July 04, 2007

Well Done, John Ferguson Jr.

NHL free agency opened at high noon on July 1st - Happy Canada Day, eh - and a frenzy it most certainly was.

The league's general managers threw around money like steroids at Barry Bonds' house.

John Ferguson Jr. hit the phones at 12 pm sharp and came away with former New York Islanders sniper Jason Blake's signature on a five year contract worth $20 million dollars.

Shout outs are in store, to a most unlikely candidate - Mr. John Ferguson Jr., the much-maligned Maple Leafs general manager.

Jason Blake is the newest member of the Toronto Maple Leafs - welcome to Toronto, Jason - and he comes at a very reasonable price tag of $4 million a season. It's hard to believe a $4 million dollar annual salary can be called reasonable, but such are the times we now live in.

Blake was the only free agent on the market who scored 40 goals last season. He's got fantastic speed and skates like the wind. He's also a selfish hockey player - he loves to shoot the puck. He fired a total of 305 shots on goal last season, and finished with impressive statistics. Of his 40 goals, 26 came at even strength (which is sweet music to the ears of any Leafs fan), 14 came on the power play, and he led the Islanders with seven game winning goals. In contrast, only two Maple Leafs finished with more than 200 shots on goal - Bryan McCabe and Mats Sundin. And Darcy Tucker led the Leafs with 15 power play goals and six game winners, while only playing 56 games.

Whenever the Leafs played the Islanders last year, I wanted to reach into my television screen and slap Jason Blake. He's small in stature but has the ability to get under the skin of his opponents. He's feisty - he got into a publicized scuffle with superstar Sidney Crosby last year - and he's the type of hockey player that is easy to hate. All of that makes me even happier that he will now be playing for the good guys, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Hating your opponent is the biggest compliment you can give a guy.

While I went into Sunday's free agent frenzy with dreams of Ryan Smyth, Scott Gomez, Chris Drury and Paul Kariya, I think JFJ really made good in signing Blake. Gomez and Drury never had any intention of coming to Toronto from the get go, and while there have been reports that the Leafs were one of the first teams to offer Ryan Smyth a contract, he's a western boy at heart and his stay in the Eastern Conference turned out to be a short one as he signed long term with the Colorado Avalanche.

I was very surprised to see Paul Kariya get $6 million a year, first of all, and, second of all, see him get that kind of loot from the St. Louis Blues. St. Louis? Are you kidding me, Kariya? It's clear that Paul Kariya will only play in hockey markets that aren't, well, hockey markets. He doesn't like or want the spotlight, and that's the reason why in free agency he has signed with the Nashville Predators and now the St. Louis Blues. Clearly there was no chance he was coming to Toronto either, and the Leafs knew that, so they targeted Jason Blake.

The knock on Blake, and JFJ for signing him, is that he will be 34 once training camp opens, and that he had a career year at the most opportune time - when his contract was up. Valid points, sure, but in the last three years Blake has scored 90 goals, for a solid average of 30 a campaign. No Maple Leaf scored 30 goals last season.

Now I love Alexei Ponikarovsky probably more than anyone in this city, but he's got hands of stone. Ditto for Alex Steen and Matt Stajan. Poni, although he did score a very respectable 21 goals and make me a cool $100 bucks, should have finished with at least 30, if not 35. These guys have about as much finish as an anorexic at Mandarin. It's nice to add a guy who can finish, and Jason Blake is all about it. He loves to score goals.

Blake automatically becomes the second shooter in the dreaded shootout for the Leafs. He's a sniper, and exactly what the Leafs have lacked in the shootout behind Mats Sundin.

I've heard some people say that the contract is too long and that Blake will be 38 by the time it's up. Once again, so be it. He's 33 right now and seems to have a lot of hockey left in him. He was a late bloomer on the NHL scene, is in tremendous shape, and skates like he's 24 years old. His contract, which doesn't include a no-trade or a no-movement clause, makes him easy to trade if need be down the line. This was the right move by JFJ at the right time.

Now, before I continue, there's two things I've got to get off my chest. Firstly, I'm sick and tired of hearing about Pavel Kubina's contract, and how atrocious it is. Sick of it. Get over it. Kubina has let it be known that there were two other teams last summer that offered him the same contract. JFJ didn't blow any other offer out of the water. He didn't give Kubina something that no one else was. He gave him market value at the time. Free agency drives up the cost of players, it's as simple as that. Look at the contracts other defencemen, comparable to Kubina, have signed recently:

Andre Markov - 4 years, $23 million
Scott Hannan - 4 years, $18 million
Roman Hamrlik - 4 years, $22 million
Robyn Regehr - 5 years, $20 million

I'd love it too if Kubina put up 50 points, but he is a number three defenceman on the Leafs and barely gets any power play time because Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle get all the power play minutes. Kubina played hurt last season, and was a plus player, which is the most important statistic in my opinion. No one can argue that the Leafs are a better team when Kubina is in the lineup, because he's able to play a lot of minutes and in turn bring McCabe and Kaberle's minutes down.

Another favourite of Leafs fans is to say that the club continues to shoot itself in the foot by trading away draft picks and that the Leafs don't mould their own talent via the draft. People need to do their research before they give me that garbage.

Kyle Wellwood, Tomas Kaberle, Alex Steen, Matt Stajan, Alex Ponikarovsky, Nik Antropov, Carlo Colaiacovo, and Ian White.

Those are eight players who were drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs and whom are extremely important pieces of the team today. For people to say that the Leafs have not drafted their own talent is simple false. Tomas Kaberle is a superstar defenceman in the NHL and Kyle Wellwood is a bright, young talent who is poised for stardom. No, the Leafs don't have the best track record of building through the draft, but they aren't as bad as some people believe they are.

After getting Jason Blake's name on a contract, JFJ wasn't done. He re-signed Bates Battaglia to a two-year contract and Battaglia has solidified his roster spot on the Leafs. His career has come full circle. It got off to a solid start but somewhere along the way Battaglia lost the passion he was known for. He lost his job, and even contemplated retirement. He even spent some time in the East Coast Hockey League, before resurfacing with the Toronto Marlies after the lockout. Battaglia ended up playing all 82 games for the Leafs last year, pretty good for a guy who didn't have a spot on the team coming into training camp. He's a dogged forechecker who also has some finish around the net. He finished with a respectable 31 points and is a solid third-line winger. Glad to have you back, Bates.

Word also dropped this afternoon that JFJ has signed his new goalie Vesa Toskala to a contract extension at $8 million over two years. I wasn't too thrilled when I heard the news, because JFJ played the same card with Raycroft last season - he gave him a new contract before he played a game in the blue and white. However, Toskala's contract kicks in after the 2007/2008 season. This season he will earn $1.375 million as Toronto's number one goalie.

See ya later Andrew Raycroft. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Rumour has it that JFJ is aggressively shopping around Raycroft, and that the Detroit Red Wings may be interested. I can't take that rumour seriously, because the Red Wings are smarter than that. Raycroft? After the season that Dom Hasek turned in for them? No way. It's not about what JFJ can get in return for Raycroft right now, it's about who will take his contract off the Leafs' books.

The Leafs are about a million away from the salary cap's ceiling of $50.3 million. I would have loved to see Mike Peca come back, but there's no way that can happen now.

There's definitely been a power shift in the Eastern Conference now that the big name free agents have all found new homes. The New York Rangers will be a dangerous team with new centres Scott Gomez and Chris Drury. The Gomez/Jagr/Shanny line, once Shanny gets his name on a contract with the blue shirts, might be the best line in hockey.

Daniel Briere is off to join the Philadelphia Flyers, who have assembled a roster that is much different from last year's laugher. Their rebuilding process was a quick one and although I'm still not convinced of their defence, they will be a competitive squad.

Poor Buffalo. The Sabres lost their heart and soul in Drury and Briere, and they also lost Danius Zubrus, whom they gave up a first round draft pick to acquire. I hate the Sabres, and the city of Buffalo, so I'm rather enjoying their sudden demise.

Even with a salary cap, it was all the big boys from days gone by that were spending the big bucks on Sunday. The NHL has got to be the most backwards league in the history of pro sports. What the hell was the point of the lockout? The big market teams are making profits and spending to the ceiling of the cap, while the small market teams like the Oilers and Sabres are struggling to attract free agents and remain competitive. It's absurd. And now they want to put a team in Kansas City. Seeing how great an experiment Nashville was, the NHL would rather put a team in Kansas City than let a Canadian business man bring a team back north of the border. Good call.

Lucky for me, the Leafs make billions of dollars. They can't win, but hey, they're working on it. I'm stoked about this Leafs team. JFJ has put together a solid, underrated squad that will make the playoffs. I'm calling it already. This team can score goals, has solid defence, a good goaltender (Hallelujah!) and a good mix of veterans and young players. I'm feeling it.

Here's my projected line-up for opening night. I know, it's still three months away, but seriously, I'm excited.

Line 1: Tucker Sundin Blake
Line 2: Antropov Wellwood Ponikarovsky
Line 3: Bell Devereux Steen
Line 4: Kilger Pohl Battaglia

Defence 1: Kaberle Kubina
Defense 2: McCabe Colaiacovo
Defense 3: Gill White

Goalie 1: Toskala
Goalie 2: Anyone but Raycroft

It looks like Matty Stajan is the odd man out. That's a shame.

I'm not an idiot, I know there's no way Stajan isn't on this team. I just love to hate him.

Don't sleep on these Leafs. It may not be a star-studded team, but it's a damn good one. Only three months til the puck drops.

I asked John Ferguson Jr. to make me proud. He didn't disappoint...


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Malissa said...

Well said.