High-rent district

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:12 AM ET

The better Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle play, the better it is for the Maple Leafs -- and the more expensive it will become long term.

With each passing day it has become apparent that McCabe and Kaberle are elite defencemen in the National Hockey League, even if neither has yet to be paid that way.

McCabe is the 19th highest salaried defenceman in the game -- earning less, for example, than Mike Rathje or Derian Hatcher or Vladimir Malakhov.

Kaberle ranks well back, tied for 37th on the salary list, behind such notables as the often-benched Tom Poti, Marek Malik and Brent Sopel.

Both McCabe and Kaberle, partners on the ice, are eligible to become partners in the unrestricted world of free agency this summer under the rather liberal rules of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. But they don't want to go anywhere and the Leafs don't want them to go anywhere and that's where this becomes expensive and complicated.

"Believe me, this is the type of problem you'd like to have all the time," Leafs general manager John Ferguson said. "It's not really a problem. This is what you'd like to see happen with all your players, every year."

Except in this case, Ferguson is operating somewhat blindly -- and please, keep all punchlines to yourself. He has an idea what McCabe and Kaberle are worth to his team both structurally and economically. What he can't possibly know is what next year's salary cap figure will be for each team and whether the Leafs will entertain expensive contract options on goalie Ed Belfour and plodding centre Jason Allison.

No matter how you add it up, though, McCabe and Kaberle are due for large raises, which again tightens the Maple Leafs ability to improve their team next summer.

It's almost simple math in a way. The quality free agent defencemen of last summer came in from $4 million to $5 million US a year -- and an argument could be made that McCabe has surpassed all of them with his play this season.

That would make his starting price at around $5 million a season.

Kaberle, who with McCabe has been 1 and 1a as the Leafs best players, is a bargain in the new NHL. At just $2.28 million, he is vastly underpaid by the standards of his game. A reasonable starting figure for him next season would be $3.5 million.

If left to the open market, McCabe and Kaberle would be widely sought after.

In other words, with a league salary cap likely to shrink, the Leafs will have to pay $3 million a year more just to maintain their top defence pair.

Which means some one -- or a whole bunch of Leafs -- will have to be sacrificed in exchange.

Ferguson already has spoken to agents for McCabe and Kaberle with the intent of getting contracts negotiated prior to the end of the season. "They've demonstrated their worth every day," Ferguson said. "We're relying on them as producers as well as leaders in our dressing room. We have to make a deal that makes sense for both sides.

"This is one area where the new rules present a much lower age for free agency and we have to deal with that."

Kaberle turns 28 in March and this is only his seventh NHL season. But because the lockout year is counted as a year of service and because of his age, he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Kaberle's agent, Rick Curran, plans to meet with Ferguson some time in the new year to begin discussions about a long-term deal.

"I'm just delighted Tomas is being recognized for what I always thought he was doing," Curran said. "I know it has been eluded to in the past that he didn't reach a certain level of expectation. Obviously, I'm biased because he's my client, but I just didn't see it that way."

Agent Jeff Solomon thinks so much of McCabe he says he'd be happy "if my daughter married a guy just like him." Like Curran, he too, has had preliminary conversations with Ferguson but nothing more than that.

"Bryan has put himself in a completely different market environment," Solomon said. "He has put himself in a position to be ranked much higher than where we were (the last time)."

Soon, the negotiations will begin. Two Leafs are about to get rich but the question remains at which players' expense?


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