Most would acknowledge that the John Ferguson Jr. era was not the best of times in Leaf Nation. His first season as GM, saw a franchise record 103 points and a sixth straight playoff berth. By the time he was fired, point totals were declining, three playoffs were missed, and a number of poor signings and questionable trades had sealed JFJ’s fate. Brian Burke has revamped the team, and no current player on the roster was with the NHL club when Ferguson was around. Yet, to say that there is nothing left of JFJ’s tenure would be incorrect. Actually, any hopes the Leafs have of making the playoffs is tied to some of Fergie’s draft selections.
Ferguson arrived after the 2003 draft, having served in a variety of positions with the St. Louis organization where talent evaluation was among his duties. While no GM conducts a draft solely on his own, the general manager tends to get a lot of credit or blame for the selections. During his time in Toronto, Ferguson presided over 4 drafts, selecting 26 players. Among those were Justin Pogge and Tuukka Rask, Anton Stralman and Viktor Stalberg, and others that have been traded away or allowed to leave, for better or worse. Seven of JFJ’s draft choices remain in Toronto’s system, and some of them can have a major impact on how successful the Leafs could be.
True, three of the remaining JFJ draft choices have slid down the depth chart somewhat. Dale Mitchell (74th, 2007) is said to be recovering from an ACL injury, and he’ll likely play in the AHL, hoping to reclaim the scoring prowess he had in junior. At this stage, most see him as a potential 3rd line player if he can make an NHL roster. Also going back to the AHL are defencemen Korbinian Holzer (111th, 2006) and Juraj Mikus (134th, 2007). Both players could develop into regular AHL defenders, with an upside to potentially 3rd pairing NHLers. Either may have had a chance at being the 7th defenceman if the blueline was not so deep. As it stands now, these 2 likely come in around 10th on the depth chart. Mitchell, Holzer and Mikus may contribute as players in coming years, or as tradable assets. Until then, they will strengthen a Marlies roster also hoping to see playoff action.
One prospect getting a long look is Matt Frattin. Selected with 99th in 2007, Frattin has the upside to be a decent second-liner in the NHL, and is in tough for a roster spot against Nazem Kadri. He came back from personal issues to be selected WCHA player of the year and was a Hobey Baker finalist. While he’s played well in camp, he’ll most likely be among the final cuts this season, and be given time to adjust to the pro game with the Marlies. If he progresses as expected, he will be a part of the NHL team soon.
Significant contributors to any success Toronto has will come from 3 of JFJ’s draft picks now with the Leafs. Drafted 194th in 2007, Carl Gunnarsson has emerged as a capable 3rd pairing defenceman, and was re-signed this season to a 2-year, $2.65M contract. He’s played 111 NHL games already, and last season averaged over 18 minutes of ice time, scoring 20 points in 68 games and registering a -2 rating on a non-playoff team. It should be enough to secure Gunnarsson a spot in the top 6, although competition is stiff for the final 3 d-man, with the likes of Mike Komisarek, Cody Franson, Jake Gardiner and Matt Lashoff. Should he make the team, Gunnarsson will be expected to improve his defense, while playing a puck-moving style, and he’ll see time on the second powerplay squad.
Nikolai Kulemin will play a major role as a forward. Ferguson drafted Kulemin 44th overall in 2006. Though it’s taken time, Kulemin has developed into one of the better top-6 guys on the roster. After 2 respectable seasons of 31 and 36 points, Nik broke out with Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur to score 30 goals last season. Aside from scoring, Kulemin has matured. He hits, he goes to the dirty areas, he digs in the corners. He’s also better defensively, and posted a +7 rating last year. Kulemin won’t be the team’s scoring leader, and 30 goals and 60 points may be the upper limit of his talent. However, he is a lock as a top-6 forward on the Leafs, and his scoring ability will help divert the opposition’s focus away from the top line.
Prior to last season, any mention of ‘drafted goalie’ and ‘JFJ’ was likely to end in a comparison of Pogge and Rask. However as is well-documented, James Reimer burst on the Leaf scene with an impressive performance over the last half of the season. Taken 99th in 2006, all Reimer has done is improve his play at each level. Moving from junior through the ECHL to the Marlies, he began the 2010-11 season as low as 4th on the Toronto goaltending depth chart, but seized the opportunity at mid-season to show he has the tools to be a solid NHL goalie. Toronto management has shown a great deal of confidence in him by acknowledging him as the Leafs’ starter, and not signing a safety-net NHL veteran. It could be a risky move, as Reimer has only 37 NHL games experience, but it certainly supports the statement that this JFJ draft choice may be the most crucial to any success Toronto has in 2011-12.
The John Ferguson era is not ever likely to be looked upon fondly by Leaf Nation. This article for example would have been very different has Rask not been traded for Andrew Raycroft, or draft picks not traded for Vesa Toskala. Though many laud Brian Burke for ‘re-stocking a bare cupboard’, it’s important to see that even Burke recognized his predecessor had accumulated some useful talent. John Ferguson Jr. may not go down as one of the great GMs in Leaf history, but he should be recognized for his draft acumen, and his contributions should not be overlooked.