Leafs hoping UFAs feel the attraction

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:42 AM ET

If the prime consideration in changing addresses is "location, location, location," how will the Maple Leafs stack up in today's ultra-competitive free agent housing market?

All the gushing about Ryan Smyth or Paul Kariya possibly choosing Toronto as their new nest when bids open at noon today must be factored against whether such players base their decision on Toronto being a viable Stanley Cup contender this season.

Two years out of the playoffs, uncertainty of the general manager's future and a questionable supporting cast don't weigh in the Leafs' favour.

Yet, there is some allure about the Leafs -- some might call it a fatal attraction -- that is bound to put Toronto in the thick of the pit as the clock ticks towards noon.

"We are confident that we can provide as competitive and as comfortable a place to play as there is in the NHL," GM John Ferguson said last night. "We've prepared well for (today). We're ready to go forward with something that makes sense for our team. If it doesn't, we'll have the patience to wait for something that does."

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with the colour of Ferguson's money and the benefits of living in a world-class city. In that regard, Ferguson said he has left "nothing to chance" and sent many prospective free agents an information package about Toronto, for both married and single players. And he wants to allay fears of any UFAs about the anticipated change in direction for the Leafs with his bosses searching for a senior manager to oversee the hockey office.

"Our (management/coaching) team is a strong one and we can provide all the amenities and family support needed," he insisted.

But those who have picked the Leafs for the off-ice comfort zone have not always filled the bill on the ice and vice-versa. Ferguson believes he has put together a playoff-calibre team, needing just a hired gun or two to get over the hump. But there are many like-minded teams out there, such as Philadelphia, Colorado, San Jose and Los Angeles with even more salary-cap space than the Leafs.

And while Ferguson can go over the $50.3 million US cap to as high as $55 million before whittling it down by opening day, he is likely keeping up to $1.5 million in reserve for injuries or other calamaties.

That gives him around $7 million to work with this week, either for one big name in the Smyth or Daniel Briere class or a second tier that includes Michal Handzus, Mike Comrie and Scott Hannan.

Rumoured trade talks with the Edmonton Oilers have supposedly included Pavel Kubina, a pricey contract the Leafs would love to unload.

Ferguson and predecessor Pat Quinn were strongly criticized in previous years for dithering when free agency opened up. Last year, they were ready with the chequebook at 12:01 p.m., to sign defencemen Kubina and Hal Gill, only to be lambasted later for being too rash in paying big dollars for a low return.

"There will be a lot of action from the 12:01 crowd of teams again," one NHL team official said. "But they're the ones who have had one player in mind for a long time. They won't be around later when you can still get a good player at a good price."


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