Given the outcry from the city's hockey columnists, you are
forgiven for thinking that Toronto hired Sarah Ferguson, not John
Ferguson Jr., as its general manager in August. The process was
drawn out and dysfunctional, but hiring the former assistant G.M.
of the Blues was a logical move. With a possible lockout looming
after the expiration of the NHL's collective bargaining agreement
next September, the league is likely to adopt some sort of salary
cap or luxury tax, and that will put a premium on scouting and
developing talent rather than simply buying it. As a minor league
player, scout, agent, lawyer and front-office man, Ferguson, 36,
has been apprenticing for this job practically his whole life.
He won't be able to put his stamp on Toronto immediately,
however. This is an established team whose best players are on
the back nines of their careers. Goalie Ed Belfour is 38 and wing
Gary Roberts is 37, as is center Joe Nieuwendyk, a free-agent
pickup from the Devils. Not so far behind are captain and center
Mats Sundin, who's 32, and power winger Owen Nolan, who's 31. The
ravages of time, and Nolan's cranky back, could undermine the
Leafs, but Toronto has ample experience and character. "We have
to go for it this year," says Sundin.
The problem is, the defense has more soft spots than a moldy
peach. Steady Robert Svehla retired, leaving streaky Bryan
McCabe, who's out for up to six weeks with a knee injury,
perennially disappointing Aki Berg and free agent Bryan Marchment
as the cornerstones. Then again, Belfour didn't need much help
last year when he finished with a .922 save percentage. He could
make Toronto dangerous in the shallow East.
Another plus is that the dressing room is tighter thanks to the
departure of Shayne Corson and Jonas Hoglund. "I wouldn't say
that players hated each other," Sundin says, "but things were
leaking out of the dressing room that we were trying to sort out
Still, in Leaf Nation, where a Cup was last won in 1967, history
weighs heavily on Fergie. And we don't mean Sarah. --M.F.
( 1 Best - 30 Worst )
POWER PLAY 9
PENALTY KILLING 11
G.M. AND COACH 16
By signing free-agent C Joe Nieuwendyk the Maple Leafs finally
have a bona fide No. 2 pivot behind Mats Sundin. Nieuwendyk will
score points, win face-offs and be a positive influence in the
dressing room.... Expect fifth-year F Nik Antropov to start using
his size (6'5", 203 pounds) and strength to blossom into an
offensive force.... With the defense undermanned because of the
retirement of steady veteran Robert Svehla, Toronto's solid
specialty units must be as strong as ever.