Leafs could break their Tie that binds

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:36 AM ET

There will be no more stinging indictment of John Ferguson than the possible departure of Tie Domi from the Maple Leafs family.

Should Domi decide to leave the Leafs in free agency -- and some already have him leaving for the Pittsburgh Penguins -- the subtext of the move indeed will be startling.

LOVES THIS TOWN

This has nothing to do with the logic of keeping Domi the player or letting him walk away and everything to do with what he has come to represent in this city.

If the kid who bleeds Maple Leafs blue, loves this team and this town, dreams Stanley Cup, and then happens to opt out -- it's a troubling sign the last of the believers has stopped believing.

The biggest and most famous of all Leafs fans suddenly looking elsewhere.

A sure indication that Ferguson's real first test as a general manager will have failure written all over it.

Ferguson's first few days in the brave new NHL world have been fraught with peril. Some around the league are already smirking at his lack of experience and lack of vision.

And the very fact that he chose to buy none of his contracted players and is caught with too much salary, too little cap room, and a potential disaster in the Owen Nolan situation hardly breeds confidence from anyone, least of all his players -- or those who may be interested in coming to Toronto.

Ferguson held a brief and awkward press conference yesterday in Ottawa prior to today's entry draft, typically revealing little, but the most telling moment came when talk turned to the convoluted Nolan situation, which is certain to be decided by grievance.

The fact the NHL Players' Association has not lost an injury grievance and the fact that player agent J.P. Barry is meticulous at documenting information doesn't speak well for the Leafs determination they will not pay Nolan at all -- let alone buy him out, let him lose in this situation.

But that's just the beginning of the numerous Leaf questions. With the ability to clear his roster and the freedom to buy out whomever he chose, Ferguson instead has chosen status quo. And worse, he may end up with less of a lineup than he had a year ago.

He didn't only commit to the players he had already signed. He also presented qualifying offers to dubious free agents Aki Berg, Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky, all of whom have been found to be below average NHL players and certainly wanting at playoff time.

Why re-sign any of them -- when they are easily replaced at similar value by stronger players, is a mystery all its own?

If this is Ferguson putting his stamp on the Leafs, a best before label might have to be included. In the meantime, with free agency looming on Monday, there are already rumblings that Gary Roberts will be headed to Florida, not Ottawa and that Joe Nieuwendyk will be headed back to Dallas and that defenceman Adam Foote, who wants to play in Toronto, is likely on his way to Philadelphia.

Letting Roberts and Nieuwendyk go -- quite possibly the two most important Leaf skaters after Mats Sundin -- is reasonable if you can replace them with equal or better talents.

In fact, the worse the Leafs look on paper, the less likely those who want to play in Toronto will opt in.

NO ROOM FOR ERROR

And with about $25 million already accounted for --and that's dismissing the Nolan situation -- that leaves the Leafs with about $12 million left for about 12 players.

In other words, no room at all for error. John Ferguson insists he has a plan. We just can't see where this is headed.

Everyone is watching with doubt. Even his most enthusiastic players.


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