Catch-22 for Ferguson

John Ferguson Jr. is in a tough spot. As the GM of the Leafs, it’s his job to build the Leafs into a successful team. In my opinion, he’s done a lousy job of this, and the fact that the Leafs are playing really badly, losing yesterday to the worst team in the league, is evidence of this. The right thing to do now, as I’ve believed for a couple of years, is to blow the team up and start over with young kids and draft picks. One problem with this idea is that lots of the Leafs have long expensive contracts with no-trade clauses. These will be hard to get rid of, since nobody wants to take on that big a contract unless it’s for an exceptional player, of which the Leafs have none.

And then there’s Mats Sundin. He’s been the face of the Leafs for over ten years, is a fan favourite, and is still an impact player. He has stated numerous times that he wants to remain in Toronto, but he’s by far the most tradeable player on the team, in that he’d get the most interest and the Leafs would get more for him than the rest of the team combined. The buzz around Toronto is whether or not the Leafs will trade Sundin, who’s an unrestricted free agent after this season. If they do, it’s basically an admission that they’re not going to make the playoffs this year, and that they’re trying to rebuild. As much as I love Sundin, this is the right thing to do.

I heard some hockey analysts (far more knowledgable about hockey than myself) on the radio yesterday talking about this, and they said that Philly got a couple of current players (one great, one good) and two draft picks for an injured Peter Forsberg, and that Sundin would fetch even more than that. One suggestion was that Sundin would fit in nicely on the Ottawa Senators with his good friend and fellow Swede Daniel Alfredsson. How painful would it be for Torontonians, many of whom (though not me) hate the Senators with a passion, to watch Mats Sundin hoist the Stanley Cup wearing a Sens jersey? Ouch.

But here’s Ferguson’s real problem. The Leafs’ ownership, MLSE, have not renewed his contract for next year, and Richard Peddie has gone so far as to say that hiring Ferguson was a “mistake”. The Leafs have missed the playoffs for two straight years, and are looking at a third, and it would seem that Ferguson’s only chance to not get fired would be to make the playoffs this year. So what should Ferguson do? If he trades away Sundin for prospects and draft picks, which is sacrificing this season for the future, he’s putting the Leafs in a better position going forward but all but guaranteeing that the Leafs will miss the playoffs and so he’ll probably lose his job. If he keeps Sundin, the Leafs might squeak into the playoffs but will get devastated by Ottawa (likely to finish first in the East) in the first round. He may keep his job for another year because they made the playoffs (seemingly, this milestone indicates to MLSE that the season was a complete success), but the situation next year and in future years won’t be any better. So in a nutshell, if he tries to make the team better, he gets fired. But if he keeps things the same or does nothing to prevent them from getting worse, he might just keep his job.

Or possibly MLSE will realize that trading Sundin is good for the Leafs’ future, and as long as he doesn’t get raked over the coals in the deal, maybe give Ferguson another year with these new kids — even if they do miss the playoffs this year. Sundin is also an unrestricted free agent this summer, so even if they do trade him, it’s possible that they could resign him then, and have the best of both worlds. Then again, even if they trade Sundin for Sidney Crosby and a draft pick (an arguably good deal for the Leafs, and one likely to get the Pittsburgh GM fired or, more likely, shot), they’ve still got Kubina, McCabe, Raycroft, Stajan, and bunch of other half-decent-at-best or overpaid (or both!) players. Even Crosby couldn’t carry these guys by himself.

Look at me, hoping that MLSE makes some smart decisions when it comes to the Leafs. Talk about blind optimism. Here’s what will happen: the Leafs will hold onto Sundin until he retires, and will not get noticably better in that timeframe. Then with Sundin gone, they’ll get worse.


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