Best change for Leafs is behind bench

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:30 AM ET

In most bedside vigils, there comes a time to change what you are hoping for.

And so it is with the Maple Leafs, losers of five in a row as they limp into a home game tonight against the Montreal Canadiens.

Lose tonight, and the Canadiens go up nine points with 22 games left in the race for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot.

Goodnight, Irene.

The Leafs need to be fine-tuned -- with a sledgehammer.

Three good things will happen if they miss the playoffs:

1. They won't be massacred by Carolina or Ottawa in the first round.

2. The draft position improves.

3. The necessity of an overhaul becomes undeniable.

FIRE SALE

So the question, to be addressed tonight or later in the week, is how do you fix the Leafs in time to make the post-season next year?

Well, start with the mother of all fire sales.

Going into Thursday's trade deadline, the Leafs should have three untouchables, Tomas Kaberle, Darcy Tucker and, ahem, Alexei Ponikarovsky. The rest, even the great captain Mats Sundin, should be available for prospects or draft picks.

Because he is scheduled to earn $6.33 million US in 2006-07 and is coming off a poor season, moving Sundin would be prohibitively difficult. Still, he might draw interest from a team like the Nashville Predators, anxious to win a playoff round.

A trade to a contending team would also involve Sundin waiving his no-trade clause. It's a conversation that has to happen now between the Leafs and their captain.

Sundin deserves a chance to win a Stanley Cup and it will not come here. As well, his salary is unsustainable for a rebuilding franchise.

But the most pressing decision concerns Bryan McCabe.

The Leafs gave defencemate Tomas Kaberle $4.25 million US a year for five years. McCabe will probably be looking for more than $5 million. As a high-scoring defenceman and power play trigger man, McCabe is one of the few assets in demand and he will command prospects or picks.

In the summer, the Leafs can then take a run at either McCabe or Ottawa Senators defenceman Wade Redden.

If both players were available at the same $5-million price, the Leafs should opt for Redden. The emergence of glittering prospect Andrej Meszaros could auger against Ottawa's pursuit of Redden.

The Leafs do not have an Alex Steen-type prospect who can walk into their lineup next season. With a salary cap expected to be between $42 million and $45.5 million, the high spending teams, the Leafs included, will find some talent available.

To free up money, the Maple Leafs will need to cut bait with Ed Belfour and stomach a $1.5 million buyout for the sake of taking $4.522 of the books. Mikael Tellqvist will make $519,000 next year. He needs to provide a stopgap before the arrival of Justin Pogge two or perhaps three years from now.

As it stands, the Leafs have $22.8 million committed for next season, fewer than eight other teams.

If the cap comes in high, and if they find a home for Sundin, there is help available: Olli Jokinen, Ed Jovanovski, Rob Blake, Petr Sykora, Sergei Samsonov and Stephane Yelle. Another flight of veterans, Teemu Selanne, Nicklas Lidstrom and Joe Sakic, seemed destined to keep their present addresses.

This is an exceptionally flat draft with very little between the first 10 or so choices and the rest of the top three rounds.

If you're looking to put a lot of picks in play, this is your year.

The Leafs will draft somewhere between five and 10. From that position, they may well land Barrie forward Bryan Little, Toronto product Chris Stewart or speedy Cape Breton Screaming Eagles forward James Sheppard.

MEDIOCRE

In the end, what you have is mediocre roster gutted for the future with slow-maturing draft picks supplemented by hit and miss free-agent gambits.

The most meaningful change the Maple Leafs can make?

Behind the bench.

It's ludicrous to ask Pat Quinn to coach a team staffed largely by green kids and minor leaguers.

The Leafs need an environment where everyone is working in a undermanned, aggressive atmosphere. They no longer are overlords, your Leafs, they are underdogs.

They need a young, dynamic coach to provide that energy.

Marlies coach Paul Maurice is familiar with the team, the market and the media.

It's his time.


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