Lack of depth exposed

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:18 AM ET

It was to be the bellwether trip for the Maple Leafs.

After an easy run against the soft underbelly of the East, the Leafs were heading west to face a greater challenge. As a mid-season trip into hostile territory, it would provide answers about the Leafs.

It didn't.

There were some answers, but more questions.

The Leafs lost two of three and, according to them, lost the ones they should have won but won the one they should have lost.

In fact, had it not been for some feeble netminding from the Vancouver Canucks' Alex Auld, combined with some excellent work from Ed Belfour at the other end, the Leafs would have been blown out of the trip's finale in the first period.

But that observation brings up one of the key questions that arose. How long can the Leafs continue to hitch their wagon to Belfour's horse?

Throughout the first half of the season, the Leafs' record hasn't reflected their overall play. Essentially, they have been a two-man team. Night after night, they have benefited from superlative performances from Belfour and Bryan McCabe.

On Tuesday, they were without McCabe, and the confusion was evident. Belfour was outstanding, but at which point does coach Pat Quinn draw the line?

Prior to the Vancouver game, he was musing about the unreasonable demands of the NHL schedule. Commenting on McCabe's groin strain, he said that there are too many games in too short a stretch of time, and that as a result there is a physical toll on the players that leads to injuries.

He is right, of course. In fact, he's so right that he'll probably get fined by the league. If there's anything the New York office doesn't like, it's one of its front-line people telling the truth about the league's deficiencies.

But Quinn niftily side-stepped another aspect of that discussion -- the toll on players as a result of coaches sending them out there for 30 minutes a game.

If Quinn is so concerned about the rigours of life in the NHL, then perhaps he should lower the workload of people like McCabe and Belfour.

That, needless to say, is a pipe dream. The pressure on coaches in the NHL is every bit as great as the pressure on players. It's mental, rather than physical, but it's just as real.

In today's NHL, you have to give your stars a heavy workload. The neatly structured TV timeouts lend themselves nicely to extra-shifting elite players, and if Quinn didn't do it he'd be the only coach in the league to take that approach.

But still, the question doesn't go away. Where is the line? At which point do you tell Belfour that his workload is to be reduced in the hope that he'll be sharper in the playoffs than he has been in recent years?

At which point do you reduce McCabe's minutes so that the rigours of the long season won't be in evidence when he's being targeted by the opposing coach in the post-season?

In Belfour's case, the play of Mikael Tellqvist makes a reduced workload feasible. But Belfour's attitude doesn't. He wants to play every game. What good does it do to have your top goalie fresh for the playoffs if, in his own mind, he feels that he's rusty?

In McCabe's case, there is no way whatsoever to cut his ice time. In fact, judging by some of the defensive performances on Tuesday, he should perhaps play even more than he does.

If anything, the western swing proved only what most fans knew all along. This is not a very deep team and Quinn's assets are limited.

Finding a way to maximize those assets is his biggest conundrum -- and one to which there is no clear-cut solution.


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