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The Toronto Argonauts celebrate their Grey Cup win over the Calgary Stampeders at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.<252> (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
The Toronto Argonauts celebrate their Grey Cup win over the Calgary Stampeders at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.<252> (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Sean Gordon

Argos are the new muscle in the East Add to ...

Four nights before the Grey Cup, various CFL and corporate grandees gathered on the Rogers Centre turf for a lavish, well-attended cocktail party. The mood was buoyant, and so was Toronto Argonauts GM Jim Barker when he happened upon a couple of journalists.

It was too early in the evening for his liveliness to be ascribed to the open bar. He was enthused primarily because of what he sensed as a realignment of sorts in the CFL’s power structure.

The balance in the East, he said, has shifted to Toronto from Montreal.

He pointed out that the Alouettes juggernaut is in the care of a soon-to-be 41-year-old quarterback who has no obvious replacement. Barker didn’t need to mention that the Als, who seemingly reach the East Final every year, are also 0-2 in home playoff games since winning it all in 2010.

Barker’s analysis – admittedly self-serving – was delivered before the Argos decisively outclassed the Calgary Stampeders for the league’s grand prize, a 100-year-old trophy with fragile handles (one of which was snapped off in the postgame celebration, allegedly by Toronto defensive lineman Adriano Belli).

Does the result adds credence to Barker’s view? Can the argument be broadened to suggest that perhaps the West’s days as the more competitive division are drawing to a close?

The most sensible answer is: maybe.

The CFL’s brain trust presumably hopes so, given the short and medium-range commercial benefits of resurgent markets in Southern Ontario, and it may well be that Toronto is on the way to becoming the new centre of power.

As the NFL, NHL, Major League Baseball and, to a lesser extent, the NBA have shown, competitive parity is good for business. But the sample size is pretty small.

If the Argos repeat Sunday’s feat in Regina next November, Barker’s argument will be more persuasive.

The more realistic view is that for the next while Toronto will be among the perennial contending teams – with B.C., Calgary and Montreal – along with the occasional strong season from Saskatchewan, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Hamilton.

Yes, the Argos made a brilliant choice in snapping up former Montreal offensive assistant Scott Milanovich to be the new head coach once Barker moved into the front office after a last-place showing in 2011. Sure, they made a savvy decision in prying defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones, another Als alum, out of Calgary.

And Barker deserves more credit than he’s received for snaffling franchise quarterback Ricky Ray away from the Edmonton Eskimos.

But the Grey Cup triumph obscures the inconvenient reality that the Argos were a .500 regular-season team this year. They’ll claim that’s only because Ray missed a month through injury, the offence and defence took time to adjust to new schemes, and the decision to go with eventual Grey Cup MVP Chad Kackert as the featured back was made in midstream.

Again, maybe.

Coach Marc Trestman’s Als, who have rolled up 64 wins and two championships in his five seasons in charge, were a less than dominant 11-7 this year, and went 10-8 the year before. That’s good news for Toronto until you consider Milanovich is running a strikingly similar West Coast-inspired offence.

While it’s true the CFL’s other teams don’t have Jones to pick their opponents apart, Trestman will be first to say the league has caught up to what the Als and dominant teams like the B.C. Lions are trying to do offensively.

There’s also the question of how long the Argos can keep their team, both on and off the field, together.

Kackert’s only 26, but he’s just completed his second year in the league and will be eligible for free agency on Feb. 15, 2013, unless the Argos re-sign him. It’s not clear how much NFL interest there will be for a player who was a CFL backup four months ago (Kackert had a brief training-camp stint with the Jacksonville Jaguars as an undrafted free agent in 2010).

If he can’t reach agreement with Toronto, perhaps another CFL team will be tempted to sign him.

Defensive starters like Marcus Ball, Pacino Horne and Patrick Watkins are also believed to have the off-season option to try their luck with NFL teams.

Whatever happens, the Argos will surely lose players and perhaps some coaches. Everyone loves a winner.

Milanovich insists that Jones – who runs the Toronto defence like his own fief, with minimal input from the head coach – is deserving of a head coaching job. It’s hard to see how that happens this winter, but a CFL franchise will be reborn in Ottawa in 2014 (the club submitted its 25-player negotiation to the league on Monday).

Expansion teams seldom do well in their initial forays in a new league, but with a dispersal draft coming late next year and the talent level in the newly stocked East, the new Ottawa franchise will be looking to stock its cupboards with coaches, scouts and players.

Success will only make the Argos a juicier target for their current – and future – opponents.

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