End of road for many Leafs

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 3:32 PM ET


 The end of an illustrious career may be a few days away, but Ron Francis doesn't want to talk about that reality.

 He isn't quite ready to say goodbye. Not for himself and not for his team. He isn't about to acknowledge that the finish line is two losses to the Philadelphia Flyers away and that this Maple Leafs team constructed on age and experience and now all taped up seems certain to fall short again.

 INTENSITY

 A team built to do nothing less than win the Stanley Cup is operating on intensity and fumes and the ever-present belief that athletes have that tomorrow will be a better day.

 Francis is 41 years old, with greying temples and legs that no longer take him where he wants to go. His contract and his time, like so many of his teammates, is up.

 Unlike many of them, lockout or not, there won't be a next season for him. There won't be another Stanley Cup opportunity. He won twice in Pittsburgh with those tremendous teams with Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.

 Unless a miracle happens now, he isn't likely to find the Stanley Cup for which he came to Toronto to take a final bow.

 In that, he is in no way alone.

 As each day approaches, in what, by sporting standards, is a tight team and a tight dressing room, they have to be wondering: Is this it for most of them? Is this their last shot at a Cup and if not that, their last shot together?

 The goalies, Ed Belfour and backup Trevor Kidd, don't have contracts that extend to next season, assuming there is a next season. Belfour is 39 years old, and must win the Stanley Cup to trigger an option for a third year on his deal.

 Will he be a Leaf beyond this weekend?

 Gary Roberts has been a heart-and-soul player since he signed with the Leafs in the summer of 2000. His contribution and his influence has been nothing short of remarkable. Next month Roberts turns 38. He has no contract beyond this season.

 This may be his last shot in Toronto.

 You can scroll down the Maple Leafs' roster, man by man, beaten-up body by beaten-up body, and almost everywhere there is uncertainty about today and uncertainty about tomorrow. Mats Sundin, when he gets a moment to reflect, must look around the room and see the names on the lockers and ponder how many changes will be made when this series ends.

 How many of his friends will be gone?

 The list of the expired contracts is lengthy: Belfour, Kidd, Francis, Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk, Robert Reichel, Tom Fitzgerald, Mikael Renberg, Bryan Marchment, Calle Johansson.

 Players may try to say they think only of Game 3 and the preparations involved and only about getting back into this series with Philadelphia, but when they say that, they aren't necessarily telling the truth.

 Facing elimination, whenever that comes, isn't facing the end of a playoff season for too many of the Leafs. It is facing the end of their contracts or their time in the Toronto or in the case of Francis, his career.

 And what athletes hate, almost more than anything else, is not knowing where they are headed or what the future will bring.

 "I can't put myself in their position," Leafs coach Pat Quinn said when asked about this yesterday.

 "Coaches are often in that position. But as a player, all those are things that have to be dealt with. The feelings are real, the anticipation, the angst, whatever goes along with worrying about contracts and your future.

 "You can't do anything it about right now. The only thing you can do is concentrate. You're not going to get a new contract now ... You're playing for a new contract.

 DISTRACTION

 "And however you play right now is going to influence whether you are asked to come back or whether some other club will be on your doorstep.

 "It's like any other distraction and this is a major one."

 The climb back in this series with Philadelphia will be mountain-climbing with skates.

 The final steps taken by too many as Maple Leafs.


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