Can Leafs afford Mats and Darcy?

Mats Sundin. (SUN/Greg Henkenhaf)

Mats Sundin. (SUN/Greg Henkenhaf)

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:59 AM ET

Until Darcy Tucker puts pen to paper on a new deal with the Maple Leafs, he knows the trade rumours will keep repeating themselves like Christmas carols wailing through the halls of the local shopping mall.

Tucker is a pending free agent come the summer, leaving general manager John Ferguson with the unenviable task of attempting to squeeze both he and captain Mats Sundin under the salary cap for next season.

With Sundin holding the hammer with his no-trade clause, Tucker would appear to be a more logical candidate to be moved should Ferguson's hand be forced.

Little wonder the rumours already have started.

"(Talk) will happen as long as my status is unclear," Tucker said yesterday. "People are going to speculate.

"When I was younger, (the scuttlebutt) used to bother me a lot. But as I've gotten older you can't let it bother you. I just play as hard as I can every night."

Tucker looks at Bryan McCabe in order to understand how crazy the next few months might be.

Last season, McCabe was the big-name Leaf playing out his contract with Toronto. The club had just signed Tomas Kaberle long term, but had yet to come to an agreement with McCabe as the trade deadline approached, causing many to urge Ferguson to move the veteran defenceman and ensure some kind of return.

Ferguson opted not to pull the trigger and re-signed McCabe prior to the opening of free agency July 1.

'HOPE, REBIRTH'

"Obviously, I want to stay in Toronto but but this is what Bryan went through last year with his situation," Tucker said. "I've got someone to lean on for sure."

Asked about the state of contract talks, Tucker's agent, Carlos Sosa, would only say that "the new year is about hope and rebirth."

Edmonton, Calgary, San Jose and Dallas are all believed to have keen interest, according to TSN.ca, and that list would balloon if word spread that Tucker were available.

But that day has not yet arrived. Far from it. In fact, Ferguson insisted yesterday he "definitely" plans to have both Tucker and Sundin on board next season.

The Leafs hierarchy is expected to debate the team's long-term options in the coming weeks.

But what if Tucker's asking price is too steep? He is on pace for a 40-plus goal season, which likely would net him at least $4 million on the open market.

Little progress has been made thus far but talks could heat up next month. According to the CBA, no deal can be made prior to Jan. 1 in which a players salary would escalate by more than 100%. Tucker is scheduled to earn $1.596 million this season.

Meanwhile, the Leafs hold a $4.56-million club option on Sundin for next season. If they were to pick up the option, the Sundin deal would chew up $6.333 million of cap space, the average of his salary over the term of his existing contract.

For his part, Sundin said he is not looking to be traded or hang up his blades at the end of the season.

"I don't have any plans to retire ... not that I know," Sundin said. "As for the trade rumours, I've heard them for the past 12 years."

Added coach Paul Maurice: "Mats is not going anywhere."

Will the same hold true for Tucker?

hans deryk/reuters files

Coach Paul Maurice appears to be contemplating a Maple Leafs team without both Darcy Tucker (left) or Mats Sundin. With Tucker a pending free agent, GM John Ferguson could be hard-pressed to keep both big-ticket forwards under the salary cap.

'Canes feeling that Cup hangover

TERRY KOSHAN

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Cam Ward played the best hockey of his life last spring, becoming the fourth rookie goaltender to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup.

Six months later, Ward, not unlike many teammates, is trying to re-discover that playoff magic.

"I have felt comfortable, but sure, I could be better," Ward, 22, said after practice yesterday. "I have to be making the big saves and right now I am just average."

The Hurricanes have found their Cup title has not led to much fruit so far in 2006-07 and Ward is just one player who acknowledged he has to perform to a higher standard. True, Carolina is two games over .500, and have had long-term injuries to key players such as Cory Stillman and Frank Kaberle (thanks to the physically demanding Cup run). Going into last night, the Hurricanes were sixth in the conference with 34 points, but they recently ended a four-game western swing in which they lost all four games.

"It's different from last year when we knew we were going to win," said Stillman, who will play in his second game tonight. "We have not really found our groove yet and we have to find it."

Are the 'Canes suffering from what observers like to call a Stanley Cup hangover?

Back so soon?

"Yeah, I do remember the first couple of games, looking around the room saying 'I can't believe we are back here right now playing hockey,'" defenceman Bret Hedican said.

Part of the cost of winning a Cup is that sneaking up on teams is a thing of the past.

"You get a pretty good game from everybody and there are not a lot of nights when it is easy for us," coach Peter Laviolette said.

"That's good, because it teaches you to be competitive on a nightly basis. It forces our hand to be consistent. If we don't get it straightened out, the 13th-place team is just a few points behind us and there is an awful lot of wriggle room between two and 14 (in the conference)."

terry.koshan@tor.sunpub.com

Game Day: Page S7


Videos

Photos