Doubts abound for Leafs

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:08 AM ET

Take a good look around tonight, the Maple Leafs team that opens the season against the Ottawa Senators likely won't close with the same cast.

Viewed through the eyes of a LeafsTV subscriber, that means the injured Kyle Wellwood, Carlo Colaiacovo and the suspended Mark Bell all return to make a positive impact, augmented by a trade deadline pick-up or two for a playoff run.

Why not Vesa Toskala and Andrew Raycroft meshing like Sawchuk and Bower? Perhaps Jason Blake becomes Mats Sundin's long-lost scoring winger, jolly saint Nik Antropov fills his hockey stocking with goals, while Tomas Kaberle practices a Norris Trophy speech for NHL awards night.

But if you're among those who've lost count of the Stanley Cup drought at 40, bristle at other teams that started from scratch to win titles and you don't relish a third non-playoff year (making it five without a post-season series win), then change of a different kind will come.

As John Ferguson, Paul Maurice and Mats Sundin man their battle stations tonight, it's possible all three won't survive another spring on the sidelines. You have to go back to the late 1980s to find that kind of upheaval, during the last days of Harold Ballard.

Kudos to GM Ferguson for bona fide attempts to fix a depth problem in goal acquiring Toskala, though this trade and others have cost him the draft picks he was so careful to guard at the start of his tenure.

Operating on the last year of his contract, he could lose the support of MLSEL president Richard Peddie, who already put out feelers for a senior advisor before backing off in mid-summer. Ferguson insists this team is on the right track, led by its youth, but he could be gone before Jiri Tlusty, Justin Pogge and others come of age.

Maurice still has time on his deal, but any incoming executive would presumably look for his own coach, given Maurice would then be at four years without playoffs in Toronto and Carolina.

Like Ferguson, Maurice insists he doesn't fear working on a highwire. He already has said the Leafs will make the playoffs and contend for the Cup, despite scant roster turnover from last year.

"My three best financial years came on the last year of my contract," Maurice said yesterday, with a touch of defiance.

Then there's the long-suffering Sundin, who yesterday gave another variation of the pre-season speech he's made the past 10 years as captain. If the Leafs can stay healthy, play to potential on offence and make headway in their division and conference, they will not only make the playoffs, but maybe a valuable home-ice seed that provides April-May momentum.

But Sundin, too, is on a one-way contract, a magnet for media controversy if the Leafs are out in the second half. He insisted agreeing to such a short-term deal helps Toronto out of a cumulative salary cap bind, but it's also a window to close out his NHL career with a Cup contender should he choose to do so at the deadline.

A fast start, taking advantage of a friendly home schedule, could erase plenty of doubts, but back-to-back games against the Sens is a tall order. The Leafs went through fits and starts during their eight exhibition games, in which no No. 1 goalie emerged and no newcomers turned heads.

Now the Leafs twice meet their biggest rivals, who love to kick sand in their face during regular season and are looking to create their own identity after losing the Cup final.

"I'm looking at our first four games," Maurice said. "(After Ottawa), we have Carolina, a better team this year, and then Montreal. We've got a difficult start to our season. But it represents a great opportunity."

Let the games begin.


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