TORONTO (Sep. 11) -- Maple Leafs coach Paul Maurice should be on his knees -- deep in prayer -- as the club gets set to open training camp on Thursday at Ricoh Coliseum. If Maurice, heading into his first season behind the Toronto bench, could choose among the most hopeless circumstances to begin the job, one would likely involve his general manager making off-the-cuff remarks about issues that fall under the head coach's domain. As such, you have to believe Maurice cringed when he read comments over the weekend from John Ferguson suggesting the Leafs might go with a three-goalie set-up this season. Beyond the fact such an arrangement is a prescription for disaster, Maurice has to wonder why Ferguson is discussing roster scenarios before the new coach has even one training camp scrimmage under his belt. There are any number of people in the Leafs organization who talk privately about Ferguson's obsessive micro-managing, but remarks that threaten to undermine his coaching hire before the first whistle is blown elevates that issue to an entirely new realm.
Look, this isn't meant to pick on Ferguson. Anyone who glances at my column on a regular basis, or listens to The Fan-590, will know that I've gone on record saying that the still-youthful GM has made some prudent additions and deletions over the summer -- enough, I believe, to lift the Leafs back into solid contention for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. But, JFJ still has to learn when to keep his fingers out of the pie. Any puck-stopper worth his salt, if honest, will tell you that the worst-possible situation to be in is a three-goalie set-up. At least one -- and often two -- will be thoroughly miserable, as there simply is not enough work, in practice or games, to satisfy a trio of goalies. With only two nets, one goaltender will be skating around aimlessly at all times.
And, though management in this rare circumstance would want you to believe it is a sign of competition and depth, a three-goalie presence is actually the epitome of indecisiveness. Nothing serves as a root-cause of dissention more than a disgruntled netminder hanging around. It often becomes a source of media comment and opinion that builds into a distraction on the team. And, it just isn't necessary.
To begin with, Ferguson erred by exercising his club option on Mikael Tellqvist over the summer. The affable Swede has provided no tangible evidence that he can be a starting goaltender at the NHL level. His big opportunity arrived late last season, when Ed Belfour went down with a recurrence of back troubles. The spotlight was squarely on Tellqvist during a Thursday-Saturday doubleheader at Montreal in the third week of March. It was a situation Tellqvist had often talked about -- one in which he could finally prove his big-league mettle. And, it turned into a calamity. Though his teammates stunk out the Bell Centre in front of him, Tellqvist could not make a timely stop in either match, and the Leafs' playoff aspirations went up in smoke.
Compounding matters, coach Pat Quinn had no choice but to summon Marlies AHL netminder Jean-Sebastien Aubin for the Leafs' next game, the following night, in New Jersey. And to the surprise of many, Aubin became a revelation -- providing the Maple Leafs with their best stretch of netminding all season long. He went undefeated in regulation time during 11 starts, and almost singlehandedly lifted the Buds into playoff domain. When Quinn went back to Tellqvist for the season road finale in Buffalo (a day after the Maple Leafs had been officially eliminated from the Cup tournament), Tellqvist picked up where he'd left off three weeks earlier in Montreal, and Toronto got slaughtered 6-0. Now, it may be a trifle unfair to judge a still-young goaltender on three lousy performances, but it's not as if Tellqvist hadn't been around prior to the Bell Centre disasters. In fact, in his role as back-up to Belfour, he had frequently spoken on the record about a desire to prove his NHL worthiness. When that time arrived, however, he was nowhere to be found.
Aubin, conversely, picked up the slack; earned a new contract in the summer, and he deserves to be the overwhelming favorite to back up Andrew Raycroft with the Leafs this season. Instead, we keep hearing whispers that Tellqvist is pencilled in to the position, which makes no sense whatsoever. Nor, is it plausible to retain Tellqvist to play for the Marlies. Young hot-shot Justin Pogge needs all the work he can get in the AHL this season, especially given that Ferguson traded the organization's other top prospect -- Tukka Rask -- to the Bruins in the deal for Raycroft. It's imperative for the Leafs to properly groom Pogge, which all but leaves Tellqvist out of the equation. That's why Ferguson is hinting that the Leafs might "go with three goalies" this season. There's nothing else he can do with a third man, other than to have him hanging around the periphery. Unfortunately, it's exactly the situation Maurice would hope to avoid. Having a spare wheel at practice every day does not make for a healthy environment. And, it's a circumstance Ferguson should avoid casting on his new coach, given that this is a make-or-break season for the GM, himself.
If the Leafs are going to improve, and one day end a four-decades-long Stanley Cup drought, they have to make smart decisions, and ensure that the best players available to them are manning the key positions. They must prove they can do this under the guidelines of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, and not put themselves in a spot where they might have to sacrifice a better player to waivers because of salary and/or tenure restrictions. It is also important that players legitimately earn spots on a winning team, and Aubin clearly merits consideration ahead of Tellqvist as training camp begins in 2006.
Perhaps there will be a time -- through injury or underachievement -- when the Maple Leafs will need Tellqvist this season. Ferguson, however, should not stick Maurice with a damaging three-goalie set-up, simply because he can't figure out what to do with the extra man. It will put his new coach behind the eight-ball from the outset.
E-mail [email protected]