John Ferguson Jr: Leafs Ex-GM Better Than You Remember

My esteemed colleague Andrew Forbes recently wrote  an article highlighting the worst moves made by our old friend John Ferguson Jr during his time as the Leafs general manager. Now, I think Andrew is a great writer and I usually agree with him – and it’s possible that no one will agree with me here – but I think Old JFJ was actually a half-decent, under-appreciated GM who’s only fault was trying to do the job under impossible circumstances. I think that if you look at his moves in the proper context, it’s unfair to blame him for the job that he did in his time in Toronto.

(Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)  Rask will always haunt the Leafs.
(Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports) Rask will always haunt the Leafs.

Some Context:

John Ferguson Jr gets a bad rap and seems to be one of the most universally hated management figures in recent Leafs’ history, even though this is undeserved.  The main reason I think it is undeserved is because no Leafs GM has faced tougher circumstances.

Ferguson became the 12th GM in Leafs history on August 29th 2003 and lasted until the end of the 2008 season, meaning that he served four seasons as the Leafs boss (a fifth was lost to the 2004-05 lockout).

What made Ferguson’s reign so difficult was that he took over for NHL Legend Pat Quinn. Imagine being a rookie and taking over the duties of a legend. Now, imagine that that legend hasn’t actually gone anywhere, but has only been demoted and now you’re his boss.

That was the case when Ferguson took over for Quinn, who had lead the Leafs to two final-four appearances and some of the highest point totals in franchise history – a period of success rivaled only by the Cliff Fletcher/Pat Burns era in recent team history.  So, not only was Quinn successful when Ferguson took over, but he stayed on as coach.  How this influenced the decision making process, we can only guess, but from an outsider’s perspective, it seems like, at best, it would be a little awkward.

Pat Quinn is a legend, and rightfully so, but you try being his boss!
Pat Quinn is a legend, and rightfully so, but you try being his boss!

Now, besides this unique situation, Ferguson also inherited a team that was full of veterans and considered to be a Stanley Cup contender, so he was immediately forced into making moves that were, by necessity, short-term. In fact, in Ferguson’s first year, the Leafs set a team record for points with the team Pat Quinn built and continued to coach. So not only is Ferguson supposed to take over for Quinn, but the team goes out and proves that maybe there was no  need to demote him from his position in the first place, making the fact a rookie is now his boss seem all the more awkward.

After Ferguson’s first year on the job, the NHL locked out its players and cancelled the  2004-05 season. With the team coming off a franchise record in points, it’s hard to blame anyone for wanting to keep it going, so the Leafs re-signed Belfour, retained Quinn and brought back a veteran team post-lockout.  Hindsight is 20/20 but no one could have predicted that the “new” NHL and a year off would turn the Leafs into a slow, exposed, aging group so quickly.

Ferguson, at that time, also had to learn on the job how to manage a salary-cap. While all 29 other GMs also had to figure out how to operate in a cap-world, Ferguson had it the toughest because the Leafs, as the NHL’s richest team, just had their biggest advantage completely neutralized. Instead of being able to spend their way out of trouble, the Leafs were now expected to spend to a predetermined budget and there was (to say the least) a steep learning curve.

Mats Sundin
(Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMI)

After the lockout, Ferguson re-signed Tie Domi, despite it being clear to nearly everyone that he shouldn’t, and rumours persist that ownership forced this deal upon him. From Sportsnet’s John Ferguson Jr Timeline: “The impression that Ferguson doesn’t have full control of hockey decisions begins to erode his credibility in Toronto.”  If you extrapolate from this, then logically, if he is forced to re-sign Domi, he can’t really trade Tucker, Kaberle or Sundin either, which means that he can’t rebuild the team, but must instead try to add to it in futility, which is exactly what happened.

The fact is, we don’t know the facts. Even after all this time, there is an intrigue that surrounds Ferguson’s tenure with the Leafs because no one really knows how much power he ever had. Between Pat Quinn (coach for two out of JFJ’s four seasons) and Richard Peddie/Larry Tanenbaum, it seems like (although we’ll probably never know for sure), at the very least, Ferguson never got the chance to have full autonomy.

In the end, between taking over a Cup Contender, replacing and then becoming the boss of a legend, (supposedly) meddlesome ownership, the lockout and the new salary-cap, it’s quite clear that Ferguson was the GM during an extremely difficult set of circumstances and it seems only fair that that be acknowledged when we review his work.

Brian Leetch, captain of the NHL's New York Rangers, during a game in Vancouver, BC.
Brian Leetch, captain of the NHL’s New York Rangers, during a game in Vancouver, BC.

His Bad Moves

If we keep this context in mind, I think we can have a better view of the moves my colleague, Mr.Forbes, mentioned yesterday.  If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to defend them.

#6 Signed Mike Peca

Hey, if you can’t rebuild, you have to add and there was really no reason to think the Leafs wouldn’t still be competitive after the lockout.  Adding Peca was a low-risk move that didn’t pan out, but I don’t see how having Mike Peca could ever be bad thing.

#5 Traded for Brian Leetch

The Leafs didn’t end up giving anyone away here who they went on to regret, and Leetch was a solid addition at the deadline that could have helped the Leafs win the Cup. They didn’t but you don’t win if you don’t try.  It’s Brian Leetch; you can’t go wrong.  I supported this move at the time and still support it today.

#4 Fired Pat Quinn

It was a typical boneheaded Leafs’ move to demote Quinn and replace him with a rookie GM. Quinn should have either been left alone, replaced with someone he’d consider his equal, or fired all-together two years before he really was. Of course the Leafs picked the worst possible option and it worked exactly as anyone could have predicted. Can’t blame JFJ for firing Quinn, in my opinion he likely had no choice.

#3 Signed Jason Blake

If you follow the rumours and the logic, and deduce that Ferguson wasn’t allowed to rebuild, then what exactly was he supposed to do? Sure, this didn’t work out, but he made a splash and did improve his team.  Did he overpay? Yeah, but Blake was a decent player even if he didn’t live up to his deal. I think if your third worst move is over-paying for a player who actually helped the team, I don’t think you did too bad.

#2 Traded for Vesa Toskala

Sure, Toskala didn’t exactly work out great, but based on the circumstances, you can’t blame the guy for trying. In the end, this deal cost the team Lars Eller. Compared to other bad trades that cost the Leafs the chance to draft Scott Niedermayer or Robert Luongo, it’s not too bad. Just because a trade doesn’t work out doesn’t mean it was a failure though – the team had a decent roster and needed a goalie.  You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, right?

#1 Traded Tuukka Rask. 

It all comes back to this. Sure, Rask has been a star for years, but who could have predicted it? Goalies are difficult to predict when they are already established and impossible to project when they haven’t even played a pro game yet.

Raycroft was coming off a Calder Trophy and the Leafs had Justin Pogge. The fact this trade went sideways was just pure bad luck.

Picking up Joe Nieuwendyk was one of JFJ's best moves. (photo by /wikipedia)
Picking up Joe Nieuwendyk was one of JFJ’s best moves. (photo by /wikipedia)


John Ferguson wasn’t the greatest GM in Leafs’ history, but he wasn’t the worst either. In fact, I would argue that based on circumstances beyond his control, it isn’t really fair to judge him at all.

I would say that Burke (Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton, Stralman) and Nonis (received nothing for Kulemin, Grabovski and MacArthur; ruined salary-cap) and especially Cliff Fletcher 2.0 (Alex Steen, moving up to draft Luke Schenn) were all worse than Ferguson was.

Sure, it’s difficult to say any of his moves really helped the franchise, but that is mostly because they failed to win the Cup and the majority of his moves were to try and put the team over the top. He did makes some good late-round picks (Stralman, Kulemin, Reimer, Stalberg, Komarov, Gunnarsson) and he faced impossible circumstances.  If the rumours are true, and Ferguson never got to initiate the rebuild he wanted to, then how can you judge him? His entire tenure was a bunch of moves to try and add the final pieces to a team Pat Quinn built.

In the end, he wasn’t the Leafs best GM, but he was decisive and he drafted well and I would have liked to see how he could have done under better circumstances.