Search is on for help

GM John Ferguson has yet to deliver the right personnel to get the Leafs into the playoffs. (Sun...

GM John Ferguson has yet to deliver the right personnel to get the Leafs into the playoffs. (Sun File/Michael Peake)

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:40 AM ET

Larry Tanenbaum, Richard Peddie and John Ferguson went to dinner last week with crow and humble pie as the main course.

The two Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment bigwigs essentially told their general manager he was in over his head with all that goes into running the hockey office of the franchise the bosses like to think is the most important one in the NHL.

They weren't going to pull out the carpet on next year's contract extension, estimated at approximately $800,000 US, but they informed Ferguson they would be looking into acquiring a more experienced person to direct traffic.

"John can use the help," Peddie, the president and CEO of MLSEL, said yesterday, the first time he has gone into depth about Sun Media's reports about unrest at the top. "He was fine with being told that. He wants the team to do well."

But the decision must have been as hard to swallow for Peddie, who has championed Ferguson's cause since hiring him rather than more experienced men almost four years ago. Ferguson was a gamble as a compromise candidate during a power play by Pat Quinn, who was hoping to name Steve Tambellini his successor.

Ferguson has improved many facets of the club that Quinn had neglected, but in the past two years during which he had complete autonomy, he has yet to deliver the right personnel to get the Leafs into the playoffs.

They're no lock to get in next season either, despite major trades in the past couple of years for two goalies and some expensive contracts for free agents and incumbents. Ferguson's handling of the Owen Nolan contract grievance and Ed Belfour's big contract and subsequent injury revelation were costly to the club and he has back-tracked on the importance of rebuilding through the draft by trading away high picks.

Ferguson hired lawyer and former Leaf Jeff Jackson as director of hockey administration last year to help with contracts and he has former Quinn associate Mike Penny as assistant GM and player personnel director. But when Ferguson waged a battle behind the scenes with the league on re-writing Mats Sundin's contract, it was clear he did not have the clout of Lou Lamoriello.

"John is going to be a fine GM," Peddie said. "He's aggressive, he's worked in Central Scouting and been an assistant GM with St. Louis. But he's relatively young (39) and we are considering someone who is wise in years in the NHL, who can expand our team's growth. And this is a tough market to work in.

"We're looking at a finite period for this new person, maybe two years. And there's no guarantee we're going to pick someone if we don't find what we're looking for."

Sun Media's Steve Simmons revealed in the past few days that MLSEL hired the same American search firm that recommended Bryan Colangelo to the Raptors and that Scotty Bowman turned down the club's overtures of a three-year contract worth at least $6 million, specifically because he had doubts about working for Peddie. Bowman, a senior advisor with the Detroit Red Wings, reportedly cancelled a meeting with club chairman and part owner Tanenbaum this week.

Speculation has centred on John Muckler, who was fired by the rival Ottawa Senators. Another name that often pops up for prestigious NHL jobs is Red Wings assistant GM Jim Nill, but he is regarded almost as highly as Bowman by the Wings, who have made it financially comfortable for him to remain as Ken Holland's right-hand man.

"I'm keeping my own counsel on all of that," Peddie said. "The only thing I will say is that no hiring is imminent."

Not knowing what a potential future boss will think of his performance certainly makes things difficult for Ferguson heading to the crux of free-agent season on Sunday. But he has more important family matters on his mind, with his father, NHL legend and San Jose Sharks scout John Ferguson Sr. battling bone cancer. Ferguson Jr. cancelled a business trip to Calgary this week to be at his dad's side in Windsor.

The free-agency shopping begins on Canada Day, but first, the Leafs have to make decisions on their own group of unrestricteds -- forwards Jeff O'Neill, Mike Peca, Travis Green and Yanic Perreault and goaltender Jean-Sebastien Aubin.

Don Meehan, the agent for Peca and Green, said he does not expect a deal to be reached by Sunday for either client, but that doesn't rule out re-visiting the Leafs after testing the waters elsewhere. Green was picked up in part to cover for Peca's absence after the latter suffered a broken leg and both might be wearing a different NHL sweater in 2007-08.

As a 20-goal scorer, O'Neill has value, but his streaks of inconsistency didn't endear him to Ferguson or coach Paul Maurice.

Peddie said he told Ferguson to proceed as he sees fit this weekend and not be concerned about ramifications with any front-office developments later this summer.


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