Leafs fans and Ferguson should look to the kids

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:38 AM ET

The Maple Leafs beat the New Jersey Devils 4-2 last night thanks to a two-goal effort from Alexei Ponikarovski and just so you know, this is what the future looks like.

Ponikarovski is 25 years old. The Leafs have been waiting for him to blossom since they drafted him seven years ago. And wouldn't he, all of a sudden, start flashing the makings of a 30-goal guy.

"It's all about hard work and dedication and stuff like that," said Ponikarovsky. "It all comes with experience."

He can stay.

Three rookies manned the Leafs' blueline an Kronwall, Jay Harrison and Andrew Wozniewski. Between them, the trio has 43 games of NHL experience and Kronvall has 31 of those.

"Just the experience and the speed of going up against the best players in the world every night," said Wozniewski. "There's nothing better for your development."

They can stay.

In the wings and soon to return, 23-year-old Carlo Colaiacovo. For now, they can stay too, all of them.

The Leafs most active line was a combination of Darcy Tucker, Alexander Steen and Kyle Wellwood. Tucker is the greybeard of the group at 30. The other two are 21 and 22. Wellwood, like another kid, Matt Stajan, has been mostly inert this season. There's time. They can stay.

Out of the picture, for now at least, Eric Lindros, dominant at turns this season but 32 with a history of injuries that figures to get longer. The great Mats Sundin, 35 in 10 days, Tie Domi, 36, Jason Allison, 30 and out of step with the speed game, are all on the periphery. Add defenceman Ken Klee, 34 and slowing down, to the list.

As he has all season, Leafs' goalie Ed Belfour was at turns excellent and erratic. The Devils second goal, scored by Brian Gionta on the short side was typical of the one poor goal Belfour has given up on too many nights.

But Belfour's most important statistic is his age. He is 40. The trade deadline is March 9, a little more than a month away and the league shuts down for two weeks of that time.

And so it falls to Leafs GM John Ferguson to see the truth.

Last night offered a perfect illustration, a window into the future of where the Leafs must go. They must ride the kids.

This is not a playoff team. Take a look at the standings, where the Leafs are nip and tuck to squeak into the final Eastern Conference spot.

It's tempting to think that when the injured, Lindros and Ken Klee and Alexander Khavanov come back, a nice team can be patched together for the spring.

Look again.

The Leafs aren't good enough, aren't fast enough, or tough enough and if the video from last night tells you otherwise, two wins in the club's last 12 games should straighten you out pronto.

Ferguson needs to recruit offers for Sundin. The Leafs captain has been a magnificent performer, but he deserves better. Better wingers. A new city. Should he like, he could return as a free agent the season after next.

In return, the Leafs could garner prospects and a draft choice.

The return will be less for Belfour, a free agent at year's end, but playoff hungry teams like the Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver and perhaps Colorado would upgrade their goaltending with him.

Allison would fetch even less but he can control the puck and play the power play with anyone. He has value.

In a new setting, Domi might rekindle his game and give a fledgling contender extra swagger. He can still play a limited role and while his skating seems to have deteriorated, he could be effective if used strategically.

Tucker you build around. Same with Steen and perhaps goalie Mikael Tellqvist.

The notion that Toronto fans won't accept a team out of the playoffs is a whopper. They endured it four times in the 1990s and four times in the 1980s. They're smart enough to see the difference between smudge and shinola.

Now, is the general manager?


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