Feeling the heat

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 2:29 PM ET

OTTAWA -- Right across the street from where Paul Martin struggles to keep his tenuous minority government alive, John Ferguson is feeling the heat of sustaining the under-manned Maple Leafs.

Squeezed on many fronts -- the salary cap, encroaching contract deadlines, the injured Owen Nolan's status and cut-throat competition from 29 other National Hockey League general managers -- the general manager was shy on specific solutions last night when pressed by the media.

He did give himself and the payroll some breathing room after 5 p.m., when he confirmed Nolan's $5.6-million US salary was off the books -- for now -- in a complicated conclusion to the buyout deadline.

"Buyouts free up a little bit of cap room, but creates one more spot that you have to fill," said Ferguson, who let the other seven contracted Leafs alone.

But by tomorrow, Ferguson must decide to give qualifying offers to six restricted free agents; defencemen Aki Berg and Karel Pilar as well as forwards Nik Antropov, Wade Belak Chad Kilger and Nathan Perrott. There are indications that Antropov and Berg will be brought back at $1 million each and that forward Alexei Ponikarovsky will re-sign for somewhat less. That would eat up close to $3 million of the Nolan money, leaving around $14 million to spend and still just 10 players under contract.

Monday marks the start of unrestricted free agent shopping, as the door widens for Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk and Tie Domi to leave.

"We'll see what happens on Monday," said Pat Morris, Domi's agent.

A flurry of rumours yesterday had Domi ticketed to Pittsburgh where his buddy Mario Lemieux needs a bodyguard for Sidney Crosby. Lemieux paid a physical price for not having adequate protection in his first years as the Penguins' franchise player and doesn't want Crosby mistreated on the ice.

All three Leafs realize the financial sacrifice required of them to stay in their desired city. But would Roberts, on the cusp of 40, accept half of last year's $3.75 million, or less, to do cornerwork for $6.8-million captain Mats Sundin, when other teams would pay him more?

And would the Maple Leafs take advantage of an unprecedented free agent catalogue to find a younger, cheaper centre than Nieuwendyk?

Coach Pat Quinn, if he retains influence with Ferguson, is going to push for as many of his veterans as possible to come back, citing past success and no doubt wary how he'll handle a new youth oriented lineup.

As for chasing other free agents with whatever funds remain, defencemen Sergei Gonchar and Adam Foote remain two of the Leafs' best bets, though Foote will be courted by the Philadelphia Flyers. Both Foote and Gonchar live in the Toronto area, but where Foote brings a physical element, Gonchar might work best on an offensive team in a scorer-friendly NHL.

The route the Leafs chose with Nolan was not the two-thirds buyout, rather they just let yesterday's deadline pass with the intention of having him declared an unrestricted free agent next week. Because the Leafs still insist he hurt his right knee after being given a clean bill of health in November, they don't think he can exercise his player option on the deal.

But though observers give Nolan a good chance of winning a grievance that could see him get as much as $12 million for two years on the shelf, the league will give Toronto special dispensation in regards to the cap.


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