There had to be a moment between the selloffs of Peter Forsberg, Keith Tkachuk and hell, even Craig Rivet, when John Ferguson had to think, "Is now the time?"
Is this the right time and the right market to blow up the current edition of the Maple Leafs?
And has that opportunity now passed?
Never mind that Darcy Tucker has a new contract that serves both his purposes and the team's. Stop and wonder for an instant: If the Montreal Canadiens could acquire a defensive prospect and a first-round draft pick for a run-of-the-mill veteran like Rivet, couldn't Tucker have garnered a greater price in the trade market?
And if the going rate for a career pain like 35-year-old Keith Tkachuk is a first-round pick, a second-round pick, a third-round pick, Glen Metropolit, and another first-rounder if he signs on to stay in Atlanta (which we all know isn't going to happen) then what might the price have been for Mats Sundin?
What would a desperate general manager such as Don Waddell have paid for Sundin, taking the liberty to assume that Sundin, if asked, would have waived his no-trade arrangement?
What would Brian Burke, not nearly as desperate but in need of scoring, have offered?
What would every general manager, those trying to win, those trying to save franchises, those trying to save their own behinds, have coughed up in a case such as this?
Sundin is just one year older than Tkachuk, more consistent, more accomplished, just a better player and a better person, playing as well as he ever has: In almost the same number of playoff games over their careers, Sundin has scored almost 30% more points.
So all of this may be nothing but surmisal. But it does raise some concerns. All season long, the Leafs have staggered somewhere between 15th and 20th in an NHL of 30 teams. That is their reality. Their standing has come in a season in which they have either achieved or over-achieved -- you can pick which one -- to straddle the playoff line.
Now consider an opposite approach. If a Tucker deal brings one first-round pick and a Sundin deals brings a first rounder and a boat load of other possibilities, the stockpiling for the future begins.
While the first-round draft pick, especially in the second half of the round, is not what it used to be -- it's a bit of a guess and a three-year wait -- the odds of success increase with every additional choice.
Now that Tucker is signed and the Leafs hold an option for Sundin's contract, the boundaries are obviously changed. If you add in the contracts of Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle, Hal Gill and Pavel Kubina on defence, that's almost $27 million in cap money accounted for.
But if the Leafs had decided to trade Tucker and Sundin away, they would have accomplished two things. One, they would have made gains for the future. Two, they would have cleared $9 million in cap space, giving them the opportunity to re-sign either in the summer if they were so inclined or use the money elsewhere.
Buffalo's Daniel Briere does not have a contract for next season, for example. He is six years younger than Sundin, scoring at 100-point pace. Who would be the better buy at this stage?
That questions won't be answered today or tomorrow. Instead, the Leafs focus on the small picture. It may buy them hope and a few home playoff dates, but not much more than that.