Five years of failure

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:09 AM ET

How did it all end up going so wrong for John Ferguson Jr.?

It is a question he himself must address with some honesty and some distance if he hopes to work again as a National Hockey League general manager.

Ferguson's run -- five-years, one lockout and parts of four seasons -- was long enough for him to have every opportunity to succeed with the Maple Leafs. But he stumbled in his introductory press conference and that foreshadowed the hockey seasons that would follow.

The vision Ferguson aspired to -- the vision he talked about when he took on the challenge of running the Leafs on August 29, 2003 -- never materialized. If his plan was to build through the draft, to re-stock the Leafs farm system, to build an organization from bottom up, he waffled on that almost from the beginning.

PADDLES IN CIRCLES

And while his first month on the job included the signings of Joe Nieuwendyk and Ken Klee as free agents for a team that believed it was a Stanley Cup contender, then that was also his most accomplished month on the job. In fairness, Ferguson peaked before his first full season; the rest was an exhibition of paddling in circles.

"The lockout was a turning point for a lot of teams," said an NHL general manager, who would rather not be identified. "But of all the teams in the NHL, I think the Leafs were the most ill-prepared team. They didn't seem ready for the rule changes. Their salary management has been questionable from the beginning. They got caught and have never quite recovered."

This is where the real doubt with Ferguson started to grow around the NHL. Throughout the lockout, he had insisted the Leafs would be as prepared as was humanly possible, whatever the new system was, whatever the new rules would be.

But what emerged from the first summer of free agency, along with the ability to buy out existing contracts without penalty, were free-agent signings such as Jason Allison, Eric Lindros and Alex Khavanov, all of whom played themselves out of the NHL.

Even before the lockout, some of Ferguson's difficulties in running the Leafs were evident. He mishandled the Ed Belfour contract negotiation, signing an old goalie to a long-term contract not knowing he required back surgery. He wound up replacing medical staff, training staff, and even equipment managers at different stages, some of those taking the hit for the large payout the Leafs would have to make to Owen Nolan for their apparent misdiagnosis.

It was all part of Ferguson tripping over himself, tripping over those around him, in his early years on the job, where he quickly gained a reputation for micromanaging the less important aspects of a hockey club and mismanaging the more important ones.

SWEATS SMALL STUFF

Ferguson, some said, would spend hours working on things such as a chart detailing who would sit beside whom on the team flights. He would manage small stuff, like attaching a budget to the players' use of sticks, or determining when beer or wine is served at team dinners.

And all the while he had a penchant for change, just not the right kind of change.

He fired Pat Quinn and brought in his coach, Paul Maurice. That didn't change much of anything.

He brought in new team doctors and trainers and brought in medical protocols, all intended to improve the relative health of his team. But in each of his seasons post-lockout, the Leafs have been riddled with injuries and suspect diagnoses have hindered players along the way.

If a general manager's job basically comes down to acquiring players in three traditional ways, by developing them, trading for them or signing them as free agents, Ferguson had little fortune in those areas.

His duplications of trades for goaltenders -- sending prospects for goalies in two consecutive years -- brought Andrew Raycroft and Vesa Toskala to Toronto. Toskala may turn out to be a reasonable acquisition, but the fact Mark Bell's contract was attached to the deal speaks also to Ferguson's weakness as a dealer.

In five years on the job, he never made a trade the Leafs won outright.

In five years on the job, he never signed a free agent (other than his own) for the right price or the right term. Jason Blake, whom Ferguson has attempted to trade lately, is in his first season of a five-year, $20-million contract. And he's the best free agent Ferguson has signed post-lockout.

One of Ferguson's biggest problems on the job, league insiders say, has been his inability to surround himself with proven quality hockey people. The two most experienced people he worked with, Quinn and former GM Craig Button, were never embraced by Ferguson (and in fairness, the opposite occurred).

It is nothing like what high-end general managers Brian Burke or Ken Holland have. Burke works closely with former GMs Bob Murray and Al Coates as well as scout David McNab, who should have been a GM by now. Holland has a front office that includes former GM Jimmy Devellano, Scotty Bowman, assistant Jim Nill, and well-known hockey names such as Steve Yzerman, Mark Howe and Pat Verbeek.

RADIATES INSECURITY

Ferguson never demonstrated the strength of character to surround himself with those capable of taking his job. Maybe that was self-preservation on his part. Or maybe it was insecurity. Whatever it was, not having voices of experience and credibility around to listen to hindered Ferguson at his most difficult times.

"John surrounded himself with yes-men," a former NHL GM said. "He wasn't interested in someone else's opinion. He had his way of doing things and wasn't very interested in your opinion."

Ferguson has had five years to prove his doubters wrong. Almost certainly, whether he is fired in the coming days or not, he will have presided over the only Leafs team in history to miss the playoffs in three consecutive seasons.

MISSED OPPORTUNITY

That, and maybe Anton Stralman, Toskala, Nikolai Kulemin and Jiri Tlusty, will be his legacy here. Not much of a legacy. Since the August day Ferguson was hired in 2003, 14 NHL teams will have changed general managers. John Ferguson can't say he didn't have a shot or didn't have enough time.

He had both. He just didn't make the most of an incredible opportunity.


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