June 30, 2007

Free Agent Fantasies

I've had a week to ponder the Toronto Maple Leafs acquisition of goaltender Vesa Toskala and left winger Mark Bell. When I first heard of the trade, I felt "restrained jubilation" a la George Costanza. No more Andrew Raycroft! It was like Christmas morning, but in June.

The fact that John Ferguson Jr. pulled the trigger on the deal proves to me that he is not a complete idiot. It also proves that he's not blind either. He saw the quality of goaltending, or lack there of, that Andrew Raycroft provided his team last season. It was pathetic. The Leafs' most pressing need was in goal, and say what you want about Ferguson, he addressed the need. So I'm going to have to give him some props.

Sure, he may have committed the cardinal sin of trading away a first round draft pick, but Leafs management has not left him with many options. He's a man without a contract after the 2007/2008 season. He knows that if the Leafs fail to make the playoffs once again, it's bye-bye John Ferguson Jr. And he also knows that if Andrew Raycroft is the number one goalie for the Leafs again, it's bye-bye John Ferguson Jr.

The Leafs are a better team today than they were a week ago, when Raycroft was penciled in as the starter. For me, that's the bottom line. Only time will tell whether the Leafs really screwed up on this deal. With the 13th overall pick, the Leafs could have drafted Angelo Esposito or Alexei Cherepanov. They could turn out to be solid NHLers. The draft is a gamble, and Ferguson gambled by dealing away three picks. Bottom line, it had to be done.

In talking to other members of Leafs Nation about the trade, I got the usual responses. A couple of people told me the Leafs messed up, because Esposito and Cherepanov are going to be superstars. I've got to get my hands on one of these crystal balls my friends seem to have. They must be nice. I also got the "why didn't we get Vokoun" responses. Vokoun makes over $5 million a season and does not fit into the Leafs' budget. That's why Toskala makes sense. He's a good goalie and he comes at a bargain price of less than $1.5 million. He makes less than bloody Raycroft. This gives the Leafs the option of still being able to sign a forward during free agency. The trade works, people.

I was a little surprised to find out that Toskola is 30 years old. I always thought he was younger than that. Like Kramer said, I guess I just assumed! However, for a goalie, 30 puts him right in his prime. Toskala will provide better and more consistent goaltending than Andrew Raycroft, of that there is no doubt, my friends. All this talk about Raycroft and Toskala splitting the duties is pure BS. Toskala came at a hefty price, and he will be the number one goalie. Raycroft deserves to sit on the bench, and should be grateful that he will get the opportunity to sit on the bench. He should be traded, but we all know that isn't happening. Who in their right mind would give up anything, other than a stick or two of Juicy Fruit, for Raycroft?

The Leafs missed the playoffs by one point last season. One single, measly point. One point while employing arguably the worst starting goalie in the league. Raycroft let in a league worst 205 goals against, 16 more than the brutal Tim Thomas. His save percentage, a laughable .894, was tied for last among goalies that started more than 50 games. Raycroft's stats speak for themselves, and believe me, they're not making a lot of noise. Toskala gets the Leafs at least six to eight more wins, and voila, the Leafs are in the playoffs.

The dark horse in the trade is Mark Bell. He's a big boy, only 27 years old, and although he's coming off a terrible season, he's been a solid winger since he made the NHL in Chicago. He's a rugged winger who adds size, toughness and scoring to the Leafs lineup. He makes around $2 million, and I think he could really swing this trade in the Leafs' favour. With his passion to body check and fight, it won't take long before Bell is a fan favourite at the Air Canada Centre. I'll take Bell over Jeff O'Neill any day of the week, thank you very much.

In Toronto, everything the Leafs do is over analyzed. Case in point, this blog. Personally, I don't think it's a big deal that the Leafs want to hire a Senior Director of Hockey Operations. It doesn't change the fact that John Ferguson has a job to do.

It's hard to believe Ferguson is entering his fifth year as Maple Leafs General Manager. Where does the time go? I think he deserves some serious respect for the way he is handling himself right now. Like I said, he's got no contract after the upcoming season, so he's skating on thin ice. He knows the team has to make the playoffs or he's out of a job. That's pressure. His bosses at MLSE are looking to hire someone above him, and he pulled the trigger on a trade knowing there would be severe backlash in the city. Ferguson, after all, traded away a number one draft pick (Tukka Rask) to acquire Raycroft. His trading of Toskala proves the Raycroft trade didn't work out. But it takes a man to accept his mistakes.

On top of all of that, John Ferguson Sr. is battling cancer as I write this, and the prognosis is not good. John Ferguson Jr. has been by his father's side all week, I learned from the Toronto Star, and is preparing for the opening of the free agent market from his father's bedside. It's not easy to be John Ferguson Jr. right now. He deserves some support right now.

Speaking of the opening of the free agent market, we're just about 36 hours away! I love this time of year. July 1st is a beautiful day.

Every year around this time, I start to fantasize about who the Leafs could possibly add to their roster. This year, of course, there are a lot of big names who will be waiting by their fax machines come high noon on Sunday.

Ryan Smyth. Daniel Briere. Scott Gomez. Paul Kariya. Chris Drury. Todd Bertuzzi. Sheldon Souray. Jason Blake. Brendan Shanahan. Michael Nylander. Michael Handzus...

Sorry, I drooled all over myself. Had to grab a tissue.

The list is quite formidable. I do this every year. I dream big. My mother always told me to reach for the stars. Right now I'm picturing Scott Gomez in the blue and white. Now I'm picturing Chris Drury, Mr. Clutch himself. How about Ryan Smyth wearing Sergei Berezin's old #94? Oh my.

I actually had a dream a couple of years ago that the Leafs had signed Paul Kariya, when he was an UFA, and he was going to play on the wing with Mats Sundin. I awoke to find that it was in fact a wet dream. It doesn't get much better than that, eh? Not the wet dream, I mean Kariya! Come on. Maybe my dream will come true on Sunday, and Kariya and Sundin will make beautiful music together.

I always get my hopes up, and usually it's all for not. The Leafs don't have a lot of money to spend, and probably will only be able to sign a second-tier free agent. I don't really have a problem with that, but I just like to dream. I'm the kid who goes to sleep on Christmas Eve expecting Santa Claus to bring me an XBox 360, and who wakes up to find a Sega Genesis under the tree. That's how the Maple Leafs roll. They bring in the aging, cheap goal scorer, and try to tell me he's just as good as the young superstar.

The last big splash the Leafs made on the free agent front was Alexander Mogilny. I'd definitely take another signing like Alexander the Great. Definitely. I've got great memories of number 89 in Toronto.

In a perfect world, the Leafs land Scott Gomez as their second line centre, trade Pavel Kubina and his fat contract for a draft pick or three, and then sign Ryan Smyth to play with Mats Sundin. The odds of that happening? About the same as me writing a short blog post.

More realistic, you say? Okay, the Leafs sign Paul Kariya. He'd come cheaper than the big name guys like Smyth and Drury, and he would be a nice fit on Sundin's wing. I don't think the Leafs need to pay Ryan Smyth $6 million a year. The Leafs can score goals. They scored a lot of goals last year. The problem wasn't scoring, it was keeping them out. That problem has been addressed.

The Jeff O'Neill experiment is mercifully over in Toronto and it looks as though Mike Peca will not be returning to Toronto either. Peca and the rest of the world differ on Peca's value. He still likes to think of himself as a second line centre, while the rest of the planet simply knows that isn't the case. I'd like to see him come back, but only at the right price. Ditto for Bates Battaglia. The Leafs just have to bring back Bates.

If the Leafs fail to sign any of the big names, they should make a push for Todd Bertuzzi. Sure, he comes with a lot of baggage, but he could be given an incentive based contract, and he would look mighty good in the blue and white.

What can I say, I'm a dreamer.

What do you think? Who's on your wish list?

TSN is going to air Sunday morning at 11am with their show called "Free Agent Frenzy." They'll be broadcasting live as the free agent signings hit the board. Only in Canada.

I'll be watching though, with a bowl of popcorn and a beer. And I'm looking forward to it.

God bless this hockey crazed country which I so proudly call home.

Make me proud, John Ferguson Jr.


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