John Ferguson's tenure as general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs came to an end on Tuesday.
With the organization in danger of finishing out of the playoffs for a third consecutive season, a change was made. Cliff Fletcher will be the interim GM.
"We will always be grateful to John for his passion, dedication and commitment to putting a winning team on the ice," said Richard Peddie, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd in a release on Tuesday.
"He's a man of the highest integrity, who withstood often unfair public criticism with dignity and class. He represented our organization and our community in a first class manner. We wish him well in what we expect will be a long and productive hockey career."
Ferguson's position with the Maple Leafs had been in doubt for some time. The club actively interviewed candidates to come on board as a "mentor" for Ferguson this past summer. Names being bandied about included Scotty Bowman, John Muckler and Fletcher himself.
Ferguson was a surprise hiring in August of 2003, beating out high-profile candidates like Neil Smith and Steve Tambellini for the position. Ferguson came on board with no previous GM experience, but worked as assistant general manager and vice-president and director of hockey operations for the St. Louis Blues. He was also a member of the Ottawa Senators scouting staff from 1993 to 1996.
Under Ferguson, the Maple Leafs were geared towards winning in the present and never seemed to establish a long-term plan for success.
He arrived in Toronto prior to the 2003-04 season with the hope of building a Cup contender, and made his mark quickly by adding veterans like centre Joe Nieuwendyk and defenceman Ken Klee. With the team competing well near the top of the standings, he also rented veteran stars like Brian Leetch and Ron Francis at the expense of prospects and high draft picks. With a stacked team in the postseason, the Leafs didn't make it past the second round and Nieuwendyk, Francis and Leetch made a quick exit.
For the next three years, Ferguson's tenure with the Leafs was highlighted by more moves that rarely panned out.
With the lockout looming the following summer and the league pushing for cost certainty, he didn't hesitate to re-sign 39-year-old goaltender Ed Belfour to a three-year, $16 million contract. Belfour was never the same after winning 34 games in 2003-04, with a back injury hampering the rest of his stint with the Leafs.
Ferguson took more gambles when the lockout ended. He signed centres Jason Allison and Eric Lindros - players with plenty of injury questions - in August of 2005. Lindros played just 33 games in the 2005-06 campaign, Allison finished the year on the shelf and the Leafs failed to make the postseason for the first time in seven years.
Ferguson faced more obstacles as the 2006-07 season approached, with his two top blueliners - Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe - set to become un-restricted free agents. He signed Kaberle to a five-year, $21.25 million deal, and locked up McCabe with a five-year, $28.75 million contract with a no-movement clause. He also added veteran blueliners Pavel Kubina (four-years, $20 million) and Hal Gill (three years, $6.3 million), giving the Leafs the second-highest paid blueline behind only the Detroit Red Wings.
Ferguson also tried to upgrade his goaltending, shipping 2005 first-rounder Tuukka Rask to the Boston Bruins for Andrew Raycroft. While Raycroft tied the Leafs' franchise record for most wins by a goaltender in the regular season, he was inconsistent for stretches and the team missed the playoffs for a second straight campaign.
With one year remaining on his contract and no hints of an extension to stay with the team, Ferguson was in a lame duck position tring to get the Leafs back in the playoffs. Last summer, he made another move in goal by trading three high draft picks to San Jose for netminder Vesa Toskala and forward Mark Bell. He also tried to bolster the team's scoring, signing free agent forward Jason Blake with a five-year, $20 million contract.
Bell is currently on injured reserve after facial surgery and Blake has only managed nine goals this season after a he scored 40 with the New York Islanders in 2006/07.
The Leafs made one coaching change with Ferguson at the helm, replacing Pat Quinn in 2006 with Paul Maurice.