Better off if McCabe didn't sign

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:35 AM ET

You have to wonder what the mood is around the Maple Leafs offices this morning.

Are they thrilled that Bryan McCabe is finally going to sign his contract? Or were they hoping he would walk?

It's been a month since the Leafs and McCabe's agent came to a tentative agreement on a five-year, $28.75- million US deal. In the interim, there were suggestions that McCabe's wife, a Long Island native, is unhappy that her hubby is going to be locked into Toronto for five more years, although a family illness is believed to be at the root of the delay.

So the contract sits unsigned. The Leafs were poised to go in a different direction with McCabe eligible to become an unrestricted free agent come Saturday, but Toronto sources told the Sun's Mike Zeisberger last night that McCabe will ink the deal as early as today.

In the hockey business, teams don't often get the chance for a do-over on a mistake. In this case, with a player who seemed willing to hang the team out to dry, the Leafs had that opportunity. They should have taken advantage of it because the McCabe contract is at least of questionable value.

RELISHING THE CHANCE

Given the number of very good free-agent defencemen who will be waiting for offers at 12:01 Saturday morning, the Leafs should have had no fear if McCabe had declined this very generous contract. In fact, they might have been relishing the chance to bring in some high-end talent to fill the void.

The McCabe deal averages out at $5.75 million a year, which is getting awfully close to the $6.25 million that Chris Pronger, widely regarded as the best defenceman in the game, will earn in each of the next four years. Oh, and he just happens to be available.

Now, does anybody seriously believe that McCabe is in Pronger's league? Not even the most died-in-the-wool, blinders-on Leafs fan could argue that one. Nor is McCabe in the same category as Zdeno Chara or Ed Jovanovski, both of whom will likely be entertaining offers this weekend. Others, such as Wade Redden, Niklas Lidstrom and Rob Blake, may also be on the market, though they're likely to re-sign with their old teams.

From there, we have a market that will include as many as two-dozen defencemen, most of whom are good enough to play for any team in the league.

There will be a lot of buyers out there willing to spend their dough, but carefully. A few of these players will get bigger contracts than the one that McCabe is looking at, but only a few. Over the next few days we'll learn just how good, or bad, this deal is.

McCabe has been a good defencemen for a few years. A bit error-prone, but still very skilled, especially on the offensive side. He's a gritty, emotional player, which can be both good and bad.

Last season, for about half the schedule, he became better than good. He recognized quickly that he couldn't get away with all his little defensive tricks that would land him in the penalty box. More than that, he became the designated gunner on the power play, and in a game where about a third of the time was spent on special teams, he thrived.

In the first 39 games of the season, he scored 14 goals and assisted on 32 others, an average of better than a point a game. But the NHL is all about adjustments and the rest of the league adjusted to McCabe and the Leafs, paying much closer attention to him as the season went on.

Over the last 34 games (he missed nine others with a groin injury) he scored just five more goals to go with 17 assists. That's more in line with his career average of about a half-point per game.

Given the opportunity to play for Team Canada at the Olympic Games because other stars, like Scott Niedermeyer, could not, McCabe's defensive shortcomings were exposed on the big ice. Perhaps as a result, when he came back to the NHL, his confidence did not seem to be at the same level it had been for the early part of the year.

Now, in 2006-07, McCabe and Tomas Kaberle, who is every bit McCabe's equal but costs $1.5 million less, will be paid about $10 million between them. Last year, this tandem was paid $5.738 million. So, the increase in salary cap to $44 million from $39 million has been largely eaten up by two defencemen who anchored the team to a ninth-place conference finish.

Meanwhile, a few of the league's best defencemen and a whole raft of the league's good defencemen will be up for grabs.

Faced with this unique opportunity to re-shape their future, the Leafs have settled for the status quo. That's the kind of thinking that has separated the Leafs from the Stanley Cup for four decades.


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