A tale of two GMsDAVID SHOALTS
From Saturday's Globe and MailNovember 9, 2007 at 10:25 PM ESTThe past four years have been quite similar for Bob Gainey and John Ferguson. They took command of hockey's two most storied franchises in 2003, had to relearn their trade in the new postlockout National Hockey League, and have watched their teams play to similar results.But if the past is similar, the future looks entirely different for the two men and their teams, the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs."They both have mediocre current situations," said one NHL executive, who wished to remain anonymous."But Ferguson put the Leafs in a situation where they have a terrible future and Gainey put Canadiens in a situation where they have a great future."Gainey, of course, has more pure hockey credibility than his Toronto rival. He parlayed 16 seasons in a Canadiens jersey into five Stanley Cups and induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.Ferguson, whose late father John Sr. also won five Stanley Cup titles with Les Habitants, was a 12th-round pick of Montreal in 1985 but never played a game in the NHL.Both men took over their teams before the start of the 2003-04 NHL season and since then, at least until this fall, they have almost the same regular-season record - 134-98-29 for Gainey's Canadiens and 132-95-35 for Ferguson's Maple Leafs before Toronto's game last night against the Buffalo Sabres. Both teams missed the playoffs last season. But that is where any resemblance between them ends, according to many around the NHL.Gainey is regarded as the better GM because his moves have the Canadiens positioned for a bright future, well-stocked with young talent, drafted and developed within the organization.Goaltender Carey Price defenceman Andrei Markov and forwards Christopher Higgins and Tomas Plekanec have Montreal fans happily looking ahead. Gainey also received a contract extension to 2010.Ferguson, on the other hand, handcuffed himself and the Leafs by trading away draft picks for short-term player solutions and signing veteran free agents to long and expensive contracts, despite vowing to build with young talent when he took the job.Today, the Leafs are stuck with long contracts awarded to underperforming players such as Bryan McCabe and Pavel Kubina and already have more than $40-million (U.S.) in salary committed to next season for a team that may not make the playoffs. Ferguson did not get the contract extension he wanted and if the Leafs fail to make the postseason, he will undoubtedly be let go.So far this season, the teams' performances reflect this situation. The Canadiens are 9-3-3 with 21 points and stand fourth in the Eastern Conference. The Leafs, before last night's game, were 6-7-3 with 15 points, locked in a three-way fight for eighth place.The Canadiens' strong start has been supported by the solid performance of the team's young players. Of the 31 players taken by Montreal in the NHL entry draft since 2004, five are with the Canadiens and six are with their top farm team, the Hamilton Bulldogs, reigning Calder Cup champions.Ferguson can say he has eight draft picks playing on the Leafs, but only one, forward Jiri Tlusty, was selected after he took over. Of the other 25 picks made under Ferguson, only three have made it to Toronto's farm team, the Toronto Marlies. He had two first-round picks in his first four years at the draft because the others were traded away.One of the first-round picks Ferguson did make, goaltender Tuukka Rask in 2005, was traded to the Boston Bruins for goaltender Alexander Raycroft. After Raycroft struggled last season, Ferguson traded away his first-round pick in 2007 as part of the deal to get Vesa Toskala. Neither goaltender is considered among the NHL's elite."That was a terrible trade," one NHL scout said of the Rask-for-Raycroft deal. "Good 19-year-old goalies are really hard to get and you have to hang on with them for a few years. You can never get full value for a young goalie until he proves himself."However, there are NHL people who say Ferguson walked into a difficult situation, not only with the awkward internal politics of the Leafs' parent company, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, but with the team itself. Previous general managers who were not restricted by a salary cap, from Cliff Fletcher to Pat Quinn, routinely traded away draft picks and young players for veteran help in the short term.Ferguson, 40, was also a rookie GM when MLSE president Richard Peddie won a power struggle with Quinn and former Leafs president Ken Dryden to put him in the job. He made his rookie mistakes in the glare of the biggest media market in Canada, where even the most minor move is subject to endless scrutiny in newspapers and on television and talk radio."It's so easy to be a Monday morning quarterback but there is so much scrutiny in that marketplace and I don't think he stepped into a situation that was rosy in the first place," TSN broadcaster Pierre McGuire said. "They did not have a good scouting record or good drafting record [before Ferguson]."The biggest difference is Gainey's picks have evolved and Toronto's picks did not and [Ferguson] had to give up lot of picks to solve the goaltending situation. Another thing is the Brad Boyes situation where [Quinn, the previous GM] made a deal for Owen Nolan for him and a first-round pick [in 2003]. That took away some of the stuff in the cookie jar."Now Brad Boyes is in St. Louis and he's a real good player just going into the prime of his career, while Nolan had to deal with injuries and never really helped the Leafs. That was a short-term deal with long-term repercussions."Ferguson stoutly defends his decisions to trade first- and second-round picks as deals that had to be made to improve the team. As for the insistence of many fans and media that the Leafs trade away whatever expensive stars and veterans they can and rebuild through the draft, he says that is mostly lip service. The Toronto market, he says, will not stand years of losing for a potential payoff down the road."It is a step often more prolonged and painful than people want to acknowledge," he said this week. "The Pittsburgh Penguins had five years of top-five picks. But do you know how to get five top-five picks? You finish in the bottom five of the league for five straight years."It's easy to talk about but when you're a team that doesn't play a meaningful game after Nov. 1, it's a long season and that's just Year 1. What we're attempting to do is to build from within while continuing to win."When Gainey, 53, took over the Canadiens in the summer of 2003 he had a few advantages over Ferguson. First, he was an experienced GM and was able to make his rookie mistakes in the late 1980s with the Minnesota North Stars under far less media scrutiny. He also won a Stanley Cup after the Stars moved to Dallas. Second, he was a beloved figure in Montreal from his days as a player with the Canadiens' dynasty of the 1970s."If he was not the great No. 23 from the Canadiens things might have been different," said another NHL executive, who also wanted to remain anonymous. "If you are an ex-player, you have a great advantage over other people."Gainey readily agrees."It certainly wasn't a disadvantage, for sure," he said this week. "And the fact I had some background in this job and had been with a team that was successful helped. It gives you time to make changes that don't get spit right back at you."Gainey also knew from the start that Canadiens owner George Gillett did not have a bankroll to match the corporate owners of the Leafs and he would never be a major player in the free-agent market, which focused his rebuilding efforts internally. When the lockout ended with a salary cap, the Canadiens were well-positioned to adapt to the new era where scouting both the amateur and professional ranks for players with the best economic value became vitally important.Several times in the past 10 years, Gainey was actually a candidate to take over the Leafs. But his old friend and teammate Dryden was never able to pull it off."There were times I was available and we had discussions," Gainey said. "But the timing never seemed to be quite right."The fans in Montreal, once the most demanding in hockey, have changed, Gainey suggested."Our fan base is younger, less corporate than it is in Toronto," Gainey said. "I think there's a difference in those people's expectations of what they want to see, what they want to feel. They don't really remember the Forum or remember the '70s and '60s."They are not stuck [on the idea] there are six teams. They know there's 30 teams. They know anything can happen. They hope our team wins but it's not as dire if we lose."Gainey's iconic status in Montreal served him well in his first season when the fans began booing defenceman Patrice Brisebois. He dressed them down publicly and the jeering stopped.Leaf fans, meanwhile, appear to be hitting new heights of frustration with a Stanley Cup drought that has lasted 40 years. And Ferguson suffers the wrath of Leaf Nation. He is routinely slagged on the call-in shows and earlier this month, he was jeered by fans at the Air Canada Centre as he left the press box after the Leafs were humiliated 7-1 by the Washington Capitals.When Ferguson was hired in August, 2003, he had to accept his predecessor, Quinn, a man who wanted someone else to be the GM, as the head coach. Also, the prospect cupboard was practically bare.At his first NHL entry draft in June, 2004, Ferguson and his scouts did not have a pick until the 90th selection overall. This was partly Ferguson's fault - he traded the first-round pick as part of a deal to get New York Rangers defenceman Brian Leetch for the 2003-04 playoff run. Quinn had already traded the second-round pick in 2004 to the Carolina Hurricanes the previous season for rent-a-player Glen Wesley.One scout points to the Leetch deal as a classic short-term flop. Leetch was a key player for the Leafs when they knocked off the Ottawa Senators in the first round of the playoffs but he and the Leafs ran out of gas in the next round against the Philadelphia Flyers. Leetch never played again for the Leafs.But Ferguson said Leetch was not intended to be a rent-a-player. Leetch had another year on his contract and Ferguson planned to sign him beyond that but the lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season. By the time it was over, the only team Leetch seemed interested in was the Rangers. When they failed to reciprocate he eventually retired.One veteran NHL scout says Ferguson and his scouting team have shown they can draft good players if the picks are available. But too often Ferguson has traded away the picks."The Leaf scouts have been unfairly maligned," said the scout, who did not want to be identified. "They have not had the bullets to shoot. If you don't have those picks, you can't come up with players."If you hope to get one player, you need two picks because you can't be right on every player you take. Look at the Toskala trade [at last summer's entry draft]. Imagine being a Leaf scout, doing all that work last year and on draft day you show up and there's no first pick and no second pick."Gainey is lauded for making fewer mistakes on the free agents he did sign. When forward Sergei Samsonov did not pan out, Gainey was able to trade him to the Chicago Blackhawks because he only had one year left on his contract. He did give the relatively unheralded defenceman Roman Hamrlik a four-year contract for $5.5-million (U.S.) a year but that is working well so far as a replacement for Sheldon Souray, who went to the Edmonton Oilers as a free agent this past summer.On the trading front, Gainey also has the edge. Where Ferguson is criticized for overpaying for the likes of Raycroft and Toskala, Gainey got goaltender Cristobal Huet and forward Radek Bonk from the Los Angeles Kings for goaltender Mathieu Garon, who was no longer in the Habs' plans, and a third-round draft pick.Ferguson, who needs a good playoff run this season to keep his job, remains defiant. He noted the Leafs missed the playoffs by one point last season (the Canadiens were another point back) despite many injuries and playing in a division where none of the eight divisional games against the other Northeast teams were easy."I feel real good about a number of deals we made and the number of drafts we made," he said. "We got [eight] players we drafted on our club and we're well-situated with what we need to do."Our team is going to be better."
The article then goes on to show how they rated each GM based on drafting and trading. You can check it out here