GLENDALE, Ariz. (Nov. 25) -- The wait seemed almost endless, yet understandable.
For close to two hours after the Phoenix Coyotes dismantled his Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night, GM John Ferguson remained behind closed doors in the visitors' dressing room at Jobing.com Arena -- strategizing and probably commiserating with head coach Paul Maurice. A small pack of Toronto-area reporters languished in the hallway outside the dressing room, waiting for the GM to emerge. All other hockey people, including Coyotes' head coach Wayne Gretzky, had left the building when Ferguson finally came out... and stared at the media malingerers in disbelief.
"You guys have waited all this time for me?" he asked, looking astonished. "I guess you deserve an audience then."
Ferguson may not be a quote machine, and he certainly had no ready-made answers to the Leafs' riddle, but he did stand and face the cameras and microphones for roughly 10 minutes. It was not an overly enlightening session, as the GM stayed the usual course about how the club's objectives have not changed, even though results after 24 games are nowhere close to what he and Maurice predicted they might be in training camp. Ferguson lamented the injuries to Kyle Wellwood, Pavel Kubina and Carlo Colaiacovo, and mentioned the 15-game absence of Mark Bell to start the schedule. He admitted goalie Andrew Raycroft "has to be better", and talked with abiding hope about the remaining 58 games. But, he danced around the notion of a personnel shake-up, likely because there isn't much he can do with so many of his players signed to long-term arrangements.
When I asked John the obvious question about whether job security is crossing his mind, he replied, "You know, it doesn't... not at all. Our focus is competing obviously against the teams in our division, but the 29 other clubs [as well]. We know where we have to get to -- in the top eight and go from there. And, that hasn't changed. Those are the things we talk about every day; the things we strive for, and it's an ongoing challenge. There's no question, we drop two in a row on the road, and it's a set-back. You go back to our last seven games [1-4-2], we need to be better."
Ferguson understands there have been several management and coaching changes in the NHL through the first seven weeks of the season, and he knows the heat is intensifying in Toronto. At least, among angered followers of the team that are clamouring for his head. Whether there is exists a legitimate threat from the only place it matters -- the club's executive/ownership level -- is not a subject he's anxious to talk about.
"We've played a substantial portion of the schedule and we're not where we need to be," said Ferguson. "We understand that. We need more out of what we have and, clearly, we're looking for things to [help] address what we've identified as areas of opportunity."
The Maple Leafs' plight is really no mystery at all. This is a bad hockey club right now. It is a team with one member of the 23-man roster [Mats Sundin] playing anywhere close to an elite level. Every other skater, with the possible exception of Nik Antropov, is floundering. Both goalies are struggling -- one moreso than the other. Not a single member of the defence core is playing up to standard. Jason Blake, a 40-goal shooter last year, is on pace for seven goals this season. Wellwood doesn't have an assist yet. Darcy Tucker looks lost and frustrated -- still with only two goals. Matt Stajan and Alex Steen have made no strides at all since last season, when they both regressed by failing to compete strongly for the puck. Maurice throws as many fourth-liners over the boards each night as any coach in the NHL. Mostly, it is all so predictable. As yours truly has written and said many times since the summer, Ferguson did not change the roster nearly enough to realistically expect different results.
It is truly a mess in Leaf-land, and there is nothing beyond crossed fingers and blind hope to suggest the situation will improve.
If the Leafs honestly believe it will offer short-term help, they could fire Ferguson and allow a committee of Mike Penny, Jeff Jackson and Doug Gilmour to operate the team for the remainder of the season. The club made a similar decision 20 years ago -- in 1987-88 -- when Harold Ballard fired GM Gerry McNamara in the middle of the schedule and appointed the troika of John Brophy, Gord Stellick and Dick Duff to care for the shop. It was a desperate move and the meager results were predictable. It would be a similarly cosmetic move this time around, given that the NHL's decorated managers (Brian Burke, Ken Holland, Lou Lamoriello, etc.) are under contract to their teams and would not be available -- if at all -- until at least next summer. But, gassing Ferguson would seemingly be a popular choice, and it might offer a brief sign of life from the club's executive suite. Whether it would amount to anything tangible, is another story.
As it stands right now, the Leafs are wracked by paralysis -- on and off the ice.
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