Leafs GM may have taken a huge risk

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:19 AM ET

Somewhere, Ed Jovanovski must be smiling.

Somewhere, Zdeno Chara and Wade Redden and Nicklas Lidstrom and maybe Rob Blake -- all of them on their way to free agency -- are raising a toast in honour of the crazy contract that Bryan McCabe is about to sign with the Maple Leafs.

Somewhere, they're saying, or their agents are saying, that if McCabe can get almost $6 million US a year, imagine what the best available defenceman in hockey will be worth as July 1 grows ever closer.

Because Bryan McCabe isn't one of the best defenceman in hockey.

He isn't even the best defenceman on his own team -- although he's $1.5 million ahead of Tomas Kaberle now.

As of today -- and until the signings begin to occur closer to July -- McCabe is the third highest paid defenceman in hockey. He will end up around the top six when all the potential free agents are accounted for.

He can't be traded, bought out, waived, dealt and probably looked at the wrong way under the terms of the new agreement. In a way, this is stunning for John Ferguson Jr.'s Maple Leafs -- the general manager was caught in a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation with McCabe.

If you let him walk in free agency, you don't know for certain you can replace him adequately. But if you sign him, as the Leafs did here, for too much money, for terms so very restrictive, you're also tying up your hands and feet at the very same time.

Maybe this will work for Ferguson and the Leafs.

But if it doesn't -- and it's this limited -- the Leafs will spend a lot of the next five years watching McCabe get older, not necessarily better, and be caught in the kind of contract they are paying their way to get away from with Ed Belfour.

They have tied up $10 million or more a year in McCabe and Kaberle for the next five seasons. They still don't have a big-time forward after Mats Sundin, who is just about their oldest player. They still don't have a big-time goaltender. They still don't have the kind of speedy wingers who have been so prominent during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

They still don't have a whole lot to be excited about. But they do have Bryan McCabe.

His numbers are greater than the sum of his parts. His game is wondrous and flawed, often at the same time, and his production -- not points production -- consistently is under debate.

EMERGENCE

This isn't media thought. This is hockey thought. Not that long ago, Pat Quinn was asked about the emergence of McCabe as a top-10 NHL defenceman. This was the kind of softball question someone throws aimlessly at a coach on an off-day.

Only the answer wasn't the usual fluff.

"Who says he's top 10?" Quinn shot back.

"But he was voted to the all-star team," the questioner argued.

"And who votes for that? Writers?" Quinn harrumphed with disdain. "Nobody asked me. I wouldn't necessarily agree. Top 10? I don't think so. Top 20 maybe."

Then came the new NHL and McCabe's power-play slapshot seemed grooved to the beat of the game. It was enough to get McCabe an invitation to Quinn's Team Canada. It wasn't enough for him to get much playing time.

At the Olympics, I asked Quinn if making the team -- prior to games being played -- was an indication McCabe had arrived as a big-time player and even then the coach wasn't about to bite on that. "I think," he said, "that will be up to him."

Quinn is gone from the Leafs, but McCabe now has five years, a whole bunch of money and a whole lot of security to define exactly who and what he is as an NHL defenceman.

The answer, even with this deep commitment by the Leafs, is in no way clear.

Ferguson has made a long-term investment in McCabe, which was reminiscent in a different kind of way of a deal Floyd Smith made a long time ago. When Smith desperately acquired Tom Kurvers from the New Jersey Devils in exchange for a Leafs first pick that turned out to the third choice in the NHL draft, Scott Niedermayer, he summed up the deal rather succinctly.

"If the trade doesn't work out, I'll be gone anyway," Smith said philosophically. Ferguson is best warned: It didn't and he was.

BELFOUR GONE

Ed Belfour already is telling people he won't be back with the Leafs next season, even though it's not official the Leafs will pay the $1.5 million US for him to walk away. Belfour also is telling people he wants to keep playing, and apparently there already are some teams interested in signing the ancient goalie, but they are waiting until July 1 to proceed.

WRIGHT WAY

There will not be another Ricky Williams story in the future. Tom Wright will see to that. The CFL commissioner, assuming he remains on the job, will amend the agreement with the NFL, ending the window of opportunity for suspended NFL players to find refuge in Canada. The altered arrangement will kick in for the following season.

TAMPA RUMBLINGS

For Sale: Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. While Tampa Bay management will tell you the Lightning wants to build around Brad Richards, St. Louis and Lecavalier, enough people in the hockey wilderness will say the opposite -- that Lecavalier and St. Louis are available, and in the case of St. Louis, affordable. Stay tuned on this one.


Videos

Photos