Chase begins at high noon

The Leafs' Cliff Fletcher at a news conference. (MARK O'NEILL/Sun Media)

The Leafs' Cliff Fletcher at a news conference. (MARK O'NEILL/Sun Media)

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:08 AM ET

As NHL teams start gorging themselves on free agents at lunchtime today, the Maple Leafs might be forced into starting their crash diet.

In a major test of Cliff Fletcher's resolve to follow a patient, in-house rebuilding plan, the general manager must fight the craving to sign one or two veterans for short-term playoff hopes in favour of augmenting the current Leafs roster with some lesser known free agents, farmhands, perhaps a trade and letting the chips fall.

"There will be no temptation, but let's get to 12:01 and see what drops," Fletcher said last night. "We're not expecting a big-time centre to be there, but we might look for a couple of wingers and then move someone to centre, say Nik Antropov. There are some young free agents, particularly under 30, who could play with our team for a few years and be rewarded in the end."

Fletcher is working on a trade, but said it would not reach the critical stage until this morning. The Leafs had a player and a draft pick coming from the Montreal Canadiens had Mats Sundin signed with them by noon, but the captain's reluctance to decide his playing status by today takes him out of the equation.

The only way Sundin could return here now is if Fletcher hits a brick wall in the next few weeks trying to find a centre, sits on about $7 million US in cap space and the big Swede gets around to deciding he'll play.

LOTS OF NEEDS

Needing first and second line forwards, a top four defenceman and a backup goalie, the Leafs are expected to sit out the opening bell frenzy for forward Marian Hossa and defenceman Brian Campbell. They'd be looking at a second tier that includes goalies Alex Auld, Curtis Sanford and Curtis Joseph, defencemen Ron Hainsey, Jeff Finger and Kurt Sauer and forwards Matt Cooke, Patrick Rissmiller, Radim Vrbata and Antti Miettinen.

It's not believed the Leafs will look seriously at winger Sean Avery, even though the super pest let it be known he would now listen to a hometown offer.

Fletcher has been polite about being kept in the dark so long by Sundin. He expected to hear his captain's decision in early June, then extended his deadline to last Sunday, then to yesterday. In the interim, he gave the Habs exclusive rights to give Sundin a more dignified exit. As well, Fletcher made significant moves to answer Sundin's concerns about the franchise being stagnant, replacing the coach, re-arranging the hockey office and moving at least three players.

"I had a good two hour talk with him at the end of May," Fletcher said of explaining his vision to the antsy captain. "He just hasn't made up his mind. We have to go forward, but that's not to say he won't ever play for the Leafs in future."

In an e-mail exchange with Sun Media last week, agent J.P. Barry was asked if Sundin might sit out half the year as an aging Teemu Selanne did with the Ducks last season.

"I highly doubt that, as he believes strongly that a team should be together from training camp onward," Barry replied.

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SUMMER BREEZE

Notable Leafs free agent signings:

2007 - RW Jason Blake.

2006 - D Hal Gill, D Pavel Kubina, C Mike Peca

2005 - C Jason Allison, C Eric Lindros, D Alexander Khavanov

2003 - D Bryan Marchment, C Joe Nieuwendyk

2002 - G Ed Belfour, G Trevor Kidd, RW Tom Fitzgerald

2001 - RW Alex Mogilny

2000 - D Dave Manson, LW Gary Roberts, C Shayne Corson

1999 - LW Jonas Hoglund

1998 - G Curtis Joseph, RW Steve Thomas

1997 - LW Derek King, LW Kris King

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FANTASY

Marian Hossa

Brian Campbell

VS. REALITY

Matt Cooke

Jeff Finger


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