In the most telling moment of a season already in crisis, the highest paid Maple Leaf skated behind his own goal Tuesday night and proceeded to trip over the net.
Maybe Bryan McCabe had done this before. Maybe not. But the symbol was clear and not at all comical.
This is the player John Ferguson has chosen to build his team around. This is his Chris Pronger, his Nick Lidstrom. Ferguson cannot trade McCabe, cannot send him to the minors, cannot place him on waivers, can probably not look at him the wrong way and cannot keep him on his feet.
And the troubling part is, McCabe is almost a victim of his own financial success. The more he earns, the less he fits the description of what he is supposed to be, the more the pressure mounts for him to be something he cannot be.
That is $7.1 million the Leafs can do nothing but grimace about. It is his security for life, and a certainty for Leaf fans that this team, under this management group, can never be right.
The commitment was made by Ferguson to build this team around the most expensive defence in the National Hockey League. That wasn't the plan -- there never has been a plan -- but it's how things have worked out.
Seven million a year for McCabe. Five million a year for Pavel Kubina. A logical four million a year for Tomas Kaberle. That's $16 million in a salary capped hockey world: Two players whose contracts indicate they can't be traded, and one whose contract alone means he won't be traded.
This is the same highly paid group that wasn't good enough a year ago as the Leafs neared the bottom of the NHL in goals against. And after parting with one first-round pick for a goaltender last summer, Ferguson solidified the unit by trading another first-round pick and assorted other draft trinkets to bring in another goalie this summer.
And four games into a new season, the Leafs are again near the bottom in goals against, allowing 4.25 against per game. Now go back to the final five games of last season, relevant because the Leafs needed to win almost all of them to advance to the post-season, and look at the numbers.
In those key games, they allowed seven goals against the New York Rangers, four against the Ottawa Senators, five against the New York Islanders, five against the Montreal Canadiens.
Twenty three goals against in five games.
Not good enough then. Not good enough now. With a new goalie in Vesa Toskala and basically the same defence with big and slow Andy Wozniewski replacing the young and injured Carlo Colaiacovo, almost nothing has changed.
Ferguson has tied his own hands -- some would say neck -- by the manner in which he has chosen to build this club.
He can't buy his way out of this the way previous Leaf administrators might have. He can't trade his way out of this: He has too many contracts that don't match contribution. He can't rely on kids -- they don't have any future stars.
Instead, they are locked in long term with players who weren't good enough last year, aren't good enough this year, won't be good enough next year.
Paul Maurice may not want to play the trap with this team but his general manager already is playing it in his own game of front office survival. Ferguson is, essentially, trapped.
He has never shown himself able to make anything close to a move of consequence during the season. Should this early season slate of goals against continue, the only assurance is that in no particular order the general manager will lose his job and the coach will lose his job and at least one of those firings is unfair.
The best player, Mats Sundin, turns 37 in February. McCabe is only in year two of a five-year deal. He'll be 36 when his contract expires. Darcy Tucker, who hasn't scored in his last 11 games as a Leaf and has five goals in 21 games since signing on for three more seasons and $12 million, will turn 33 in March. He will be 36 in the final year of his deal.
How does any of that translate to a successful future?
This is John Ferguson's legacy. He made the mess but can't clean it up. Question is: Can anyone?