Hats off to Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment for finally recognizing that they made a huge mistake by bringing in John Ferguson Jr. to “run the show” for the Leafs. I use the term “run the show” very loosely of course. Ferguson was merely a puppet for the MLSE board which is compromised of prominent real estate developers, lawyers and pension fund directors who in addition to being extremely successful businessmen also possess brilliant hockey minds?
With Ferguson fired, the Leafs have handed the GM position to former Leafs’ GM Cliff Fletcher accompanied by a promise by the MLSE board to give him full control over the hockey operations. This model has certainly worked well for the Raptors and under the guidance of a hockey version of Bryan Colangelo, it will certainly serve the best interests of the Leafs. However, the question remains: Is Fletcher the right guy for the job?
Fletcher has certainly demonstrated the willingness to pull off the big trade and the foresight to recognize the potential contributions of players. He was responsible for bringing Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin to Toronto. He will have to utilize the same foresight and willingness in the next month when he is faced with the pressure to, ironically, trade Sundin.
In response to today’s firing, I looked at the success of the Leafs under their last 4 general managers dating back to when Fletcher took over in 1991. The list includes:
Cliff Fletcher (1991-1997)
Ken Dryden (1997-1999)
Pat Quinn (1999-2003)
John Ferguson Jr. (2003-2008)
For the analysis, I recognize that team points are now scored differently than they were in the 90’s. Since 1999, teams received a point for losing a game in overtime and, of course, shootouts were brought into the game to break ties in 2005. As well, the league has expanded since the early 90’s from a 22-team league to the 30-team league that we have today.
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The Leafs were most successful under Pat Quinn. They enjoyed their highest winning percentage (.589) and on, average, ranked 5th in the conference and 2nd in their division, while qualifying for the playoffs every season. Quinn’s teams also consistently ranked in the top 10 in the league in goals scored and were above the league average in goals against. They narrowly missed the Stanley Cup finals losing to the Hurricanes in 2001 and were generally regarded as contenders in the East every season.
Conversely, under Ferguson, the Leafs have failed to qualify for the playoffs since the lockout and are likely going to fall short again this year. They did tally 103 points in his first season (2003), but how much of that can be attributed to Ferguson instead of Quinn, his predecessor? Since the lockout the Leafs have ranked, on average, 10th in the East and 4th in their 5-team division.
Ironically, Fletcher did have a lower winning % than Ferguson. However, the Leafs in the mid 90’s, when Gilmour was in his prime, were a much better team than now, and they would have arguably had a much higher winning percentage should the shootout have been in place. As well, the Leafs almost reached 100 points in 1992-1993 and 1993-1994 en route to conference finals appearances without receiving points for overtime losses. For 4 consecutive seasons starting in 1992, the Leafs finished at worst 5th in their conference.
Under Fletcher, the Leafs appeared to have difficulty scoring, finishing, at best, 13th in the league in goals for. However, the Leafs did rank above league average in goals against during Fletcher’s tenure with the exception of his final season. In the last 2 seasons, the Leafs have finished 21st and 25th overall in goals against and currently have the 4th worst goals against to date.
Ferguson had his chance with the Leafs. His track record certainly supports MLSE’s decision to fire him today. Whether Fletcher was the right guy remains to be seen. Granted, while he will only retain the GM title until the end of the season, what Fletcher does in the next few months will certainly go a long way in molding the Leafs potential success over the next few years. Here is to hoping that they don’t continue along the path that Ferguson has currently steered them on.
For Illegal Curve, I am Adam Gutkin.