Forget playoffs, future is what matters

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:04 AM ET

John Ferguson Jr. is deep in thought these days, no doubt trying to figure out a way to trade his hockey team's way into the playoffs.

With the trade deadline less than a week away, there probably is a deal -- or deals -- out there that would accomplish the job.

We just have one question.

Why?

Is it really so important to scrape into the Stanley Cup tournament to be eaten alive by the Carolina Hurricanes, or, worse, sacrificed on the altar of The Battle of Ontario against Ottawa?

Is it such a big deal to add two home gates to the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. bottom line?

Don't get me wrong. Ferguson should be all over this trade deadline, but for very different reasons than earning a spot in the playoffs.

This hockey team doesn't need any more Band-Aids. It needs to be stripped down and rebuilt. Forget the playoffs. Leafs management should start thinking seriously about putting something together that will truly compete in this new NHL, if not next year, then the year after.

We're not suggesting Ferguson should make himself scarce next week. On the contrary, he should be ready to listen to anything and to entertain proposals involving any player the Leafs own.

There are no untouchables here. No superstars.

The trade deadline is only useful to a mediocre team like the Leafs because certain high-end teams might be willing to overpay for its better players.

Since they beat the Oilers in Edmonton on Jan. 7, the Leafs have managed to win just three of 16 games. Now they face a March schedule of 13 games, 10 of them against teams ahead of them in the conference standings.

This is a team that returned to action after a two-week break on Tuesday and lost at home to one of the worst teams in the league, the Washington Capitals.

They now must take their threadbare act into Buffalo tomorrow night.

Good luck. If that's not bad enough, they come right back home the next night to play Ottawa, which has outscored Toronto 36-12 in winning all six head-to-heads this season.

"We've got a big challenge ahead of us but I think we're up to it," Eric Lindros said yesterday after practice. "We definitely have to be a lot more focused than (Tuesday) night.

"We're down to the nitty gritty, no question. But I wouldn't count us out quite yet."

Players are trained to be positive even in the face of odds that are stacked against them. But the reality is that, as presently constituted, this hockey club isn't good enough.

For whatever reasons, it is the wrong composition for the game that is being played now in the NHL. It has to be fixed.

It has to get younger. It has to get faster. Somehow, along the way, it has to get more disciplined.

The final minutes of Tuesday's game were a travesty. Playing in their 58th game under the new enforcement, trailing by two goals, they took five minor penalties in the final five minutes of play.

Coach Pat Quinn, ever loyal, is committed to getting more out of his roster as it is presently constituted.

"From a coach's standpoint, the first changes that have to made are within our group here.

"We have to get a little bit of swagger back. We thought we were going to be a pretty good team and we're capable of it, so we have to find a way to take little victories to make big things happen."

There was a time, not all that long ago, when the Leafs had a lot of people convinced, including me, that they had the right stuff. They ripped off six straight wins to close out 2005 but then hit a massive wall to start this calendar year. In the intervening two months, they have been exposed as a team with many flaws.

They are among the biggest complainers about the NHL's strict enforcement of the rulebook but, in truth, it's scary to consider how ineffective this team might have been without all those powerplay goals -- 73 of them -- that makes them the third-best in the league in that category.

It's time to re-tool. If not next week, then next summer.

And as far as the trade deadline goes, Ferguson's motto should be along the same lines as your family physician's: "First, do no harm."


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