Thursday, November 02, 2006

JFJ Redux

I heard JFJ on the Fan590 Wednesday evening and I have to say I actually felt sorry for the guy.

McCown and Brunt asked him about his contract status at MLSE and JFJ spoke openly and honestly about his desire to remain GM of the Leafs and to secure a longer-term deal. It might have been the first time that I’ve felt he came across as a genuine person.

Based on that interview and the panel discussion that followed, I have a strong feeling that MLSE is going to ink Ferguson to a longer-term deal.

I came to this conclusion not as a result of heavy analysis, insider knowledge, or any brilliant gems that the talking heads offered-up at 5:45 on a Wednesday night.

No, I came to this conclusion mostly because this is the Leafs and extending JFJ is the wrong thing to do - so odds are it’s going to happen.

If there’s anything my three decade long one-way love affair with the Leafs has taught me it’s that this is an organization that likes to do things the difficult way and that 9 times out of 10 they like to make the wrong decision (please refer to: Sittler and MacDonald, treatment of; Roger Neilson and the paper bag; Carl Brewer’s come-back; Fred Boimstruck; trading Randy Carlyle; Brophy’s tenure; Courtnall for Kordic; Nimrod; Nykoluk; Nyland; Draft schmaft; the Gardens closing ceremony; the Smith-Dryden-Quinn triumvirate; Rick Ley's line-up cards; Post-lockout contracts for Belfour, Domi, Belak; the Jason Allison experiment; trading first round picks four times in the past 10 years; and on and on and on...)

Let me be clear about this: JFJ may be one helluva nice guy. He may be a smart hockey man; he may one day be a giant among NHL executives. But at the moment, he’s still a GM feeling his way and that’s not what this club needs. This club needs the best mind in hockey and, no offense to JFJ, he’s not that guy.

Let me put it in starker terms. According to Stats Canada, the average life span of a Canadian male is 75 years. That means I’ve got about 40 more chances to see the Leafs win the Cup before I kick the bucket. The last thing I need is to waste another 2 or 3 of those chances while JFJ goes about learning his job. JFJ's hesitant tenure is, if you will, killing me.

JFJ has been GM of the Leafs since 2003. This is his fourth year and third season as GM of the Leafs. The sum total of his achievements – a second round exit in his first year with the club; a post-lockout scramble that resulted in missing the playoffs for the first time since 1997-’98 and lots of questionable player personnel moves. (As an aside, if any of you readers seriously believe for one second that JFJ wasn’t in charge until this year – stop reading here. Seriously. Even if you were remotely right – and you are not - there’s only one conclusion that can be drawn from that line of thinking: JFJ has no cojones and should have resigned his post if he had to play second fiddle or manage while shackled by the board. If he’s that weak of a man, I don’t want him running the team.)

The sum total that JFJ has added to the Leafs on-ice product? 12 of 28 players. And of the 12 who have JFJ’s stamp on them, half are marginal role players who will likely be back in the AHL by the mid-point of this season:

  1. Jean Sebastian Aubin - UFA signed 2004
  2. Bates Battaglia –AHL reclamation project. Will likely return to the A
  3. Hal Gill – UFA signed 2006
  4. Chad Kilger – Claimed off waivers
  5. Pavel Kubina – UFA signed 2006
  6. Jeff O’Neill – Acquired post-lockout for a draft pick
  7. Ben Ondrus – AHL reclamation project. Will likely return to the A
  8. Michael Peca – UFA signed 2006
  9. John Pohl – AHL reclamation project. Will likely return to the A
  10. Andrew Raycroft - Acquired for Tukka Rask
  11. Aleksander Suglobov – Acquired for Ken Klee - looks great in the press box
  12. Andy Wozniewski – Likely headed to the Marlies when the D overcome injuries

The rest of the team were all here prior to JFJ's arrival:

  1. Nik Antropov – drafted 1998
  2. Wade Belak – 2001 Waiver Claim
  3. Brendan Bell – drafted 2000
  4. Carlo Colaiacovo – drafted 2001
  5. Jay Harrison – drafted 2001
  6. Tomas Kaberle – drafted 1996
  7. Staffan Kronwall – drafted 2002
  8. Bryan McCabe – Acquired in trade for Karpotsev
  9. Alexei Ponikarovsky – drafted 1998
  10. Matt Stajan – drafted 2002
  11. Alex Steen – drafted 2002
  12. Mats Sundin – Acquired in trade for Clark
  13. Darcy Tucker – Acquired in trade for Mike Johnson and Marek Posmyk
  14. Michael Tvelquist – drafted 2000
  15. Kyle Wellwood – drafted 2001
  16. Ian White – drafted 2002

Some of JFJ’s other questionable moves:

  • Acquiring Brian Leetch for all of 15 games
  • re-signing Belfour to that goofy contract
  • thinking the lock-out would be short term
  • not buying-out Belfour post-lockout
  • being caught flat footed post-CBA
  • Inking Domi to a two-year contract
  • all of his post-CBA player acquisitions being uniformly busts
  • whiffing at last year’s 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)
  • Giving McCabe a no-movement clause – the first of its type in the NHL
  • Extending Belak's contract

This is not the stuff Championships are made of. This is not the stuff that warrants mid-season contract extensions and this is not the stuff that slightly increases the odds of the Leafs winning the cup before some very important personal StatsCan indicators kick-in.

I think the Leafs owe it to JFJ and his family to either put a bullet in him or ink him to a new deal.

If I were on the MLSE Board, I’d thank JFJ for his time, provide him with a nice reference and move him along or offer him a more junior post with the club. This team needs the best mind in hockey, not a guy who’s still learning as he goes.

13 comments:

  1. Paul Steckley4:52 pm

    While I agree with your assessment of JFJ's ineptitude, and definitely agree with your conclusion that he shouldn't be retained beyond this season, to be fair we should point out the good moves he's made:

    1. Fired Pat Quinn
    2. Hired Paul Maurice
    3. Fired Pat Quinn
    4. Drafted Rask in 2005
    5. Ummm, did I mention he fired Quinn?
    6. Kaberle's contract

    Also, JFJ wasn't alone in incorrectly interpreting the length of the lockout, and realistically how could anyone predict it would have wiped out the entire season? Many, many hockey experts were surprised at that one.

    The more serious, and in my mind more compelling, criticisms of JFJ are his spotty record at evaluating talent and questionable contract negotiations. Khavanov was a player that he should have known intimately from their time together in St. Louis. JFJ should have realized that Khavanov was not a solution to the Leafs' defensive weaknesses, and wasn't talented enough offensively to overlook his other deficiencies. Yet he brought him in anyway.

    Belfour should have been bought out when the opportunity arose. An old goalie with a bad back is not a combination worth taking a gamble on. The 2 year deal for Domi that resulted in lost cap room this season. All bad decisions that hurt the club. Perhaps some of these can be explained by Quinn's presence at the time they were made. I imagine that Quinn voiced his opinion on Belfour and Domi and this probably influenced JFJ's decision. After all, if a coach claims that player X is essential to team chemistry, how can the GM argue against that?

    However, the deals made since Quinn was fired clearly show a continuing trend that can't be blamed on the old curmudgeon. Trading a hot young prospect like Rask for Raycroft when there were a number of more experienced goalies with longer records of consistency available was a mistake. It was a goalie buyer's market this summer and he could have improved the goaltending position without sacrificing a future tradable asset that might have been used to secure a scoring winger so needed on this year's team. At times so far Raycroft has made his acquisition look like a solid pickup, but his lackluster season last year, and the fact that he had fallen completely off Boston's depth chart, should have allowed JFJ some bargaining room.

    Signing McCabe to his inflated contract was criminal, adding in a no movement clause was grounds for execution. Once McCabe's agent started asking for money than Kaberle received, JFJ should have stood up and walked out of the room. This deal will hamstring the Leafs for years to come.

    The problem is that Maurice will get this team into the playoffs and that fact alone will garner JFJ a new contract. As a fellow member of the 30+ futility club, I agree that is not a positive move.

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  2. Jason7:04 pm

    What was wrong with the MLG ceremony?

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  3. Paul - Well said...I should have mentioned Maurice and the firing of Quinn. That said, I wonder how much slack Maurice gets because he's brilliant with the media and how much he gets for being a good coach...

    Jason - As a PR guy who's done his share of events, there's something halting and awkward about the Leaf's approach and execution of their various ceremonies.

    If you compare the closing ceremonies at MLG to the closing of the Montreal Forum, they aren't even close. The dreaded Habs were classy and polished. My beloved Leafs looked rather silly passing around a flag that no one was quite sure what to do with.

    At that point in time, MLG was better known as a home to 36 years of futility, a pedophilia ring, a former greedy, criminal owner and some very questionable moves that were made to take the company private...It's tough to over come those things by having Danny Daoust pass a flag to Daniel Marois while your back-up goalie plays the bagpipes.

    Believe it or not, there's a Master's Thesis on this very thing and it can be read here.

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  4. Paul Steckley8:53 am

    Don't forget Anne Murray forgetting the words to Maple Leaf Forever and needing to look at her cheat card to get back on track. Who the Hell equates Anne Murray with the Leafs or hockey, anyway? Where were the Hip?

    Despite all the negative things that had happened at the Gardens since 1967, it still was the home to 11 Stanley Cups, a 10 point night by the franchise's greatest player, and a stirring playoff run in 1993. It deserved a better send off than it received.

    Maurice is definitely brilliant with the media but he's also a good coach, certainly better than Quinn was by the end of his tenure. Matching lines, preparing video breakdowns of opponents, giving a young player a pat on the back on the bench for a good play; simple things but refreshing to see being done under Maurice. His style just makes it abundantly clear that Quinn's desire to coach, as opposed to his desire to be the Coach, had left him a few seasons before he was fired.

    Maurice has a free pass this season regardless of what happens. No one is expecting the Leafs to make the playoffs so as long as they play competitively all season the press will agree that Maurice did the best he could with the talent he had. A few more games like last night's Florida disaster, though, and some questions might be raised about his ability to motivate the team.

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  5. I agree Ferguson has to go.

    However, any analysis of the bad things he's done has to include the good. And there are many good things recently, most importantly, landing Paul Maurice. Also,

    1.) He acted decisively to sign more defense to the lineup, knowing this was the biggest hole on the team. When Kubina actually played, he and Gill noticeably improved the lineup.

    2.) The decisions to let Lindros, Domi, and even Allison go were probably difficult, but he did them anyway. There was probably pressure from above to at least keep Lindros, but he refused.

    3.) Battaglia is doing everything you want for a 4th-line grinder. A few points, hustling shift work, and is cheap. In the new NHL, these guys matter almost as much as the stars, because you need players to fill out the rest of the lineup once you've inked your core.

    4.) He kept O'Neill, and he's playing with more jump this season. So far, it looks like the right choice, when it would have been so easy to dump him.

    5.) Sure, Suglobov is nothing special, but at least we got a body back. Klee was useless to us.

    6.) Another tinkering move, but he managed to get a draft pick back for Nathan Perrott. Not bad for a no-talent 2nd-tier goon-wannabe.

    There's probably lots more. It's worth noting that the worst things Ferguson did were early in his tenure; the Belfour contract fiasco, the Leetch trade raping. Since then, I believe his execution has improved noticeably.

    But he's still been prone to massive lapses of judgement. Doing nothing at the trade deadline was inexcuseable. If the team was playoff bound, he did nothing to help it. If he determined it was going to miss out, he did nothing to unload players for picks/prospects. Defense in particular were being moved for significant deals - all of Berg, Khavanov, Klee, and even McCabe could have been moved for great return. At the time, McCabe was unclear about his future - why take a risk on the guy? I bet at least 5 teams would have ponied up a nice package of talent to land him. Then Toronto could have targeted Chara or anybody else July 1st. Or even McCabe again.

    The other major gaffe was deciding to keep Steen in the Pronger deal. Major mistake. Pronger is still in his prime, a future Hall of Famer, and a proven playoff warrior. Steen has done nothing, and Kaberle is only as good as his supporting cast. He should have made that trade.

    But then he went out and made some acquisitions that improved the lineup. He got everyone he wanted in the UFA this summer, which has to rate as a success, got the coach he wanted, got the Marlies in Toronto, got the scouts he wanted - he's putting his stamp on the team.

    But I agree - how much longer should we wait for Ferguson to get his act together?

    With Colin Campbell living right down the road, why not see what he can do in the position?

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  6. Anonymous1:57 pm

    I agree with everything everyone has said so far except for Wardo's suggestion that the Leafs should have traded Steen and Kaberle for Pronger. That would been a terrible move and the kind that the old Leafs would have made: A player on the down slope of his career for a defenceman entering his prime and a player that was 10th in rookie scoring. Not to mention that that sort of trade would be acceptable if the team was on the verge of contending but in the Leafs current position it would have been stupid.

    He should have traded McCabe. Teams would have been salivating at getting the sort of PP production he was putting up last year.

    Also, if we are going for a new GM surely we can do better than Colin Campbell. What makes him a proven GM? We should at the very least be able to attract a guy that has built a Stanley Cup winner.

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  7. Paul - You had me at Anne Murray, that's all any of us had to say.

    Wardo - I'd love to give JFJ more credit, but so many of the things you cite, to me, aren't exactly ringing endorsements of a solid GM. I don't mean to be curmudegonly, but:

    1.) The D signings are ok. He overpaid for what he got and the team still can't keep the puck out of the net.

    2.) The decisions to let Lindros, Domi, and even Allison go should not have been difficult or painful. Had he been worth his salt, none of those three would have even been signed in the first place.

    3.) Battaglia is a Paul Maurice/ Mike Penny acquisition.

    4.) He kept O'Neill...would anyone else take him at $1.5M? The BIG question is what will he do with O'Neill next year when he's a UFA

    5.)We got a body back for Ken Klee. This is considered a success?

    6.) A sixth round pick for Perrot goes on the ledger as another plus? This is some tenure JFJ's had as GM. A sixth round pick...meh.

    No matter how you look at his record, the bad far outweighs the good...I also don't think Colin Campbell is the answer...Is there a hockey equivalent to Coangelo?

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  8. Anonymous7:09 pm

    Hey I can't argue with you man. But he did one thing right. Signed Kaberle to a long term contract. Took genious to figure that one out.

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  9. MF: Hey, I wasn't making a "ringing endorsement" of Ferguson, exactly. I was trying to identify some positives in the moves he's made, and I admit they are weak. Not everything he's done is horrible...they just aren't so great. But I admit, I’m probably wearing my blue glasses when I say it because I’ve always had so much emotionally invested in the team. It’s like when you pay a lot of money for a car that turns out to be a lemon – you keep telling people that it isn’t so bad, it’s got air-conditioning, after all, and pretty comfy on long trips. But secretly, you wish you’d never gotten the goddam thing. So, defense of Ferguson, finished.

    PPP: Ordinarily, I'd agree that getting an over the hill player is something the "old Leafs" were infamous for, but Pronger isn't on the downslope of anything, and to label his acquistion "terrible" and "stupid" is absolutely mind-boggling. The guy is one of the top few defensemen in the league, a legitimate playoff warrior, MVP and Norris winner. Check his stats - he's a model of statistical consistency. Show me the supposed trend of decline. If getting him is so awful that only the old Leafs would do it, why did they sign McCabe? He isn't much younger, and cost them more money. Steen – 10th in rookie scoring? The last couple of guys who finished 10th in rookie scoring were Brett McLean and Branko Radivojevic. Who gives a damn? Pronger will be kicking ass with Anaheim in the playoffs this year again I guarantee, and no matter how much wobbly pop I drink, I can’t imagine Kaberle doing that. I want that kind of terrible on the Leaf team! Ferguson failed by not pulling the trigger on that trade, end of story.

    And more - this will be long, so grab a Coke. Ferguson’s spending on defense has bugged me for months:

    What is terrible and stupid is overloading the blueline with so many overpaid defensemen getting top-drawer cash for mediocre performance. Think about - Toronto's defense is the MOST EXPENSIVE in the league. For the money they are all getting, they should be playing like Hall of Famers, but none of them will be. It could have been so much better, and putting Pronger as the centrepiece of it would have been a coup, and major upgrade over the top dogs Toronto has now. Pronger and Chara could have been the two best defensemen in the Eastern Conference.

    Imagine how much more balanced Toronto's D would have been had they unloaded McCabe at the trade deadline last year for a young forward, making Steen or Stajan expendable. Then you move Kaberle for Pronger, and then use the MILLIONS and MILLIONS of dollars left over from NOT signing McCabe to that horrible contract (did I say “millions”?), and add depth right to the bottom with 2-4 guys like McKee, McGee, Corvo, Ward (ahem!), Spacek, and a host of other guys out there who didn’t cost 5 million + per season to sign. No way should the Leafs be forced to rely on so many middle of the road kids on the blueline. No WAY.

    The Leafs could have put together one of the best defenses in the league with no holes in it for the money they unloaded on their top-3 now. Add Gill’s contract in there and the picture becomes even more obscene. Kubina is pretty good, but did Toronto really need another 1A type defenseman?

    I like to go by the idea that you have one ace defenseman, one top gun back there, followed by a very solid cast of 2nd-tier guys. It’s all about balance. The playoffs showed us how important that kind of depth is. Instead, Toronto is top-heavy with incomplete blueline "studs" at the top, and a bunch of sophomores at the bottom, and combined, they throw the Leaf payroll structure so out of whack that getting any forward depth this offseason was almost impossible.

    You know, after writing all that, I don’t know why I bothered sticking up for Ferguson in the first place. I recommend immediate dumping.

    For those scoring at home, this blog comment is over 700 words. I should have been this productive in school.

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  10. Paul Steckley4:54 pm

    I wish I was that productive at work. LOL

    The problem with judging GMs on the trades they didn't make is you never really know whether the deal was actually on the table or not. No one will actually admit to it. Edmonton may have suggested Pronger for Kaberle and Steen only to drive up Anaheim's offer, and may have not had any intention of accepting such an offer, even if it had been made. We'll never know unless Lowe makes a death bed confession.

    While I agree with wardo's assessment of Pronger's ability, I question whether we would really have been better off with Pronger and his $6.25 million contract versus Kaberle at $4.25 million and Steen at about $770,000. That's a difference of $1.23 million, which is pretty much equal to Wellwood and Bell's contracts combined. So, the question is would you rather have Pronger or Kaberle, Steen, Wellwood, and Bell. Pronger's great, but he can't replace 4 decent bodies, in my opinion. If this team was one player shy of a strong Cup run then the answer would be clear, as Pronger is the type of player that can push a team over the hump. But this year's team won't win the Cup (as much as we may hope it would) and Pronger wouldn't make that much of a difference on where we finish this year.

    We shouldn't forget that one of the reasons the Leafs were in the shape they were in last year was because of the deals made previously that stripped us of our good young players. If Boyes and McCauley had been playing for us last season instead of having Nolan sitting on the IR, we may have secured those measly points we needed to make the playoffs. There would have been more depth at forward and Ferguson wouldn't have had to take a chance on Allison and Lindros. Perhaps he uses that money to sign Carter and a decent D instead.

    In my mind, if Ferguson did refuse to make that Pronger deal, it was a good decision. Certainly much better than the McCabe deal. It still doesn't save his job, though.

    Let's see how Kubina actually plays when he returns on Thursday before judging whether or not he overspent for him. If his return means less ice time for Kaberle, McCabe, Gill, and White, and he is productive offensively and defensively, that may turn out to be $5 million well spent.

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  11. Paul, I don't understand your reasoning that Pronger's inclusion on the team somehow precludes 4 other bodies from being in the lineup. Wellwood and Bell are on the roster along with McCabe's eye-popping salary. If you're going to cherrypick a couple of names to equate salary figures, why not choose Westrum and Belak, or any other combination of guys?

    I also don't buy the reasoning that a guy like Pronger pushes a contending team over the hump to win a Cup. The way you put yourself into position to get one in the first place is to build around proven winners like Pronger. Look at the difference Peca has made to the lineup. Why get a guy like him then, either? Clearly, he's just a "hump" player you should pass over to allow guys like Pohl to accrue experience, right?

    You seem to have missed my point about balance...Pronger being on the team would have enabled Ferguson to spread his dollars over greater area. Depth in more positions, and it goes without saying that's always a good thing. Pronger can do it all. He's a shutdown defenseman, a physical presence, powerplay quarterback, and point producer. With such a concentration of skills in one guy, it enables you to spread out your dough, rather than paying 15.5 million for three guys who almost, but not quite, equal Pronger's presence as a single player, in aggregate.

    I don't need to see Kubina play on Thursday to evaluate his contract. He is getting 5 million dollars per season, after a year that he finished 38th in league scoring as a top-pairing defenseman for Tampa. He has a career high of 38 points, and is a combined -96 for his career. His presence improves the Leaf blueline, but there is no doubt he's overpaid for his contributions.

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  12. Paul Steckley5:52 pm

    Wardo, Pronger's $6.25 million salary more or less equals the combined salaries of Kaberle, Steen, Wellwood, and Bell. That was my point. Admittedly, I picked the 4 names that I thought would make my point the clearest, but you're correct that we could replace those 4 names with other names. If I changed the names to Kaberle, Steen (they have to be on the list as they were the trade bait), Kronwall, and Tellqvist the numbers work about the same and my argument is definitely weaker. Now Pronger's inclusion only precludes 2 active players on the roster and the deal is much better from a Leafs perspective. I agree that I'd rather have Pronger on the team than Kaberle and Steen.

    However, I don't agree with you that Pronger's addition would turn this team into more of a contender than they are now. The reason why I can't agree with that argument is the reason why this thread was started in the first place, JFJ's lack of quality decisions as a GM. I can buy the argument that if the Leafs had Pronger they don't need to give McCabe that ridiculous contract or overspend on Kubina. But, would JFJ have done that? And, if he did, what would he have done with the money he saved on those two contracts? He had a choice in the summer to offer Corvo $2.5 million, for instance, as Ottawa did, but close not to. He could have chosen not to give McCabe $7.15 million and instead put that money towards Chara but chose not to. His decisions over the summer on where to spend his precious cap money really underscores what we've been discussing here.

    Think of it this way. The Leafs currently are paying $19.413 million in salary this season for the McCabe/Kubina/Kaberle/Gill/White/Bell combo on D. We could be playing $19.263 million for a defensive corps of Pronger/Chara/Corvo/Gill/White/Bell, a much better combo and at a savings of $150,000 (and possibly more but off the top of my head I couldn't think of a cheap replacement for Gill). That was available for JFJ to put together this summer. The fact that he didn't do that speaks volumes to his lack of ability to make shrewd decisions.

    I have no faith that if JFJ had made that trade he would have spent the rest of his money wisely, because he had the chance to do that this summer and decided not to. Based on his track record, even if he made that trade, he still would have given McCabe his contract, and then would have offered Carter $5 million a season, and signed Gerber as Raycroft's backup at $3.7 million.

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  13. Okay, I can concede this. I don't believe Ferguson is capable of shrewd decision-making either.

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