In search of defence

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:16 AM ET

In a perfect, modern world, the Maple Leafs would surf defencemen on the web and click on "stay-at-home."

Then, perhaps Ed Belfour and Mikael Tellqvist wouldn't be contorting their bodies in vain efforts to stop so many breakaways, with no Leafs defenders anywhere in the frame.

But the challenge to get help in this area of the new National Hockey League is daunting. For one, investing money and player resources on a defensive defenceman can be a waste when rules to impede attacking forwards have been eased. That's before you get into tricky salary-cap issues.

NHL scouts have been told to concentrate on finding a different kind of aid package for their defence this year.

"You go after some stay-at-home guys, but only if they have quick feet," one Western Conference scout said yesterday. "The problem is that those guys can be the hardest to find.

"You look at what (the Phoenix Coyotes) just did with getting Dennis Seidenberg from Philly (for Petr Nedved). When Dennis came in the league three years ago, people thought he'd be really good. He should get that chance now and (the Coyotes) dumped a big salary that wasn't producing."

The Leafs, already tight for cap space, reduced their options on defence by bringing back Aki Berg at $1.06 million US. Coupled with Bryan McCabe's groin tear, disappointing free-agent Alex Khavanov ($1.25 million), Ken Klee's penalty problems and the growing pains with rookies Staffan Kronwall and Carlo Colaiacovo, it's no wonder the losses are mounting.

Yet, as Harry Neale pointed out during this Leafs slump, forwards have been in bad position on both coverage and breakout, resulting in the defence forced into long passes or getting burned the other way by crisp puck movement up ice.

Before news of his positive drug test came to light, Bryan Berard's name was one of the few established defencemen who had been floated as rent-a-player stock at the March 9 trade deadline. Berard still might move, but failing a major acquisition, the Leafs will have to either wait for McCabe, look to the Marlies or hope for manna to drop from the waiver wire.

"That happened with Alexander Mogilny, but you can't count on it," the scout said, "and you have to make sure the move you make is not just a lateral one. You want to improve."

MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE

Speaking on Leafs TV yesterday, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly defended the decision not to disciplining Berard since the steroid in his system was not detected by a league-authorized test. That doesn't absolve Berard, of course, since a faster implementation of the NHL test would've likely caught him and others.

Daly remains hopeful that the return of samples this week from tests conducted earlier in January will not give World Anti-Doping Agency boss Dick Pound more ammunition for his claim that one-third of NHLers are cheating.

"I guess I'm prepared for the possibility that there may be a handful of positive tests," Daly said. "Hopefully, it never comes to fruition. But you also have to be somewhat realistic that with more than 700 players, there may be a handful of positive tests. We'll see and we'll deal with it appropriately.

"The goal of this program is to educate, and with time, totally eliminate the use of performing-enhancement drugs in our sport."

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk claims that his team must go three rounds in the playoffs to make money this year, while Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis is projecting a loss of $5 million in a season his team likely won't qualify for the post-season. The Caps claimed to have lost $25 million in 2003-04. They have 8,759 season ticket holders, and need 11,000 to 12,000 to break even ... The Caps also are making noises about keeping goaltender Olaf Kolzig, which would squelch a lot of trade deadline action ... While Calgary Flames coach Darryl Sutter fights for the lead in the Western Conference and Brent Sutter basks in the glow of a world junior gold medal, ex-coach Brian Sutter is busy calving on his 1,500-acre farm outside Red Deer, Alta. He raises 175 head of Black Angus. "I thoroughly enjoy this type of life," said Brian, whose contract was not renewed by the Chicago Blackhawks. "Stress is a bull trying to run me over and a cow falling on me when she's (in labour). Hockey is just a game, and farming is our life."

VOTE OF CONFIDENCE?

Having the Leafs play on the night of a federal election is a mixed blessing, depending on your political stripe. It's happened only twice, the last time on Nov. 21, 1988, when Toronto blanked the St. Louis Blues 4-0 and Brian Mulroney's Conservatives were re-elected with a majority.

But take heart Paul Martin. On March 26, 1940, the sitting Liberals of William Lyon Mackenzie King were returned to office as Toronto beat the Detroit Red Wings 2-1 in a playoff game. But for the incumbent governments to go 3-for-3, Martin and the Leafs both will need a dramatic reversal of fortune tonight in Ottawa.

THE WEEK AHEAD

Pat Quinn turns 63 on Sunday ... The second installment of the Crosby-Ovechkin Calder Trophy battle will be played out Wednesday in Pittsburgh, while the day before in Denver the Western Conference rookie show will see Dion Phaneuf's Flames against Marek Svatos and the Avalanche ... The Canadiens continue a steady diet of division leaders, in Carolina, Philadelphia and Ottawa.


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