Leafs need ... something

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:43 AM ET

Inquiring minds need to know: Why were 14 National Hockey League teams watching the Maple Leafs last night?

Some teams, in fact, assigned two scouts to watch the Leafs play an otherwise uninspired match against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.

"Why are we all here?" one said, repeating the question. "It's either a slow night in the industry or everybody is looking at the same thing."

"It was the same in Philadelphia the other night," another scout said. "I can't remember seeing that many scouts at a game. It's getting to be that time of the year."

That time of year means a time of dissatisfaction. It is December and by now teams have figured out what they have and don't have in this new NHL. More than even that, they've determined what they do and don't want to pay in this tightly spun, salary cap world.

This is also a strange time of year for the Maple Leafs. They were playing their fourth consecutive game against a Western Conference team, the first three of them defeats. And coach Pat Quinn admitted last night that he still is trying to figure out just how to align a team that may not equal the sum of its parts.

Exactly who the Leafs are offering up as bait to attract all this scouting attention, or who they are looking at to bolster their roster, is a secret even more guarded than the state of Eric Lindros' right wrist.

Last night, however, scouts watched a Leafs team without Ed Belfour in goal and without Lindros for the very first time this season and what they saw depended upon the moment. There was strength and weakness and grit and brain cramps: All in one 60-minute package of special- teams play.

Quinn, who will take the win last night, wasn't crazy about what he saw and isn't definitive about how he wants to utilize his lineup -- which makes him no different from most Vinnys in Woodbridge.

Except Vinny does local radio on a regular basis, Quinn doesn't.

But 31 games in, it's hard to know what to make of this Leafs team. They are big and slow, strong on the puck and often weak without it, a team incapable of winning games at even strength and a playoff team with the man advantage.

Last night, Lindros went out, Clarke Wilm went in and all of it set Quinn's head spinning. There is a lot to like about Wilm, especially when he doesn't have the puck. He blocks shots, kills penalties, understands his role and can only find a place if someone is hurt or Quinn tosses aside his belief that checking lines kill the beauty of the game.

Last night the coach started with Wilm, Tie Domi and Chad Kilger on a line. Beauty be damned. The Leafs needed a win.

They won with fortitude, too. Mikael Tellqvist found out in the morning he was starting in goal and did what was expected of him. And not even root canal surgery could slow Jason Allison.

But yet, something doesn't seem right with the Leafs. They are missing a part here, a part there, the kind of cohesion they hoped to have by now. Had they lost last night, which would have been four in a row, the trade rumours would have begun in earnest. Especially with no games between now and Saturday. But in this new NHL, legitimate trade rumours are stunningly absent.

Joe Thornton got traded without a sniff anywhere. Sergei Fedorov was given away by the Mighty Ducks without his name being bandied about. Who are the Leafs looking at?

John Ferguson isn't saying.

But it's clear the Leafs are now a stew devoid of some spice. They need more speed, more dependable defencemen, more players willing to get dirty each and every night.

"I don't know what the right answer is," said Quinn, talking about his lineup. "Some nights it's working, some nights it's not."

It's not anything alarming, just a sense this picture is incomplete. Quinn almost says as much. Something brought out more than a dozen scouts on a frozen Monday night.

Something or nothing.


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