"We have to be better in goal. It's that simple."
John Ferguson spoke those words as Maple Leafs training camp began, when Andrew Raycroft was still a mystery, when Pavel Kubina was still a novelty act, when Paul Maurice was still discovering who and what he had to play with.
When Travis Green was a lost soul someplace else.
Ferguson's plan for the Maple Leafs this season was rather elementary: Be better in goal, cut down on the goals against, be more effective on the penalty kill. "We don't have to score more," the fledgling general manager said, "we have to give up fewer goals."
Ferguson's blueprint, while interrupted but not disguised by the steady onslaught of injuries, has never come to be. The team he envisioned, the team he intended to build, is not this team. The plan he had has been exposed as inefficient.
Go back to the off-season and remember: At the June draft, Ferguson traded for Raycroft. When free agency hit a few days later, Ferguson spent almost $10 million US a season for Kubina, Hal Gill and Michael Peca.
There was some logic to his intentions, believing that the players he paid handsomely for would fix what was deemed to be wrong. The logic, though, has not been realized in performance. The off-season acquisitions -- all of them -- are now in question.
A year ago, with poor goaltending from Ed Belfour, the Leafs were 21st in the NHL in goals against. This season, with barely adequate goaltending, they have dropped to 26th.
In the first year of a three-year contract that wasn't earned, coming off the worst statistical year of any goalie in hockey, Raycroft ranks 30th in the NHL in goals- against average; 32nd in save percentage.
Even the aging Belfour, who was paid to leave Toronto, playing for a team below the Leafs in the standings, ranks 17th in goals against; 26th in save percentage.
The Leafs goaltending might, under perfect conditions, be good enough to get the team into the eighth and final playoff spot. But that's all it is. This is what John Ferguson has given the Leafs: A chance to get to the playoffs and nothing more. An opportunity to be average.
The signings of Gill and Peca, in particular, were made to improve the Leafs' dreadful penalty killing. The evidence, even before Peca was injured, is again damning of the general manager.
Last season, without Gill and Peca, the Leafs were 24th in the NHL in penalty killing and were top five in most power-play goals against.
This season, they have moved up to 22nd in penalty killing, and from fifth to sixth in the league in allowing power-play goals against.
There was nothing wrong with Ferguson identifying the areas of need. But there has been a great deal wrong with player identification and team performance in those areas.
This Leafs team, more than ever, is Ferguson's team. He has his hand-picked coach, seemingly a good one. This is his goalie, his defence, his signings, his vision, blurred as it may be.
As an organization, the Leafs have said the GM will be back for another season, but how can Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. be so clear when so much remains fuzzy? Last year, when the Leafs missed the playoffs, coach Pat Quinn paid the price. If they miss this year, how does MLSEL continue to provide Ferguson with rope?
A year ago, his notion for the Leafs included Eric Lindros and Jason Allison and whatever leftovers he could find after being trampled in free agency. That didn't work. This year, the investment in Raycroft, Gill, Peca and Kubina (who was referred to as "a $5-million player who can't play" by ex-Leaf Bryan Marchment), is hardly paying off.
Which tells us what about John Ferguson?
The trades he has made -- for Raycroft, for Jeff O'Neill (more of a giveaway than a trade), for Alex Suglobov -- have not amounted to much.
Ferguson's best moves have been small moves, other than the hiring or Maurice: Claiming Chad Kilger off waivers, signing John Pohl as an inexpensive free agent.
Small stuff in the largest market in hockey. It's not the right fit. Never has been.