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Agents of change

Is it possible that Brett Hull might save Toronto Maple Leafs general manager John Ferguson, Jr.'s job?

Seems illogical, but then logic rarely is a dominant theme at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, a behemoth in terms of producing revenue, but a consistent failure in terms of on-ice success in the NHL.

The buzz for weeks has been that MLSE's board of directors has been contemplating Ferguson's dismissal, but the recent appointment of Hull as interim co-director of the Dallas Stars may have made an impact in Toronto.

The argument in favor of keeping the beleaguered Ferguson has long centered on a simple question: "Who can we get to replace him?" That question gave the board some pause this past offseason when several high profile (and under contract) GMs quietly let it be known they weren't interested in the board's plan to bring in an experienced hockey man to "mentor" Ferguson.

There was also some public debate. Legendary coach and former Buffalo Sabres GM Scott Bowman is known to have interviewed but reportedly wants the kind of all-powerful status that the board was reluctant to grant.

Former Buffalo and Ottawa GM John Muckler acknowledged an interest in the job, but made it clear that Ferguson, who is on the last year of a decidedly tentative contract extension, should get a long-term extension before he came on board. Muckler's stated purpose was to assure the nervous coaching staff and locker room that he was there to add some stability and hockey knowledge, not to undermine Ferguson and add to more uneasiness regards change.

The failure to find Ferguson's so-called "mentor" didn't dissuade some on the board from continuing the search. MSLE clings to the idea that everyone in hockey wants to be a part of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a belief that keeps these dissidents thinking that there will always be a quality hockey person ready to step in the moment they find the courage to fire Ferguson.

Hull's appointment in Dallas is said to have put a pause in that kind of thinking. The former "Mouth That Roared" his way to elite status as a player hasn't an ounce of managerial experience, but will team up with long-time assistant GM Les Jackson to run the Stars, a mediocre team with a long road ahead in terms of getting back to serious Cup contention. The thinking is that if the Hull-Jackson two-headed monster is the best that Stars owner Tom Hicks can do, then there simply aren't that many talented candidates available.

Said one source with knowledge of the Toronto situation: "They keep making inquiries, but there's no consensus as to what they want to do, and that by itself scares off a lot of people who might be interested. When you couple that to the fact that there never seems to be a commitment to winning there, it doesn't add up. People who might be interested fear that it's a can't-win career move in part because of the way they've stumbled in handling the mentor thing."

Starcrossed

Doug Armstrong probably deserved to be fired in Dallas just because his rebuild-on-the-fly program has met with little success. That and the fact that he's shipped off some talented players for draft picks that haven't panned out and made some signings that haven't aided an already too-weak offense.

In his defense, it should be noted that the Stars averaged 106 points during his five-season tenure and never missed the playoffs. Still, draft picks have become the currency of choice in the NHL since the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was signed. When you combine that with a mediocre performance on the ice, an owner who sees himself as in the shadow of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and who lends his ear regularly to Hull in the owner's suite and on the golf course and, well, Hull's ascension was pretty much a given.

In the crosshairs

GMs are an easy target these days in part because it's more difficult than ever to make trades, which were often the hole card for a GM looking to save his job. The restrictive salary cap is a part of the reason. The sudden trend toward locking good players into ridiculously long-term deals is another.

Should Ferguson hold his position in Toronto, the GM likely to replace him in the daily rumor mill is Florida's Jacques Martin.

Martin had as much GM experience as Hull when he wrested control of the Florida Panthers from Mike Keenan. His team is once again free-falling through November. Going into the weekend, the Panthers were 0-4 in games in which they were tied after two periods and have been outscored 30-14 in the third period. Goaltender Tomas Vokoun (acquired from Nashville last June) made it clear in on-the-record comments that the team doesn't work very hard. That could be an indictment of Martin the coach rather than Martin the GM, but that's part of the problem when one man does both jobs: There's no one else to blame.

Already there are rumors that Florida captain Oli Jokinen is being shopped. They are being denied by both Martin and owner Alan Cohen, but Jokinen is one of the few marketable players the Panthers have and he's also gone some 600 games without a playoff appearance, something that doesn't sit well with him. Something has to give in Florida and what makes Martin a likely candidate is Cohen. The Panthers owner has a history of knee-jerk and often questionable decisions and is not above making change simply for the sake of making change.

On the block?

At first glance, it appears veteran defenseman Jay McKee is in trouble in St. Louis. He's had injury problems since he signed a four-year $16 million contract two seasons ago, and was a recent healthy scratch, a decision that did not sit well with him. That and the stunningly good play of 19-year old David Perron has led to speculation that McKee is on the trade block and might be heading back to Buffalo for winger Max Afinogenov.

Afinogenov is fast falling out of favor with fans in Buffalo. His horrible plus-minus (it's been as high as -10 recently) and penchant for brutal giveaways has caused coach Lindy Ruff to take him off the team's No.1 line. Still, Blues President John Davidson labeled the rumor a "complete fabrication" and it's not hard to see why.

In recent weeks, St. Louis coach Andy Murray has made healthy scratches of three of his top-six defensemen, and each time that player has come back with a renewed focus and better play. The Blues might like to get out from under McKee's contract, but it's not likely to be this season. The team is hustling to stay above .500 and Perron, who has now passed the 10-games played mark and can no longer be sent back to junior hockey, needs a mentor to help show him the NHL way.

Murray, by his own admission, has been "all over" Perron to stay focused, something that is extremely difficult for a young player getting his first taste of the NHL. McKee is one of the game's better defensive defensemen and his experience can help in that regard.

Parting shot

Much was made of the fact that the NHL scheduled five games on Hall of Fame induction night and that one of them involved Wayne Gretzky, who won four Stanley Cups with Mark Messier in Edmonton, but couldn't attend the ceremony that inducted Messier, Ron Francis, Al MacInnis, Scott Stevens and builder Jim Gregory because he was coaching the Coyotes that night.

The Great One should have booked a red eye. Messier ran so far over his allotted four minutes that Gretzky might have caught the post-speech festivities.

The teary speech lasted close to 20 minutes and while the crowd obviously respected Messier and his accomplishments, he pushed the show to nearly two and a half hours, leaving people hungry, in need or relief and, judging by the fidgeting of some in the audience, a little bored, to boot.

Hey, Mess, in relative terms the New York Rangers' 54-year Stanley Cup drought that you ended seemed to take longer than your speech.

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