A net load of trouble

(Toronto Sun photo illustration)

(Toronto Sun photo illustration)

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:51 AM ET

The Maple Leafs will play the part of good soldier, swallow hard and tell the world that hockey does, in fact, need a new deal. Never believing a word of it.

All the while watching their huge profits disappear. All the while watching an old team grow even older.

All the while knowing their ownership may be affected, their competitive financial advantage may be taken from them, and that despite the best supporting actor performance of general manager John Ferguson Jr., they are poorly positioned to play one year from now.

In fairness, not all of this was Ferguson's doing. He wasn't exactly dealt a lockout hand by his predecessor, Pat Quinn. It was Quinn who gave Mats Sundin the keys to the vault and a long-term contract without any financial pressures.

And it was Quinn who made the determination to trade for Owen Nolan in March 2003, when no one else in the National Hockey League would touch his contract.

The Nolan situation best illustrates the Maple Leafs' troubles of the future. Nolan's contract was set to expire at the end of this season, assuming there was a season.

CONTROVERSIAL ASPECT

But a controversial aspect of the arrangement -- one that required league approval -- meant that another year kicks in on Nolan's deal if the season is 39 games or fewer in duration.

In other words, Nolan will get another year and a price way beyond what he delivers at a time when hockey payrolls are going in the opposite direction.

Not exactly hockey management with foresight.

Assuming the extension kicks in for Nolan, the Leafs have six players signed for what might be the 2005-06 season. Six players who come in at a total of $30 million US.

In a league that wants a cap of less than $40 million.

Or a payroll tax system. Or something that will cost the Leafs significantly. Cost certainty is terrific for the Buffalo Sabres; it is a noose around the Maple Leafs' throats.

If they have just six players signed and $30 million already spoken for, the very concept of filling out the rest of their roster -- 16 or 18 more players at an average of $1.5 million or more -- means the Leafs are in a $60-million dilemma no matter how you view the situation.

Without any kind of certainty they will even be a contender.

This is where their ownership becomes somewhat murky. The majority shareholder in Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. is the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan Board. It is an organization driven by return on investment. And depending on who is telling the truth, it has either reaped financial gain from lucrative MLSEL profits or from increasing its investment by increased equity in the company.

The board preaches corporate governance and responsibility. How now does it sell its investment in the Leafs when $15 million or more in potential profits are being locked out by apparent competitors?

And how does a bottom line vehicle such as TD Bank justify its investment in the Leafs if there is no profit to be found?

The very notion of a season without hockey has to be reverberating in the financial community far from any of the player decisions Ferguson must make. But as one end of the operation meanders, so does the other end.

Without anyone really knowing the answer. With the very ownership of the Leafs in a vulnerable position and the on-ice product already in a budgetary quandary.

Before Ferguson, and even since his arrival as general manager, the Leafs have been used to buying themselves out of trouble. Need a goalie? Go to the free-agent market and sign Curtis Joseph or Ed Belfour. Need a defenceman? Why not trade for Bryan Leetch? Need some forwards? How about Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk?

The new system -- whatever it will be -- won't benefit the Leafs. 


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