Leafs paying hefty price

Multimillion-dollar defenceman Bryan McCabe collides with Mats Sundin at practice yesterday. The...

Multimillion-dollar defenceman Bryan McCabe collides with Mats Sundin at practice yesterday. The Leafs, who have lost their last seven games, play Tampa Bay tonight at the ACC. (ERNEST DOROSZUK, SUN)

STEVE SIMMONS

, Last Updated: 5:25 AM ET

Strangled by their own economic mismanagement, the Maple Leafs plod on, unable to make changes, perhaps incapable of change.

The very premise of this Leafs season -- a team built around an ultra-expensive defence, apparently emerging goaltenders and strong special teams -- is crumbling nightly.

The most expensive defence in hockey also happens to be among the most porous. The emerging goaltenders border on the very average. The cost of improved penalty killing -- $2.7 million US for Michael Peca; $2 million for Hal Gill -- saw the Red Wings score five power-play goals Saturday night. The Leafs were 26th in penalty killing last season, they've moved up eight places to remain in the bottom half of the league.

And John Ferguson's lavish decision to pay more for the Leafs' top three on defence than any other team in the National Hockey League has produced one of the worst defensive records in the entire sport.

PITIFUL

The Leafs have allowed more than 100 goals against. So have pitiful teams such as Phoenix, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Florida and Philadelphia. This is the company Toronto now keeps.

The training camp notion put forth by Ferguson that, "We don't have to score more, we have to give up fewer goals against," is being tested on two fronts. They aren't necessarily scoring more and they aren't giving up fewer goals against.

And the economics seem startling by almost any hockey standard.

The Leafs have committed $16.3 million this year to Bryan McCabe, Pavel Kubina, and Tomas Kaberle and that commitment ranges from four to five years -- one contract of value, two contracts highly overpriced -- placing the team in an almost inflexible position to move forward.

Anaheim, with Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer on defence, two of the three best defencemen in hockey, pays $14.52 million for its top three.

San Jose, having given up 40 fewer goals than the Leafs in one fewer game, pays $5.6 million for its top three.

Dallas, with the best defensive record in the NHL, paid out $8.6 million for its top three defenders.

Even in Detroit, with Nik Lidstrom and Mathieu Schneider on defence, the Red Wings pay $3 million less than the Leafs for their top three.

"This is our team," captain Mats Sundin said yesterday, trying to explain the seven games since he returned to the Leafs lineup, all seven of them losses.

"I believe we have a good enough team."

But good enough for what? Making the playoffs? Maybe in a struggle, but still unlikely. Going anywhere? Highly unlikely.

The difficulty comes back to the salary cap and managing assets if not expectations. The decisions made in the summer have certainly come into question. The difficulty, as the Raptors found out years ago, is you can't recover well from salary cap errors.

Kubina, at $5 million a year, was an error. McCabe, at $7.15 million, was an error. In making commitments to Kubina, McCabe and Gill, the Leafs spent $14.1 million on three defenceman, none of whom can cleanly make the ever-important outlet pass in the new NHL.

DECISION

Now, what if they had gone, for example, and signed Zdeno Chara, Petr Sykora and Joe Corvo instead? Yes, this is second guessing, but it is the kind of decision making at which management had to have been looking.

Chara would have made the Leafs stronger on the penalty kill, solid on the power play, and tougher in front of their own net. Corvo also is a power-play guy. Sykora has scored 12 goals in Edmonton, nine at even strength, four game winning. Better five-on-five statistics than any Leaf.

McCabe, Kubina and Gill at $14 million; Chara, Sykora and Corvo for $13 million. Which team would be better?

The matter becomes even more complex with the contracts of Sundin contract and Darcy Tucker concluding this season.

Signing one or both could further hinder the Leafs' future. Signing neither hardly is the answer, either.

This is the corner into which Ferguson has spent his way. Now, he can't spend his way out of trouble.


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