Forty watch begins in T.O.

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:57 AM ET

New Maple Leaf Jason Blake will get his familiar No. 55, but with a 40-tonne weight of expectation strapped to it.

After a long season where forty became a four-letter word at the Air Canada Centre, as in years between Stanley Cups, get ready to hear about that number ad nauseum in relation to Blake's goal potential.

Toronto signed him to a five-year, $20-million US contract on Sunday night, citing his 40 goals with the New York Islanders as the possible answer to the dearth of scoring on Mats Sundin's wing. But before you rush out to fill your pool roster, consider the following:

History is not on Blake's side, as only an elite group of NHLers duplicates 40-goal seasons and it took Blake seven seasons and age 33 to do it even once. Only five Leafs, all younger than Blake, reached 40 the past 20 years; Ed Olczyk, Gary Leeman, Wendel Clark, Dave Andreychuk and Mats Sundin.

And of the eight free agents the past 10 years with at least 35 goals elsewhere, none matched that as Leafs. Alex Mogilny came the closest, with 33 in 2002-03.

To reprise 40, Blake will have to evade the recent spate of injuries to top Leafs, click with Sundin and another winger on the first line and crack a power play which already has a productive left-hand shot and like-minded winger in Darcy Tucker.

If there are no other acquisitions this summer, media and fans no doubt will be tracking Blake's 40-goal pace the way brokers religiously follow the TSX 300. But you have to think the Leafs would settle for him to reach the 20 to 30 range for a fifth consecutive year, and gel with another centre, say Kyle Wellwood, or even fellow Minnesotan John Pohl, bringing all to bear on getting a playoff spot.

Blake didn't wake up on free agent day dreaming of being a Leaf, but when Toronto showed itself a willing bidder in the early going, agent Neil Sheehy said his client was all ears, with no qualms about its playoff record or John Ferguson's uncertain future.

"He's a good fit for a demanding hockey city," Sheehy said from his office in Minneapolis. "He likes the pressure of winning and he's a self-motivated man and he just goes and goes on the ice. People in Toronto are going to like Jason a lot."

Sure, Paul Kariya would have looked better here, but unlike Blake, he's uncomfortable in a fishbowl. Kariya has picked Colorado, Nashville and, now, St. Louis as his free agent destinations, shunning his Vancouver roots and a couple of chances to be a Leaf.

Blake could have received more money in a four-year deal elsewhere, but took less for five with the Leafs, slightly front-loading the first year three years at $5 million, $4.5 million and $4.5 million, then $3 million in the last two to ease cap pressure on the club. Without affixing a retirement date, he hopes he would have the longevity of a Rod Brind'Amour or Chris Chelios.

With much bigger names changing addresses around the NHL the past 48 hours, there is bound to be some gnashing of teeth in beleaguered Leaf Nation. Coming off an exceptionally long week for Hogtown sports, in which the Argos lost their season opener, the Blue Jays were swept by Seattle and the under-20 soccer team flopped, there was positive Leaf news on the free-agent front.

But the onus of being the off-season saviour likely won't be on Blake's shoulders. There is a couple of million in cap space to play with and it's believed Ferguson has resumed efforts to trade Andrew Raycroft, thus removing a potential $2 million part-time goalie from the books. Centre Matt Stajan and one of the prospects on the blueline might be packaged as well for veteran help.

Toronto, which yesterday brought free agent winger Bates Battaglia back at $650,000 for each of the next two years, might take its time with its next move.

"If you recall last year, we didn't get Mike Peca until the middle of July," a club official said. "He turned out to be one of our better players before he (broke his leg)."


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