When Ken Klee re-signed with the Maple Leafs just more than a year ago, he did so with the comfort the team was coming off a 100-point season and had been making a habit of fighting for the Northeast Division title.
Now, though he is glad the National Hockey League and its Players' Association has agreed in principle on new collective bargaining agreement, the journey into what's on the other side gives him pause for thought.
"It's relief, but now all the stress starts," the defenceman said. "It's going to be a crazy time now because I don't know what the team will look like. It's going to be interesting to see how it looks going forward. Now, the juggling begins."
Klee is not alone in trying to glean a clear view from what will remain a murky crystal ball for at least the next week or so. Presently, eight players --captain Mats Sundin, Owen Nolan, Ed Belfour, Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle, Klee, Darcy Tucker and Matt Stajan -- are under contract for 2005-06 at a total of $27 million US. Seven others -- Aki Berg, Nik Antropov, Wade Belak, Chad Kilger, Karel Pilar, Nathan Perrott and Alexei Ponikarovsky -- are up for qualifying offers. Expect Nolan, who is slated to earn $5.6 million US, to be bought out at two-thirds of contract, giving general manager John Ferguson a little more breathing room under a $39-million salary cap.
But what comes next? Will unrestricted free agent Tie Domi return? Gary Roberts? Joe Nieuwendyk? All three would like to play for the Leafs again, but none became younger during the lockout, nor did fellow free agents Brian Leetch and Alex Mogilny. Domi reiterated yesterday he would be willing to take a substantial pay cut from the $1.9 million he would have made last season to remain in Toronto.
There is speculation free agent Eric Lindros wouldn't mind finally suiting for the Leafs, and the crop of available defencemen includes Scott Niedermayer and Adam Foote.
Youngsters such as Carlo Colaiacovo, Kyle Wellwood and perhaps to a lesser extent Alex Steen, may not have a better chance to crack the Leafs' roster in the fall.
Though Ferguson has a fairly extensive background in contract negotiations, he confirmed yesterday he is in the process of hiring a capologist, a person whose major responsibility will be to memorize every nook and cranny of the salary cap. It's thought that once the CBA is ratified next week, clubs will have a grace period to study the lengthy document before players can be signed.
"There is no definite time frame, but we all have a pretty good understanding that it will take some time to digest, and soon after it will be time to get right down to it," said Ferguson, who concurred that the next few months will be frantic. "We have done a great deal of projection and research."
But whether the homework leads to straight As or middling Cs remains to be seen.
"We're not completely sure where it will lead," coach Pat Quinn told The Toronto Sun's Mike Zeisberger. "I don't know how hard it will be. But I can tell you this - the Toronto Maple Leafs will be prepared."
The bottom line, Leafs player union rep Bryan McCabe said, is to get back playing again.
"This hasn't been good for us, the owners, the game or the fans," McCabe said. "Everybody just wants to play hockey."