Leafs prepared for summer fun

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:18 AM ET

The Maple Leafs braintrust gathered for a special dinner at a Toronto restaurant last week, but not to bid adieu to a forgettable non-playoff year.

"It was a kick-off for the coming season," general manager John Ferguson said. "Unfortunately, we've had far too much time this spring to think about last year."

The meal was part of organizational meetings to plot the draft later this month in Columbus and map a free-agent shopping list for July 1. About $9 million US remains under the Leafs' salary cap, assuming Mats Sundin comes in around $11 million on a new two-year deal and the NHL cap is increased to the $48 million range.

Ferguson must make a decision on unrestricted forwards Jeff O'Neill, Travis Green and Michael Peca and restricted defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo. It's unlikely all three forwards will be back, with the 33-year-old Peca having to take a salary hit if he wants to stay and prove a broken leg hasn't affected his game. O'Neill's 20-goal ability was not enough to keep him from being a healthy scratch at the end of last season.

The most interesting call could be in goal, where coach Paul Maurice had indicated he would like the hot-and-cold Andrew Raycroft to play 65 to 70 games again, while Ferguson has spoken of bringing in a veteran to both spell off Raycroft and push him for the No. 1 job. Ferguson says that doesn't mean UFA Jean-Sebastien Aubin is through here, but it's likely the GM won't extend the $525,000 one-way deal he had last year.

"We want to be better at that position, but at the same time, Andrew has made a strong commitment this off-season (to conditioning and technical improvements)," Ferguson said. "J.S. would give us a strong tandem again."

Those at the meetings insist the mood was upbeat, despite what outsiders would consider a tall task to reach the standard of the Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks.

"We all watched the final the other night and I'm sure were thinking 'What if?' " pro scout Craig Button said. "You realize that Ottawa was in the final and Buffalo was right behind them and both those teams are in our division. But you also look at the big players the Ducks used and how hard they are to play against. I think that's what we have on our first line and why John was so keen on bringing back a guy like (6-foot-6) Nik Antropov."

The NHL free-agent picture will be highlighted by the intentions of Daniel Briere and Ryan Smyth. Smyth has a number of possible destinations, while the Philadelphia Flyers want Briere. But the Sabres would like him back.


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