Salary cap handcuffs Leafs

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:11 AM ET

There's no doubt Maple Leafs general manager John Ferguson could have moved Bryan McCabe last Thursday.

The fact he didn't do so indicates that he sees McCabe as a part of the Leafs' future.

And why not?

He's one of the best offensive defencemen in the world, he's a workhorse and he plays with grit.

There's just one cause for concern. McCabe wants $5.5 million US a year for his subsequent services.

In the old NHL, that wouldn't matter.

But this is Gary's Brave New World, and although the Leafs have lots of money, spend a lot of money, and are willing to spend a lot more money, they're not allowed to do so.

Therefore, they have to try to fit McCabe into the artificial system that was imposed upon the game, and it won't be easy.

Let's say the Leafs decide they would like to keep Ed Belfour for another year. To do so, they would have to pay him $4.484 million. So at that price, given Belfour's age and level of play, it seems certain he and the Leafs will part ways.

But even if the Leafs choose that course of action, they still have to pay Belfour $1.52 million, a pre-arranged divorce settlement that Ferguson accepted when he and Belfour signed their pre-nuptial agreement.

COMMITTED

Dropping Belfour doesn't solve the Leafs' problems. Without him, they still are committed to a 2006-07 payroll of $20.34 million for 10 players.

This year, the NHL's salary-cap figure was $39 million. Next season it's going to be something like $42 million.

So if the Leafs give McCabe his $5.5 million, they'd have a payroll of $25.84 million and only 11 players under contract.

Furthermore, they wouldn't have a proven goaltender. He'd have to be one of the 12 players they would need to add to the roster for their remaining $16.16 million.

They can't get around it by delaying the inevitable -- giving players back-loaded contracts. Under the collective bargaining agreement, contracts are averaged over their term, so if they signed a player for $2 million, $5 million and $5 million, they'd be charged $4 million against next year's cap. Similarly, Belfour's buyout is $751,000 annually over two years -- which is more than Mikael Tellqvist makes. The young Swede has one year left on a contract that pays him $569,000.

But do the Leafs want to go into next season with Tellqvist as their No.1 goalie? Even though they've had plenty of time to give him a true test, they have chosen not to do so.

If they wait until they're eliminated to give Tellqvist a serious run, that won't be a genuine test either because players perform differently when there's nothing on the line.

Perhaps Tellqvist is indeed ready. There's no denying he has performed well as Belfour's backup. But being the starter night after night is a different matter altogether.

So if the Leafs are to get some degree of security at the most important position, they're probably going to have to bring in a veteran to back-up Tellqvist.

Who do you want to trade for? Jocelyn Thibault? Dan Cloutier? Kevin Weekes? Ty Conklin? They're all under contract for next year. And the cheapest is Thibault at $1.5 million. Weekes and Conklin are in the $2-million range. Cloutier will cost $2.55 million. Of course, you could get Nik Khabibulin for three more years at $6.75 million annually.

If you assume the Leafs can get a second goalie for as low as $2 million, their payroll has now reached almost $28 million and they still have only 12 players.

By the way, there's one more wrinkle.

General managers agree that next season, they won't repeat the mistakes of this season. They'll leave at least 10% wiggle room in order to make late-season acquisitions should they need to do so.

If Ferguson follows that tack, his effective salary cap will be about $38 million.

Therefore, if he signs McCabe for $5.5 million, he'll have to try to get those last 11 players for a total of $10 million. It could be done, but how good would those players be?

That's why he hasn't signed McCabe yet, even though he would like to.


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