Maple Leafs GM: John Ferguson

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:34 AM ET

Those who said John Ferguson was getting in over his head four years ago must admit: The man sure can tread water.

He enters 2008 in much the same survival mode as his first day in office, trying to prove himself the proactive general manager that many doubted he could be when plucked from obscurity to run the famous franchise in 2003.

Just when you think he has gone under the waves for good, weighted by the fat contracts he doled out for defencemen, his free-agent forays or tangled in the twine of three controversial goaltender moves, his team gets hot or his boss tosses him a life preserver.

Such fluctuations make it hard to judge Ferguson's impact, other than the Leafs have had two close calls with making the playoffs. Is this season already a write-off as one broadsheet columnist boldly claimed, or is this modest December indicative of a better second half?

You want to believe Ferguson has an exit strategy for the Leafs, after his years in Pat Quinn's shadow, adjusting to the post-lockout NHL and revamping such areas as scouting and fitness. But he has undermined his own cause by trading some of the precious youth and draft picks he swore to protect. His tenure is riddled by risky moves such as Ed Belfour, Andrew Raycroft, Jeff O'Neill, Eric Lindros, Yanic Perreault, Alex Khavanov and Jason Allison.

As other teams signed young talent to long-term, cap-friendly deals, Ferguson had little wiggle room with the budget and few building blocks.

Yet it's not all down to him. Attaining 100% health has been as long a wait as a Wade Belak goal drought. Yet when the planets align, such as a recent two-week clean bill, the Leafs played some great hockey.

And critics of locking up McCabe and Darcy Tucker in multi-year deals, or jumping at big-ticket Pavel Kubina and Jason Blake on the first day of free agency, must admit they were the kind of first-strike action in which every Leafs GM post-Cliff Fletcher were savaged for dithering upon. Ferguson also had the foresight to park Paul Maurice with the Marlies until the time was right for the Leafs job.

BELFOUR DEBACLE

Ferguson eventually realized his errors in re-signing Belfour and his wonky back, and being too hasty in trading first-rounder Tuukka Rask for Andrew Raycroft, but at least he finally arrived at the real deal in goalie Vesa Toskala.

If JFJ is such a foulup, what does that say about Darcy Regier, Garth Snow, Jay Feaster, Ray Shero and Don Waddell -- GMs who were on top of the world last year but now equal or below the Leafs in the standings?

So far, hanging on to one-time whipping boy Nik Antropov has paid off and the kid component of Kyle Wellwood, Matt Stajan and Alex Steen has answered the GM's pre-season challenge. Faith in young defencemen such as Anton Stralman and Andy Wozniewski has been misplaced, but the Feb. 26 trade deadline will likely be Ferguson's final exam.

To survive, he must make the playoffs and go a round or two. Only then can he get back on dry land.

---

GETTING TO KNOW JOHN

Born: July 7, 1967

Highlights: John Ferguson is the 12th general manager of the Maple Leafs, hired Aug. 29, 2003 ... He played four seasons in the AHL with the Montreal and Ottawa organizations ... He was vice-president and director of hockey operations for the St. Louis Blues before joining the Leafs.


Videos

Photos