These Leafs a sorry lot

KEN FIDLIN

, Last Updated: 3:15 PM ET

It is a fine mess the Maple Leafs fine themselves in, but hardly one that was unexpected.

You think back to the team that missed the playoffs last year, add up the ineffective changes that have been made and this is what you get: A team that will have to struggle to finish in the Eastern Conference's top 10 and a team that will have to dramatically over-achieve to make the playoffs.

That was the read on this team in September and, despite a surprisingly successful October, they appear to have found their rightful place in the NHL's pecking order.

An outfit engaged in this kind of perpetual high-wire act can't afford six-game losing streaks, but that is exactly where the Leafs are right now.

They have dipped below the playoff line and, unless they pull out of this slide soon, it's hard to imagine them gathering the confidence to make anything out of this season.

The scariest part of this Leafs muddle is that there is no clear solution. The very real fear is the team will have to get worse before it gets better, because the traditional methods of improving your stock have only limited effectiveness in a salary cap era.

The first place a general manager looks for help is from within. At a glance, there just aren't any answers behind that door. The farm system is hardly stocked with NHL-ready talent. If it was, we would already have seen at least a callup or two, if only to light a fire under some of the players who aren't getting the job done.

John Ferguson could try to trade his way out of the situation, except he has only a handful of tradeable players. And by moving them for assets that will make the team stronger in the future, he weakens an already weak club now.

They also are among his highest-paid mercenaries, which translates into a difficult fit for other teams, most of whom are already up against the cap.

More than that, Ferguson has made only a couple of trades of substance during his tenure and never has inspired a lot of confidence in his ability to pull the wool over another GM's eyes.

Mats Sundin represents probably the best opportunity for fair return, but that would require a dramatic philosophical change within the Leafs front office. Sundin is considered virtually untouchable in the team's inner sanctum because he is still the team's best player and also its leader.

Trading Sundin would also send out a message to the long-suffering fans that, guess what, the Stanley Cup isn't just around the corner, a myth MLSEL likes to perpetuate.

For a true Cup contender, though, Sundin would be an attractive trade deadline target, if he would waive his no-trade clause. He still is one of the league's top players and a deal at the deadline would only result in about a $1.5-million US cap hit for his new team. His current four-year contract is up at the end of this season. The Leafs, or whatever team owns his rights at the end of the season, hold an option at $4.5 million for next year, but if the team picks up that option, they will be liable for $6.33 million in 2007-08 under the salary cap, which is the average of all four years.

By tearing up the option and signing Sundin to, say, a three-year deal for $16 million, they would save themselves about $1 million in cap space and Sundin would earn almost a million more.

Yes, Sundin has a no-trade clause, but if he was faced with the possibility of moving to a Stanley Cup contender, who is to say he wouldn't waive it?

In February, he will be 36 and it's a safe bet, given the current state of the Leafs, that he won't be a part of any Stanley Cup run here. Before he runs out of gas or decides to retire, it might be wise for the Leafs to try to get at last something for the future.

The other avenue open to Ferguson is free agency, but after this past summer when he spent $55 million to get Bryan McCabe, Pavel Kubina and Hal Gill, don't hold your breath for improvements in that area. These guys are the defensive lynchpins around which the Leafs have become one of the quickest teams in the league to allow 100 goals.

Kubina, especially, has been a disappointment. In fairness, he has been dealing with injuries, but even allowing for that, he is not looking like the high-end talent you might expect at that salary level.

Sure, the salary cap is expected to rise to about $46 million next year, but that $2 million increase won't come close to covering the cost of inflation. With a few expiring contracts, the GM will have some money to spend on offensive help. Problem is, fans will have to count on Ferguson to spend it wisely and that's a big leap of faith.

Indeed, it's tough to shed any sunlight at all on this dismal picture.

And there are still 52 games to go.


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