Cap will give Leafs fits

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:07 AM ET

Once, for reasons known only to Him, God decided to span the gap between the hockey haves and the hockey have-not.

He called it the Peace Bridge.

Those days are coming back, and not in a way that will please fans of the Maple Leafs.

The Leafs are about to pay, and dearly, for their fruitless moves to capture a Stanley Cup.

It was a spirited try, and now, with the matrix new economic framework set to be superimposed on the game, it's time to pay up.

To appreciate the Maple Leafs situation, consider the Buffalo Sabres, maybe the most salary cap-ready franchise in the NHL.

The Leafs have $27 million US in salary committed to eight players. The Sabres have seven players signed at a combined cost of about $7.5 million. That's nearly a $20 million difference which, you know, is a lot.

The Leafs certainly have a better team for their money: Mats Sundin, Owen Nolan, Ed Belfour, Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle, Ken Klee, Darcy Tucker and Matt Stajan.

Still, it must feel a little disquieting to the Bay Street money men that the top four players on the roster account for $20 million toward a cap that many are pegging at $36 million.

Even if, as my colleague Steve Simmons wisely noted, a buyout clause will allow the Leafs to purge Nolan's $5.6 million salary without affecting the cap, the Leafs are in a bind. Their top three, Sundin ($6.8 million); Belfour ($4.56 million); and McCabe ($3.45 million) account for nearly 40% of their cap room.

As for low cost replacements available from the minors ... ah, no.

The Leafs are hoping Kyle Wellwood and perhaps Ian White can stick but neither prospect looks like a lock.

Two years ago, when all signs were beginning to point to a lengthy lockout, Sabres GM Darcy Regier began to shuffle personnel with an eye to the brave new world projected by league commissioner Gary Bettman.

"We decided we wanted to create as much flexibility and as few commitments as we could, not knowing what the new collective bargaining agreement would look like," the Sabres GM said.

And so the Sabres, who haven't had a playoff date since they traded away goalie Dominik Hasek in 2001, continued to play the have-nots.

UNDERACHIEVING

Underachieving forward Curtis Brown and defenceman Rhett Warrener were traded. Talented defenceman Alexei Zhitnik was kept but his contract not extended. Regier looked on as the Leafs acquired Nolan for Alyn McCauley and prime-time prospect Brad Boyes and watched the Leafs trade a first-rounder in 2004, a 2005 second-rounder and prospects Maxim Kondratiev and Jarkko Immonen for Brian Leetch.

The Sabres will use $7.5 million to pay goalie Mika Noronen, defencemen Jay McKee, Rory Fitzpatrick and Dimitri Kalinin (provided Kalinin does the expected and exercises his player option). Forwards Chris Drury, Andrew Peters and Adam Mair also are under contract.

Unlike the Maple Leafs, the Sabres have a handful of young players who can step into the lineup. Goalie Ryan Miller is ready for prime time and that should allow the club to cut its ties with Martin Biron, who played for $2.8 million in 2003-2004.

DEPTH

Jeff Jillson played in the American League and will be a depth defenceman for less than $1 million. Kitchener Rangers graduate Derek Roy should be ready to step into the lineup and gifted goalscorer Thomas Vanek looks ready as well.

The Sabres can qualify as many of their first- or second-line Group 2 free agents as they like. They can return Maxim Afinogenov, Daniel Briere, J-P Dumont and Jochen Hecht to fill out their top two lines for another $6.1 million.

That's a core of 15 players at, say, $15 million. As it stands now, that's what the Leafs will direct to Sundin, Nolan, Belfour and McCabe.

And the Sabres control their fate. They know a buyer's market looms for teams with the most cap room. Regier said he doesn't find the notion that 40% of the players in the league will change teams out of line.

"That doesn't seem outrageous. I've seen figures that about 20% of the league moves over the course of a a regular year," Regier said.

He even has sympathy for his colleagues in Toronto.

"Teams like Toronto had different circumstances than us. They were really in the thick of it and had a tremendous club," he said.

Not anymore.


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