Ferguson must bring back Roberts

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:20 AM ET

How do you say no to Gary Roberts?

How do you say no, even realizing he is 40 years old, with bad groins, a history of other injuries and a quick temper?

How do you say no when just about the most influential Maple Leaf player of the past decade wants to leave Florida for apparent family reasons and finish his career in his hometown?

How do you say no?

You don't.

If you're Leafs general manager John Ferguson, you take a step back, you put aside your personal biases, you walk away from a lost negotiation of the past and you make the easy deal here.

You pick up the phone, call smiling Mike Keenan, the Panthers general manager, and offer up a lower-round draft pick for a player who makes your team instantly better at a reasonably inexpensive price.

Gary Roberts left the Leafs last summer partly by choice and partly by circumstance, and his absence was apparent almost every moment in a lost season. The team needed heart, it needed soul, it needed purpose, it needed the kind of Pied Piper direction that Roberts uniquely brings.

It didn't have that kind of player then. It doesn't have it now.

So here is Roberts, with a second family, a baby born this winter, a teenage daughter boarding at Appleby College in Oakville, and he wants to be closer to home now that his ex-wife has moved to Calgary. He wants to be there for his daughter.

This is a reasonable kind of trade demand, a human demand.

Originally, he went to Florida to play alongside his close friend, Joe Nieuwendyk. One year later, Nieuwendyk is staying, Roberts sees it is necessary to come home.

The Panthers understand that much, even if they don't happen to like it. They have precisely the kind of young players that attach themselves to Roberts, that follow his every step. They have the kind of youth on that team which could learn so much from a player who has a way of transferring wisdom to those around him.

WILLING

But as much as coach Jacques Martin doesn't want to lose him, even Keenan is willing to make the deal.

Are the Leafs?

If Ferguson under-estimated anything in the first year following the lockout -- and he under-estimated quite a bit -- his largest misread might have been with regard to team character. The Leafs, before the lockout, had strong leaders in players such as Roberts, Nieuwendyk, Ed Belfour, Tie Domi, Tom Fitzgerald, Brian Leetch and even Ken Klee. Mats Sundin may be the captain but often others around him take care of the internal aspects of the team.

But suddenly, Roberts and Nieuwendyk and Fitzgerald and Leetch were gone; suddenly, Belfour was too busy nursing his back and Klee and Domi were fighting the effects of a year off.

Suddenly, the Leafs needed someone to show them the way, and it wasn't Jason Allison or Eric Lindros or Jeff O'Neill.

The best general managers, Pat Gillick once said, correct their mistakes. This is a chance for a Ferguson do-over. An opportunity to affect the team in more than one way.

Roberts wasn't a Pat Quinn fan -- that never factored in to his play -- but is a huge believer in Paul Maurice, the new Leafs coach. In fact, when Maurice was named coach of the Leafs, Roberts called more than one player to tell them this would be the best thing to ever happen to them.

Just like bringing Roberts back would be almost the best thing to happen to the young Leafs. They would learn about training from Roberts, about nutrition, about dedication, about maximizing your athletic capacity; you can talk all you want to kids. They don't tend to listen.

But they watch Roberts and he lives that life.

In fact, he is the kind of person the Leafs should consider attaching themselves to once his career is over. A player this season, maybe an assistant coach the next.

It has to be that enticing for Ferguson.

It has to be done.

TARGET MCKEE

Why sign Jay McKee? Because the Leafs need him. He can kill penalties for a team that was 24th in the league killing penalties. He can block shots for a team that was 21st in shots against. McKee can be strong defensively for a team that was 21st in goals against and 27th scoring at even-strength. And he brings leadership to a team in need of it.

MCCABE-KABERLE

Bryan McCabe is tied up for five seasons in Toronto. Tomas Kaberle is tied up for four. At least, this is a sound beginning for the Leafs defence that will look better over time. But it's only a beginning. There still is a roster to build.

FREE AGENCY

When midnight strikes and free agency begins tomorrow, a number of NHL players could have new addresses within the first 24 hours. This is a lesson John Ferguson must learn from the frenzy of last August. You can't get caught as a spectator here. You have to react quickly. Ferguson always insists he has a plan. Soon we will find out exactly what it is.


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