Leafs almost out of cap space

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:20 AM ET

The waiting game has begun for John Ferguson, but Paul Maurice can't afford to wait at all.

This is where the Maple Leafs find themselves, three days into NHL free agency, with the team almost tapped out and capped out.

There are needs to fill but little money with which to address them.

There are holes but no clear way to address them.

Ferguson has approximately $4 million US left to spend on as many as four players, which means he's caught playing the hockey version of musical chairs, wondering which players will be left without seats.

This is not a position unfamiliar to him. In his first days with the Leafs, he became the accidental general manager, signing Joe Nieuwendyk and Ken Klee after everyone else had allocated their free-agent money.

Last August, he lost out on his early targets and ended up signing Jason Allison, Eric Lindros and Alex Khavanov -- garage-sale buys that turned out to be just that.

Ferguson now is trolling to see what gets left behind. These are the only options for him other than a trade after having thrown the bank and more at defencemen Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill.

In one way, with a stronger, deeper defence, that helps Maurice as coach. In another way, the Leafs' greatest need, at forward, remains an unsolved mystery.

RELUCTANT CAPTAIN

The Leafs have the reluctant Mats Sundin up front but after that, the waters part.

There is Darcy Tucker and Alex Steen, who may or may not be able to play on the first two lines of most teams. The question is, can anyone else here do the same?

Can this group of forwards, too slow in the new NHL, not creative enough in the changing game, lacking quickness, adapt to the high-tempo, pressure-forecheck game that Maurice envisions the Leafs playing?

"That's a fantastic question," the Leafs coach said yesterday. "The general thought as a coach is, you look at your players and decide how you're going to play. The danger of doing that is that the style of game you may play may not be conducive to winning anymore, and then you have a problem.

"I have a vision for the style of game you need to play in order to be successful. I think some players will accept that, and some will have difficulty with that ... I don't think you can look at the NHL game now and say there's any other way to win than a high-tempo, aggressive, two-man forecheck."

Maurice is not a coach who necessarily believes anymore in first, second and third lines, but if you look at this team that way, there are more questions than answers.

Who, for example, is the second-line centre?

"Second centre's wide open," Maurice said. "Kyle Wellwood is a centre, Alexander Steen can play centre, (Jeff) O'Neill has played centre."

In other words: Yikes.

What the Leafs do have all kinds of are third- and fourth-line candidates: Chad Kilger, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Matt Stajan and Johnny Pohl and Alexander Suglobov, who happen to be on one-way contracts.

What they don't have are second and third scoring options -- and typically, no one of similar ability to play with Sundin, unless Gary Roberts returns to flank one wing with the captain.

"I think with what we did on the weekend, we're in a better position to live with what we have up front," Maurice said. "I think our defence will allow us to spend a little less time in our own end than we did.

"And I think with the kind of defence we have, they can contribute more to the offence five-on-five."

Should the Leafs have a defence of Tomas Kaberle, Bryan McCabe, Kubina, Ian White and possibly Carlo Colaiacovo, that's five offensively creative defencemen who make up for some of the offensive shortcomings of the Toronto forwards.

"We're looking to get quicker, rather than faster, if you understand the distinction," Maurice said. "I hate to keep making Carolina (Hurricanes) analogies, but a lot of things we used to assume aren't so anymore.

"Take a guy like Rod Brind'Amour. He was viewed as a two-way guy with not great speed, not overly creative. But he's quick, reads the play well. Now he looks wonderful."

There aren't a lot of Brind'Amour's heading to training camp with the Leafs. What the Leafs couldn't or wouldn't buy Paul Maurice must now create.


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