The way NHL is evolving, why not?

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 6:24 AM ET

So, can they?

Can the Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup this year?

Yes. Yes, they can.

Will they? Haven't a clue. No one does.

But would you consider the Calgary Flames' run to the Stanley Cup final any more unlikely than a championship for a Leafs team with the third-winningest goalie in the game's history? And Eric Lindros, the uberforward of the 1990s? Now throw in a the magnificent Mats Sundin and a whole cast of worthy secondary characters and you get the idea.

Talk to hockey people and the one constant feature of the 2005-06 campaign has been the bizarre path the season has taken.

Aside from the absolutely fearsome play of the Ottawa Senators, there are few teams who haven't seemed either unbeatable or hopelessly inept, often on consecutive nights.

The salary cap has thinned rosters and made teams particularly susceptible to injury. Two-goal leads, such as the one the Leafs briefly enjoyed against San Jose on Saturday, can vaporize over a few shifts. The Los Angeles Kings blew a four-goal margin last week.

Rookies, both this year's crop, headed by Sidney Crosby and the 2004 crop denied a place in the league and led by Alexander Ovechkin, are changing the landscape of their respective teams.

Previously downtrodden franchises -- the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes and Nashville Predators come to mind -- are turning in exemplary early seasons.

Every day brings new ground. How much money could you have made soliciting bets in September that the Boston Bruins would unload Joe Thornton for a defenceman who will be a free agent at season's end, a checker and Marco Sturm?

So yes, the Leafs can win. So can Philadelphia, Detroit, Dallas, Tampa Bay, Calgary and Montreal.

This in itself, from the Leafs' point of view, is pretty remarkable.

The Leafs, remember, were supposed to be in tough to make the playoffs. They were an ill-fitting collection of prominent, expensive and faulty parts.

Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk, pared away because of salary considerations, represented the grit and resolve the club seemingly couldn't live without.

John Ferguson didn't seem sharp enough put together a company softball team.

Instead, the Leafs added skill and size up front. Not only have Jason Allison and Lindros enhanced the forward corps, they have eased the focus off the 34-year-old Sundin. When the captain was felled for the first month with a broken facial bone, the club hardly burped.

Rookie Alexander Steen has proven himself remarkably complete. Kyle Wellwood has established himself as a worthy NHLer. Alexei Ponikarovsky and, to a lesser degree, Nik Antropov, have broken through. Jeff O'Neill can score.

Forty-year-old goalie Ed Belfour remains formidable, even as he has struggled with new rules impeding puck-handling, though it is impossible to tell whether his talents may be ebbing a bit with age.

Regardless, Mikael Tellqvist's solid play probably means a little less work for Belfour with an eye to a longer spring.

Yes, the defensive corps seems frighteningly shallow after Tom Kaberle and Bryan McCabe. But Aki Berg, Ken Klee, Alexander Khavanov, Staffan Kronwall and perpetual golden boy Carlo Colaiacovo have played passably.

The special teams are fine, especially the power play which has rivalled Detroit's for top spot all year.

The fact that the Leafs have won five more games than they have lost has vindicated coach Pat Quinn, not that he needed much. This could be his finest coaching performance.

So, what will the Leafs need? Two more able defencemen. That's it. Everyone, even the mighty Senators, has a rearguard on their wish list but it doesn't seem too much to ask for a team seeking to break a 38-year-drought.

Ottawa looks unbeatable, but it is only December and coach Bryan Murray, like the team he inherited, has tasted lots of playoff bile.

I would put my money on the Senators in a heartbeat, but can the Leafs win? Astoundingly, yes they can.


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