Grey days ahead

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 3:14 PM ET


 The calendar says spring, the birth certificates say autumn.

 It has to be now.

 That is the theme of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the Maple Leafs and it will make this playoff one for the ages and the aged.

 Daniel Alfredsson is right about the Ottawa Senators, the Maple Leafs' first-round opponent. They are going to win a Stanley Cup ... probably ... someday. Maybe not next year, but soon.

 The same can't be said of the finest collection of Maple Leafs players assembled since 1967.

 I wonder if you've heard? A lockout/strike is expected to shut the NHL down beginning next fall.

 That dynamic sets this playoff apart from the rest. So does the quality of a lineup that is glaringly superior to anything the Leafs have been able to generate for decades.

 "Some of us might never get to be on teams like this again," said winger Tom Fitzgerald, 35, a 16-year NHL veteran who has played with the New York Islanders, Florida Panthers, Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks but has never won a Cup. "I've never been on a team like this. This is my best chance."

 Best and probably last.

 A labour stoppage that lasts more than a year would spell the end for Fitzgerald as well as 37-year-old Joe Nieuwendyk. Ron Francis, 41, a two-time Cup winner and a first-ballot Hall of Famer, is expected to retire at season's end.

 Calle Johansson is 37. Bryan Marchment is 34.

 Alexander Mogilny is 35. Gary Roberts turns 38 next month. A two-year work stoppage would return Mats Sundin to his throne at the age of 34. Brian Leetch is 35.

 Goalie Ed Belfour would celebrate his 39th birthday in the second round.

 There is an urgency about this playoff, one shared, no doubt, across the 16 cities whose teams still have a hope, but one that is also particularly poignant in Toronto.

 General manager John Ferguson Jr. has proved one thing beyond any doubt. He can count.

 Ferguson did a superb job of retooling the roster without surrendering any NHL-calibre players but it's not as if the Baby Leafs are teeming with assets ready to reinvigorate the franchise when hockey returns. Throw in the Leafs' lack of success in recent drafts and the trading away of last year's first-rounder for Owen Nolan and the 2004 choice for Brian Leetch and you get a future that is less than rosy.

 Yes, some players could return after a lost season. A two-year work stoppage, a possibility that has been openly bandied about, would see far fewer returnees.

 But a lean and mean NHL, back open for business in 2006-07, no doubt would return as a smaller, more cheaply run league governed by some sort of salary cap. Ferguson's competitive advantage -- he manages one of the few, perhaps the only, moneymaking professional sports franchise in Canada -- probably will be vapourized by the work stoppage.

 No one will have to remind the Maple Leafs to stop and smell the roses.

 Nieuwendyk, tutored as a rookie in Calgary by Lanny McDonald, saw the former Leaf finally win a Cup in his last NHL season. Nieuwendyk has won a Cup in Calgary, Dallas and New Jersey. He is after a grand slam.

 "I won when I was 22 and then it took me 10 more years to even get a sniff," he said. Savouring the waning days of his career, he said, "is not going to be a problem. I've enjoyed being on this team and I'm looking forward to what is coming."


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