Juggling lines just part of today's NHL

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 7:54 AM ET

Who's with Mats Sundin? It's the one question that has permeated conversations throughout the Leafs training camp.

Last night it was Jason Blake and Alex Steen. But the real answer is as likely to be Anyone and Everyone.

"We'll use the last few pre-season games to look at different combinations," coach Paul Maurice said. "The guys are used to (switching partners) because they've done so much of it."

It is all part of the modern NHL,where coaches put on the best nightly juggling acts this side of Barnum & Bailey. A nice centring pass by Steen resulted in a Sundin goal just 1:21 into the game, but by the third period Alexei Ponikarovsky was back with Sundin and Blake.

Line combinations once were sacrosanct. The Production Line in Detroit or the French Connection in Buffalo. Toronto had Sittler, Thompson and Lanny. In Los Angeles, if you saw Marcel Dionne, you saw Charlie Simmer and Dave Taylor. Today, even

No. 1 line combinations have the life expectancy of a Hollywood marriage. "It's not for me to worry about. My chance to work with (Mats and ) Blakey is tonight," Steen said yesterday morning. "We worked on things before camp together but everyone knows there'll be a lot of juggling."

Nobody moved Alex Delvecchio because Gordie Howe wasn't scoring. The Dogs of War line with Wayne Cashman, Phil Esposito and Ken Hodge survived nine seasons in Boston but, said Blake: "The game has changed. You've got to win. Players want to win, GMs have to win, organizations want to win. You play such a long season. If one guy's not going the coach is going to switch it up."

Ponikarovsky, who grew up in the Ukraine, says the juggling is something European players have to get used to. "(In Russia) coaches are more conservative and don't switch lines. But here everybody has a high skill level so if one guy is tired or not ready coaches are quick to change and try to find a spark."

In our age of instant gratification where lunch comes through a takeout window, supper from a microwave, vacations from credit cards and Vesa Toskala gets booed two periods into his debut, coaches don't have time to out-wait slump, injury or inertia.

There are exceptions. The Senators have Heatley, Spezza & Alfredsson ready to be engraved into team nostalgia. But reality is conspiring to make the concept rarer than a Stanley Cup sighting on Yonge St. The salary cap and free agency has resulted in more player movement. That brought Blake to Toronto, breaking a combination that made him a 40-goal scorer on Long Island. "Obviously last year was special. I played with Chris Simon and AlexeiYashin. To work well, all three guys need to feel comfortable. I did feel we had that."

WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN

It could've been the start of something beautiful -- like the Long Island Lighting Co. of Clark Gillies, Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy. Instead, he's starting over -- and it could be with any Tom, Dick or Mats.

"With the salary cap we've got about a 30% turnover rate so that makes it tough to keep lines together," said Wade Belak, who in six Toronto winters has played just about every position that doesn't involve a goalie mask. "Guys have a good season and sign elsewhere for more money. You just get to know guys and then they're gone. It's the new NHL."

The best unit he ever played on? "I'm always on the same line. The fourth!" deadpanned Belak, then breaking into a grin he recalled playing in Colorado with Adam Deadmarsh and Joe Sakic. "I scored my first NHL goal -- the game winner. I also assisted on the game-tying goal."

The combination lasted one game. "Two days later they sent me down," said Belak, laughing.

But, for skill players there is something to be said for familiarity. "It definitely helps if you play with someone for a while. It's physical and it's psychological," said Blake.

"If you look at Vincent Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis; they're both elite players and still would be okay without each other. But I also think they've played with each other so much they've hit a comfort zone."

Meantime, on the Leafs' comfort zone, the Under Construction sign is still up.


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