Leafs make Blake rich

LANCE HORNBY

, Last Updated: 7:40 AM ET

The Maple Leafs signed a high-scoring forward away from the New York Islanders, but not Captain Canada.

After some excitement that they would be able to afford Ryan Smyth, the Leafs last night settled for Jason Blake, a 40-goal man who out-pointed Smyth 69-68 in the 2006-07 season.

The cost for Leafs general manager John Ferguson was not cheap, as Blake signed a contract for five years and $20 million US. But if the 33-year-old Blake duplicates his career-high of 40 goals, he'll be just the fourth Toronto player at that plateau in 20 years after Mats Sundin, Ed Olczyk and Dave Andreychuk.

Blake, a thorn in the Leafs' side going back to their 2002 Eastern Conference playoff series against the Isles, could be on Sundin's left wing when the season opens.

"He's a skill player and that's what we've been looking for with the big guy," Toronto coach Paul Maurice said last night.

"But he's also pretty versatile, so he can (move around). What I like about him is that I don't like him (as an opponent). He fits into the style we want the same way Darcy Tucker does."

Blake and agent Neil Sheehy took a good look at the Leafs, the roster and their two years missing the playoffs, before deciding they wanted in.

"I can't answer why they didn't make the playoffs, but they have a new goaltender (Vesa Toskala), big forwards and good puck-moving defencemen," Blake said. "I think I will fit in well. I'm a late bloomer (as a scorer), but I'll go anywhere coach Maurice wants."

Ferguson said the salary and term were "a number we're comfortable with".

"We spoke with countless agents today and we had any number of potential deals," Ferguson said. "But it's a day of decision not only for us but for agents, players and their families. It's a high stakes poker game."

Ferguson said any more moves might not be completed until mid-week and could involve a trade.

The Leafs had been planning to keep their behemoth wingers, Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky, with Sundin, though that line began to fizzle in the stretch drive last March and April.

The Leafs let five forwards drift into unrestricted free agency at noon yesterday: Yanic Perreault, Mike Peca, Jeff O'Neill, Travis Green and Bates Battaglia. Centre Perreault, the NHL's faceoff percentage leader at 62.8%, became the first to depart in the afternoon, signing a one-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks for $1.5 million. Acquiring Perreault and a fifth rounder from the Phoenix Coyotes on trade deadline day cost the Leafs defenceman Brendan Bell and a second rounder, yet Perreault's ice time had dropped to below 10 minutes in his final three games.

"He wasn't playing that much, so he was fine with leaving," agent Pat Brisson said last night.

Two Leafs farmhands with some NHL experience, forward Brad Leeb and goalie J.F. Racine, became unrestricted Group 6 free agents yesterday. The Leafs did not extend qualifying offers to farmhands Dominic D'Amour, Todd Ford, Tyson Marsh and Chris St. Jacques.


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