Does GM mean business?

Owen Nolan, not worth the $4.8 million US he is to earn when the NHL resumes, could be bought out...

Owen Nolan, not worth the $4.8 million US he is to earn when the NHL resumes, could be bought out and not affect a salary cap under terms that will be part of the CBA. (Toronto Sun File/Craig Robertson)

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:45 AM ET

The Maple Leafs certainly will buy out the contract of Owen Nolan -- and possibly other veteran players -- once the NHL's collective bargaining agreement is finalized some two weeks from now.

In fact, under a clause already agreed to by both the NHL and the NHL Players' Association, teams will have the one-time opportunity to buy out any player under contract without that player's compensation counting against a team's salary-cap position.

The situation is particularly enticing for a team such as Toronto, which has too much money committed to too few players -- and now has the grand opportunity to almost start from scratch when the new season begins.

This is when we will find out what kind of general manager John Ferguson Jr. truly is.

This is when he gets the opportunity to define himself and reinvent his team all at the very same time.

This is when we will be able to understand just how committed the Leafs are to winning a Stanley Cup -- or whether their talk of being a champion is little more than lip service.

Ferguson can rid his roster of just about any player he chooses, so long as the Leafs are willing to pay the price, which is where the Nolan situation gets interesting.

Obviously, he's going to keep Mats Sundin and Ed Belfour -- but after that, all bets are off. And you begin by asking questions about Nolan, the injury-prone forward who is slated to earn an inflated $4.8 million US this coming season, even with the proposed 24% salary rollback.

Nolan is owed star wages but he rarely performed like a star player in his time in Toronto.

Under the buyout terms featured in the new CBA, the Leafs, just as any team, will be able to buy out a player for two-thirds of the salary, without any of it counting as cap money. In the case of Nolan, it would cost the Leafs $3.2 million to open up almost $5 million in potential purchasing.

QUALITY PLAYERS

In other words, Ferguson could buy two quality players for the same price he would otherwise be paying Nolan.

If the Leafs, for example, choose to spend as much as $10 million to buy out contracts of players it doesn't want -- which is stretching it -- and another $36 million of salary-cap money, the total spending will be only $46 million, which is still $14 million fewer than they spent a year ago on payroll alone. The possibility exists to get a more talented team at less expense than before the lockout.

Ferguson will not only have to consider whether it's worth paying Nolan, but whether it's worth it for the Leafs to continue with any of the veteran defencemen they have under contract.

The Leafs are contractually obligated to Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle and Ken Klee, at least two of whom have been proven wanting at playoff time, but in a new marketplace Ferguson will have to determine just how radical he wants to be.

Do you replace your entire defence? Do you replace half of it? Or, in a brand new market, with more free agents, less money, and more players available because of the buyouts, will a buyers' market provide a better product for hungry Leafs fans?

And it's not just that. The Leafs have restricted free agents such as Nik Antropov, Aki Berg and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Each of them would require a qualifying offer to remain Toronto property.

But what if the Leafs decide -- as they should -- that it's better not to qualify any of them, and then replace them with better players for similar money.

Ferguson has said all along he has a plan -- he just isn't saying what it is.

His actions next month will do the talking for him.


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