It's a numbers game now

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 2:00 PM ET

Nine days ago, the Carolina Hurricanes won the first Stanley Cup in more than two years. Nine days from now, the next Stanley Cup could already have been decided.

Oh, they'll still have to play the games, but what the 30 teams do in the next few days will determine the course of events for the next 12 months.

To be a general manager in the NHL these days is to be a world-class juggler, with about a dozen balls in the air at the same time. John Ferguson gets a lot of heat in these parts, but if you put yourself in his shoes for five minutes this week, your head will be spinning.

We tried. And if you want a really splitting headache, you can, too.

The starting point for the Maple Leafs, as it is for every other team, is at $44 million US, which has been set officially as this year's salary cap. Subtract $2 million, which is the cap hit for buying out Ed Belfour and Tie Domi.

Goaltending, at least this year, won't be an expensive proposition. Whether or not you think the Andrew Raycroft deal is a crapshoot, he is a rather inexpensive option at $1.325 million. Projected backup candidates J.S Aubin and Mikael Tellqvist are each priced at just over $500,000. Presuming that only one of them will make the team, we're left with just a tad more than $40 million for 20 skaters.

Simple enough so far, but now it gets tricky.

The composition of this team next season and for seasons to come will depend upon what happens with Bryan McCabe over the next 48 hours. Chris Pronger, too, but that's a whole other issue. McCabe supposedly agreed to a contract that would pay him $5.85 million a year for the next five years, but his wife wants him closer to New York.

It would seem inconceivable that this impasse could drag on beyond Friday because if it does and McCabe walks, the Leafs will not have the full range of free agent options to bid on.

The first crack at players like Zdeno Chara and Ed Jovanovski comes at one minute after midnite Friday, and don't be surprised if some of those prime players are gone before the sun comes up Saturday morning.

The Leafs must know where they stand with McCabe when that bidding war begins. So let's assume McCabe walks. JFJ's first move should be to go after the best defenceman, and that would be Chara.

With the new maximum at $8.8 million per year for individual salaries, let's mark Chara down for $7.5 million and put him in blue and white. Add in $4.25 for Kaberle and you have a pretty good defensive pair for $11.75 million. To help Kaberle get through the trauma of having his name out there in the Chris Pronger sweepstakes, lets bring in some blue line help in underrated Willie Mitchell, whose salary we will double to $2 million.

That brings the available money down to $26.25 million, with four defencemen and 13 forwards still unaccounted for.

Let's leave the defence and look at some forwards. At $6.33 million, Mats Sundin takes a huge bite of what's left, followed by Darcy Tucker ($1.596 million), Jeff O'Neill ($1.5 million), Chad Kilger ($1.2 million), Nik Antropov ($1 million), Alex Steen ($900,600) and Alex Ponikarovsky ($712,000).

That totals about $13 million more to bring us down to $13.25 million left in the pot.

You may notice we do not yet have that major sniper to skate alongside Sundin.

So let's aim high and grab Patrik Elias, who accumulated 45 points in 38 games last year. For the sake of argument, we're going to pay him $7 million, which might be low but, hey, we're running out of dough. Now we have just $6.25 million left.

To fill out the defence, start with Staffan Kronwall, who has a deal for $612,000 a year. Then we pay the minimum ($450,000) to Jay Harrison, Ian White and Andy Wozniewski. That chews up another $2 million, leaving $4.25 million.

Matt Stajan and Kyle Wellwood account for a combined total of about $1.75 million.

Now we step out and sign somebody like Jamie Langenbrunner for $2 million. He's just 30, is plenty quick enough for today's game, and has a wealth of Stanley Cup experience. That leaves one forward position to fill. You can have anybody your heart desires, as long as he'll play for the minimum.

Now go get yourself an aspirin. And just win, baby.


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