Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Truthiness and JFJ

Mat at Toronto Truthiness has written a three part piece on JFJ’s tenure as GM of the Leafs. It’s really worth the read, although, after reviewing the record it's clear that Mat and I have both different starting and end points when it comes to JFJ.

My main issue with the 3 part series at Toronto Truthiness (TT) is that it doesn’t address JFJ’s fundamental flaw - he has misread every NHL level event during his tenure. Consider:

  • He completely misread the impending labour stoppage, presuming it would be a shortened season
  • He completely misread the emerging market once the CBA was signed – resulting in the Leafs having to acquire a number of high-risk players (who did not pan out)
  • He compounded his errors in points 1 and 2 by then mis-allocating those scarce salary dollars by overpaying for marginal players

But let’s have a look at what TT has to say…I think his article can almost be summarized by one early sentence:

“Has [JFJ] proven he is a qualified GM? Not yet, but he has also not proven he is unqualified.”

I could stop here - this is not the descriptor I want for the GM of a team I have cheered for, worried about, over analyzed since the days of Saginuk and Boschman. Unfortunately others, namely those with an actual say in the matter, are clearly willing to give JFJ the benefit of the doubt.

According to TT:

The largest cause for this attack on the Leafs GM has been for the free agent signings he made last summer. Eric Lindros, Jason Allison, Jeff O’Neill and Alexander Khavanov were each, to one degree or another, a disappointment this season, but going into the year we all knew each of them was a gamble. With the limited cap space available and the large number of holes in the lineup to fill, for the team to have a chance at being competitive these gambles were necessary.

I have a couple of problems with this take on JFJ and the Leafs situation.

First of all, I don’t think there’s an attack on JFJ. People are questioning his decisions and rightly so. The guy has continually made puzzling choices, is a terrible communicator, and – while I can’t speak for other Leaf fans – he doesn’t exactly instill any sort of confidence, credibility, vision – you name it.

Secondly, sure there were roster holes on the Leafs, but that’s completely immaterial - there were nearly 400 free agents available at the signing of the CBA. This may have been the best time in the history of hockey to have roster holes.

Thirdly, there’s a very clear reason why the Leafs had limited cap space available and the reason for that lies at the feet of none other than JFJ, consider:

  • JFJ tendered an enormous contract to Belfour
  • Commitments to Sundin, Belfour and McCabe tied up around $15M or nearly 35% of the salary dollars available and opted not to buy any of these players out.
  • JFJ overpaid on a number of marginal players, paying in excess of $1M/yr for Domi, Antropov, Khavanov, Berg and nearly $700K for Belak.

One other thing: of the big-spending, pre-CBA teams, the Leafs and the St. Louis Blues were the only clubs that did not buy out a single player and the only reason St. Louis didn’t bite on any of their hefty contracts was the team was up for sale.

Cap space was certainly available to the Leafs, they just decided not to pursue it. To suggest otherwise is misleading.

As for the Belfour contract, TT positions it as follows:

Belfour was resigned before the lockout began following a playoff in which he nearly single-handedly defeated the heavily favoured Ottawa Senators in the first round. He was rewarded with a two year deal in a summer when there were very few quality free agent goalies available. At the time, nobody expected the lockout to last an entire season and the Leafs were gearing up for one final run in what they expected to be a shortened year with the veteran core they had established.

There were clearly two schools of thought on the lock-out - one predicted a shortened season and the others clearly expected at least an entire season to be lost. Just go back and look at coverage from September/October of 2004: here, here, here and here. I recall people saying the lockout could last two years.

Furthermore, if JFJ thought there was going to be a shortened season, why did the Leafs head into the lockout with so few players under contract? My take is JFJ cleared the decks so MLSE could absolutely minimize salary commitments during the lock-out.

More importantly, at the end of the day if JFJ was so clearly in the shortened season camp he was, once again, very wrong. (Anyone else seeing a trend here with JFJ's ability to read the tea leaves?)

TT's take on Belfour continues:

While age might be expected to slow him down a bit, there was no reason to believe that Belfour would post the worst numbers of any starting goalie in the league, and if he had continued to play as well as he had in previous years the Leafs would be in the playoffs today.

I agree that no one could have foreseen Belfour’s massive decline. Having said that, I’m still puzzled as to:

  • JFJ’s urgency to sign Belfour
  • the fact that Belfour did not have to undertake a physical
  • the overall terms of the contract – the length, the cost, the no-trade clause and the buy-out.

This is a goalie with known back problems who was about to undergo surgery, the season is about to shut-down, yes he had a good preformance against Ottawa, but he followed it up with an average series against Philly. In short, what’s the rush?

TT also minimizes the impact of the much-discussed Belfour buyout:

The only issue I have is with the buyout required to pay Belfour for not exercising his option year, however the consensus seems to be the following scenario: the $2 million buyout was effected by the rollback now making it $1.52 million, which is payed over two seasons resulting in $760,000 being sent (and likely taken from the cap) to Eddie each year. Yeah it sucks, but $760k, in reality is not that much especially considering the abundance of money available for the Leafs to spend this summer combined with the increase in the cap next season.
To my mind, JFJ can’t have it both ways. One can’t complain of cap constraints and then defend a buy-out as only $760K. That’s nearly double the league minimum salary and, in a competitive cap environment it's why you end up with guys like Czerkawski. The buy-out stinks, there’s no need to sugar coat it.

TT on JFJ at the Trade Deadline:

Now that the Leafs have missed the playoffs, a lot has been made of Ferguson’s decision to not hold a fire sale at the trade deadline, particularly his choice not to trade McCabe. At the time though the Leafs still had a shot at making the playoffs. Imagine if JFJ had traded the defender and the Leafs had finished in the same position they did now, two points out of the playoffs? Everybody would be calling for his head saying that Toronto could have made the post season if they hadn’t traded the third highest scoring defenceman in the league for draft picks and prospects.
The Leafs did have a shot at making the playoffs, but it was the longest of long-shots. Considering they went nearly undefeated down the stretch and still missed out, the prudent course of action for JFJ and the health of the club was to identify those players who would not be returning in the following season and trade them at the deadline. Any return on those players is a bonus. Now those players will leave (or have already left) the organization and the Leafs will get nothing for them.

If JFJ’s plan (first rule of the plan is not to talk about the plan; second rule of the plan is not to talk about the plan) is to build from within, his paralysis at the trade deadline becomes an even bigger tactical error – he could have acquired more picks/prospects to feed the system and failed to do so. Sixth or seventh rounder for Berg? Done. Low first round pick for McCabe – bring it on, he’s a UFA this summer and there’s nothing to stop the Leafs from massively over paying him as part of a stupidly long-term contract resigning him. Pylons and sock tape for Belfour? Thanks for making us not have to pay out his option.

None of these players will be back with the Leafs and yet the Leafs will have nothing to show for holding on to them and in the case of Belfour, will be on the hook for his buy-out.

In addition to re-stocking the larder (don’t forget JFJ’s plan) moving these players at the trade deadline would also have cleared the deck and allowed the Leafs to get a better read on how their prospects fared against NHL caliber competition.

I’m really not seeing the downside of trading away these players. When you factor in the opportunity cost of their AHL players not getting a sniff of the NHL, JFJ’s approach makes even less sense.

TT’s take on JFJ’s trades - there's not much I disagree with here. JFJ hasn't exactly been active on this front.
The Leetch deal is the biggest and was unfortunately a bust due to the lockout erasing the last year of Brian’s contract, resulting in him only playing the final 15 games plus the playoffs of the 2003-2004 season. This deal was made with the expectation that there would not be a full year lost to the CBA negotiations. Still, it is not as bad as the Owen Nolan deal as some have said. The 1st and 2nd round draft picks are the biggest pill to swallow as Maxim Kondratiev and Jarkko Immonen are both middling prospects with little value who could quite possibly never be regular NHL players.

I’m torn on this one. I understand why the deal was made. The Leafs had a really limited window to make a stab for the cup. But with the lockout looming it was another high-stakes gamble and once again, JFJ got burned.

As for comparing it with the Nolan deal, it doesn’t make it any better…it's like defending the loss of your left arm in routine surgery and saying it wasn’t as bad as when you lost your right arm in that run-in with the industrial meat grinder.

PROSPECT DEVELOPMENT

TT has an excellent – in fact one of the best I’ve seen – summaries of the Leafs moves in terms of prospect development, scouting, AHL coaching, etc.

While this is great news and I too applaud JFJ for these decisions and actions, it should be noted that this is usually the jurisdiction of the Assistant GM.

TT on ALTERNATIVE METHODS of acquiring players:

Ferguson has inherited a prospect pool that is far from overflowing due to years of neglect. As a result of this the Leafs have been required to sign many UFA’s in the last few years to fill holes in their roster that prospects were unable to adequately.

Ok, recognizing that these holes exist, for the life of me I can’t figure out why JFJ stood pat at the trade deadline. Seriously. Has JFJ even read his secret plan?

In summary:

Given the frequency of JFJ’s errors:

  • the Leetch trade in light of the cancelled season
  • re-signing Belfour to that goofy contract
  • thinking the lock-out would be short term
  • not buying-out Belfour
  • being caught flat footed post-CBA
  • all of his post-CBA player acquisitions being uniformly busts
  • whiffing at the trade deadline
  • failing to recognize that the Leafs may have had the talent on-hand to win all year (but continued to deploy the plodding Allison, the creaky Belfour and the shaky Khavanov)

I have very little faith that this is the guy that will lead the Leafs anywhere.

Not to get all philosophical, but I'll give the last words to Albert Camus (whom I'm sure would be a Leaf fan, afterall he did write the Plague) when considering our current GM, we should remember: "We are defined not by our ambitions but strictly by our acts. "

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