.

- Patchwork attempt to fix last year's team on the cheap with Eric Lindros, Jason Allison, Alexander Khavanov, Mariusz Czerkawski; failed to make the playoffs.

UNKNOWN

The jury's out on:

- Hiring Paul Maurice as coach.

- Giving Bryan McCabe more money than Kaberle after McCabe's sluggish finish last season.

- Vital contract renegotiations with Mats Sundin and Darcy Tucker.

- Trading of first-rounder Tuukka Rask for Andrew Raycroft.


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