Leafs should blow it all up

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:22 AM ET

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., paid more than $9 million US to buy out the contract for a waste of time named Alonzo Mourning.

The question now is: Is MLSEL willing to make an even larger commitment to the future of the Maple Leafs than they were in ridding themselves of Mourning?

And the answer to that question is both expensive and enticing.

Obviously, the Leafs are going to buy out the contract of forward Owen Nolan. But not so obvious are the apparent futures of goalie Ed Belfour and veteran defencemen Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle and Ken Klee, all of whom are contracted for one more Toronto season.

Yet, for a one-time buyout fee of some $15 million -- assuming they are willing to pay it -- the Leafs basically can begin fresh, starting over again with Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Matt Stajan and basically nothing else.

They can accomplish this if they refuse to offer contracts to expendable free agents such as Aki Berg, Nik Antropov, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Wade Belak, Karel Pilar, Nathan Perrott and Chad Kilger.

This is the extreme position the Leafs have left themselves in as the new hockey world is about to open for business. This is a team that dined out on its economic freedom and must now seek creative ways of remaining competitive: Conceivably, they can upgrade on almost every player they either buy out or let go with free agents.

And this is where the power of ownership enters the picture and the willingness to invest in the team comes into view. The more freedom John Ferguson is provided with by ownership, the more room he has to manipulate his roster, the more likely the Leafs will be competitive.

The current Leafs roster, make no mistake, is troubling. This is a team that can miss the playoffs. This is a team without flexibility under the cap.

THREE OPTIONS

That leaves Ferguson with three basic options, and variations thereof, so long as MLSEL is willing to pay buyout dollars in places the general manager deems necessary:

- Option 1: Leaving the roster as is. This would be disastrous on his part. Aside from Sundin, there is not another quality scorer in the lineup. And with only $12.2 million to spend on 14 players, the Leafs would have almost no wiggle room to fix a team in need of fixing.

- Option 2: Buying out only Nolan helps the Leafs economically, but still leaves the GM in a position of having to sign 15 additional players with just $17 million to spend. That also leaves Ferguson with few palatable options.

- Option 3: Purge the roster. Buy out every player except Sundin, Tucker, Stajan and backup goalie Mikael Tellqvist. That would cost upwards of $15 million but leave $29 million left for signing 19 players -- at an average salary of more than $1.5 per player.

This is where the Leafs need to find a way to turn what appears to be an economic disadvantage into their own advantage. When last this team was on the ice, the payroll was in excess of $60 million. The new Leafs payroll -- and Larry Tanenbaum said yesterday they will likely be a team that spends to the extent of the negotiated salary cap -- will be $39 million. If you include the $15 million in one-time buyouts, the Leafs would be able to go with a completely open roster in a free agent-heavy market, spending $6 million less than they spent the last time they played.

The buyout option is a one-time offer, but the option remains captivating nonetheless. The Leafs don't need a reality show to determine they are in need of an extreme makeover. And with a potential flea market of some 400 NHL free agents -- depending on which players from other teams get bought out and which unsigned free agents are not presented with qualifying offers -- it is better for the Leafs and their questionable lineup to play buyer rather than watcher.

By buying out Nolan, Belfour, McCabe, Kaberle and Klee the Leafs would have the cash and the cachet to add eight quality players to a roster in need of quality.

A one-time opportunity they will never find again.


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