Two years, too much

Longtime pals Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk didn't get the two-year contract offers they wanted...

Longtime pals Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk didn't get the two-year contract offers they wanted from the Maple Leafs by yesterday's deadline. (Toronto Sun File/Fred Thornhill)

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:00 AM ET

The nutri-shake blenders are disappearing at the Air Canada Centre, along with two more of the Maple Leafs' top scorers.

Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk signed with the Florida Panthers yesterday, eliminating five of the club's top seven point producers from 2003-04 through free agency, with Owen Nolan, Brian Leetch and Ron Francis unlikely to return at this point. Roberts and Nieuwendyk each received two-year deals from Mike Keenan's Panthers, worth $4.5 million US.

While not a total surprise, yesterday's loss of the Whitby warriors is another swing of the wrecking ball in the Leafs' room, brought on by a salary cap, an aging roster and a mystery restructuring plan from general manager John Ferguson.

In Roberts, the Leafs lose a physical left winger, medical marvel, inspirational health nut, dressing room deputy and a playoff force who helped them slay the Ottawa Senators every spring.

Nieuwendyk was a faceoff specialist who hadn't lost much speed or offensive touch, yet the Leafs' Stanley Cup curse proved stronger than his streak of three titles in three previous cities.

"We started our careers together, we wanted to finish them together," Roberts said. yesterday.

Ferguson and Rick Curran, the agent for the two, spoke several times as yesterday's noon deadline approached. Sportsnet reported last night the two players had received competing offers from Ferguson, favouring Roberts' request for a $2-million US deal, while leaving Nieuwendyk near a group of second-tier restricted free agents whom the Leafs gave qualifying offers to on the weekend. But the veterans stuck together and despite better offers at the end, their insistence on two years is what killed the deal.

"Term -- that was an area that came up," Ferguson said with a sigh. "But it takes two sides to deal and there was a lot there (in the Florida offer) to walk away from."

Nieuwendyk said the chance to play at least two more years and take on a new challenge in the Sun Belt is welcome.

"I enjoyed my time in Toronto (though), it was only one year," he said. "I'm disappointed it didn't work out.

"It's not for me to figure out what's going to be done in (the Leafs) locker room. That's an area that will have to be worked on."

Keenan did not think he was getting a pair of geezer forwards.

"I'm old enough to remember the '67 Leafs, with (40-somethings) Tim Horton, Johnny Bower and Allan Stanley," the GM said.

In losing Roberts, Ferguson must now find a first-line left wing to do the dirty work for captain Mats Sundin.

"It's tough for me to get into what John was thinking," Roberts said. "Obviously, he has got a job to do. You can't have the oldest team in the league. They made decisions not to buy guys out and go with the guys they have. Unfortunately for Joe and I, it just didn't add up."


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