Turning over a new Leaf?

TERRY KOSHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:59 AM ET

If the situation comes to it, Maple Leafs general manager John Ferguson won't have to twist Jeff O'Neill's arm to play for the Leafs next season.

O'Neill will become an unrestricted free agent if he is not tendered a qualifying offer by the Carolina Hurricanes some time in the next little while and there is no destination higher on his list than Toronto.

WELL-KNOWN

"I have made that known," O'Neill said yesterday after arriving at a waterfront hotel for the NHL Players' Association meetings. "But there is going to be a lot of things happening in the next couple of weeks. If it so comes that I am a player who can be picked up, I would like it to be here. But we are still going to have to see what happens."

A 29-year-old Richmond Hill native, O'Neill is due for a qualifying offer of $2.8 million US this summer, including the 24% salary rollback that will be part of the new collective bargaining agreement. But he has said he does not expect 'Canes GM Jim Rutherford to qualify him.

O'Neill has 416 points in 673 career NHL games, all with the Carolina/Hartford Whalers organization, and recorded a personal-best 41 goals in 2000-01. But he slipped to just 14 goals and 34 points in 67 games in 2003-04.

This past March, O'Neill was arrested on an impaired driving charge near his home in Raleigh, N.C., and he is scheduled to appear in court in September.

Regarding the return to the ice this fall, O'Neill, who has been working out in the Toronto area with Gary Roberts and others, figured clubs such as Carolina and Nashville will have a more difficult time getting fans to return.

"A young free agent might opt not to go there when he can come to a place with a full house every night," O'Neill, who spent his junior career with the Guelph Storm, said.

"You always want to play in front of a lot of people. Carolina and markets like that are going to have to work to get their people back in the building."

Before the lockout, O'Neill's contract called for him to be paid $3.7 million this past season, but he probably won't come close to that amount again. However, he is not about to stick a dagger in NHLPA union boss Bob Goodenow.

"(Goodenow) has done what we asked him to do," O'Neill said. "He has led us and I think he has done the right things. Maybe as a group we underestimated how strong the owners were going to be, but for people to judge whether we won or lost this deal is ridiculous."


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