Fergy's fate in own hands

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:14 AM ET

It's not a trade deadline.

It's a John Ferguson Jr. deadline.

Act now, or go the way of former Raptors general manager Rob Babcock. Maybe not now, but soon.

Coming off last night's 5-3 win over the Montreal Canadiens, a game in which key trade components Mats Sundin, Ed Belfour and Bryan McCabe played well, Ferguson finds himself with a day and a half to change the direction of his career.

There are only three reasons why the cryptic Leafs GM doesn't begin overhauling the roster by the 3 p.m. trade deadline tomorrow.

He thinks the Leafs can make the playoffs. I think I look like Brad Pitt, that doesn't make it true.

Ferguson said yesterday that he can improve the team while keeping the playoffs in sight. It's a bit like sucking and blowing at the same time, but Ferguson won't buy in.

"I think we're working on both tracks and I don't think both those things are mutually exclusive," he said.

Okay, I'll play along. Scenario No. 2. Maybe he can't swing a deal because he doesn't have the skill and the smarts and the salesmanship. In that case, clearly the Leafs have got the wrong guy running the operation.

Lastly, Ferguson can't get it done because the board won't give him the green light.

That last possibility seems remote. Sure, the Leafs make well in excess of a million dollars per playoff home date, but the Leafs are sellers shedding contracts. That should invigorate the boys at the top into thinking big picture.

Besides, the board has proven itself willing to endure countless rebuilding spasms with the Raptors for the promise of winning down the line.

Which, in a funny way, brings us back to the luckless Ferguson, buffeted with still more bad news when Carl Lindros, Eric's father, accused the Leafs of mishandling a wrist injury that will mean surgery and a seven-month convalescence. Ferguson, you remember, fired the team's entire medical staff during the off-season to prevent just this kind of screw-up.

With a season and a half under his belt, the Raptors realized they had promoted a lightweight in Babcock and fired him. A few weeks later, they trotted in a prize, Bryan Colangelo, easily the sexiest choice of available talent. Colangelo came with an estimated annual price tag of $3 million US a season but the beaming directors considered it money well spent.

The Leafs, of course, are an infinitely more profitable and prestigious endeavour than the Raptors.

So what does it say about the board's priorities if they leave a floundering Ferguson in place after gassing Babcock for a similar lack of success?

Among Ferguson's additions to the roster: Lindros, who clearly feels hard done by; the hideously slow and marginally productive Jason Allison; and defenceman Alexander Khavanov who is, as the French say, lousy. The $1.5-million buyout and no -trade clause Ferguson gave goalie Ed Belfour makes him all but untradeable. Nice.

Tie Domi, signed for two years this summer by Ferguson, is muttering about retirement should he be traded which, if Ferguson is sharp, should induce him to deal.

Ferguson has stumbled into a sellers' market. All but about eight of the NHL's 30 teams either are in the playoffs or can entertain the notion of a run.

"Two years ago at the deadline we had 15 games left and we made a deal for (Brian) Leetch," Ferguson said. "The Rangers weren't sure what they were going to do right up to the last week or so. We've got 21 games left, a lot more teams that can still grab that last spot."

Rare is the trade deadline where a GM has a player like Bryan McCabe, the leader in goals by a defenceman, to dangle. Mats Sundin remains an elite player who could push half any number of teams over the top. There is no shortage of material here.

And so John Ferguson, as mysterious as the Sphinx, finally can define himself with a year left on his contract. It's right there for him.


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