Leafs plight not forgotton

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:07 AM ET

The Maple Leafs may be out of sight just now, but certainly not out of mind. Not by a long shot. The angst at our Dream Team's lacklustre Turin performances to date will fade no doubt once the medal round begins.

Oh that the Leafs could salve their fans' apprehension so easily. In another week, the NHL will reconvene and Toronto's perilous outlook will once again be front and centre.

In case it has slipped your mind, if the NHL playoffs were to start tomorrow, the tournament would begin without the Leafs for the first time since Pat Quinn came on board in 1998.

When the Olympic freeze is lifted on player transactions on Feb. 27, general manager John Ferguson Jr., will be squarely in the spotlight.

What to do?

For decades, it seems, Toronto has led the league in applying short-term bandages; making trades that satisfy an immediate need to get a playoff berth but do not address fundamental flaws. In the process, assets -- usually young players or draft picks -- are sacrificed.

Will Ferguson take that oft-travelled path?

Or will he do the smart thing and hold fast? At the very least, the Leafs need a solid, experienced defenceman. Problem is, any such animal that is available will be sought-after by half the teams in the league.

How this kind of standfast approach would play in the Leaf board room might be interesting. If Ferguson chooses to maintain the status quo and let the team sink or swim on its current merits, it could result in the Leafs missing the playoffs. Then again, he could make a costly move and still miss the playoffs.

Given that management normally would budget for at least one playoff round, and possibly two, that's a big chunk of change removed from the bottom line. Frowns all around at the next meeting of the Teachers Pension Fund.

And this is a bottom line company. As much as the boys in charge pay lip service to developing a championship heritage, nothing means more at MLSEL than big, fat profits. The suits just might not appreciate missing out on those playoff revenues.

Then again, if Ferguson bites the bullet, refuses to give in and lets the chips fall where they may, the Leafs, a veteran team with strong character, might just rally and make the post-season derby anyway.

At that point, looking ahead to next year, there are a lot of possibilities. With Tomas Kaberle recently signed and Bryan McCabe sure to follow soon, the Leafs will have something in the order of $22 million committed to eight core players: Mats Sundin, Jeff O'Neill, Kaberle, McCabe, Darcy Tucker, Tie Domi, Alexander Steen and Mikael Tellqvist. This also presumes that Ferguson will cut bait on the last year (club option) of Eddie Belfour's contract.

Depending upon just how the Leafs respond on the ice when they come back next week, Belfour could be gone at the trade deadline. The fly in that ointment is the rumoured no-trade clause that he probably won't waive unless the team he's going to agrees to pick up the option for the 2006-07 season.

That leaves almost half of next year's projected salary cap of $43 million to fill the roster and make some key free agent acquisitions.

That could also leave both Jason Allison and Eric Lindros out of the mix. No matter what strategy Ferguson employs looking forward, there's little doubt he'd jump at the chance to unload Allison and get something useful in return. If he can get healthy in time, Lindros could still earn himself a contract here for next year, given how pleased the Leafs were with him before he tore a ligament in his wrist in December.

When play resumes, the Leafs are going to be in tough. They will play 25 games in 50 days, 13 of them on the road. Almost half the games will be played against division opponents Ottawa, Buffalo, Montreal and Boston.

Their most reasonable hope is to beat out Montreal, Boston and Atlanta for eighth place and earn a quick exit from the Stanley Cup deliberations, facing either Ottawa or Carolina in the first round.

It's hardly the kind of prospect that would motivate a GM to be in a hurry to give up the farm for a short term fix.

Then again, these are the Leafs. Logic doesn't necessarily enter into the equation.


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