Just not good enough

Leafs GM John Ferguson and Player Development Advisor Doug Gilmour chat during second period action...

Leafs GM John Ferguson and Player Development Advisor Doug Gilmour chat during second period action last night. SUN MEDIA/Greg Henkenhaf

KEN FIDLIN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:06 AM ET

For some strange reason, there is an unshakable myth at the core of all things Maple Leaf. The myth, which seems to have deep roots in the MLSEL board room, says that the Leafs can never be seen to be rebuilding.

No matter how badly the team stumbles and bumbles, no matter that the Stanley Cup drought now stands at 40 years, no matter that there exists no light at the end of the tunnel, the "R" word must never see the light of day.

The argument goes that Toronto fans would never put up with such a concept but there is absolutely no evidence to support that claim. Toronto fans may be loyal to a fault, but they are not delusional. Okay, not all of them anyway.

What's worse? An admission that the organization is not good enough, followed by a pledge to rebuild over a number of years? Or to continue down a path of fantasy that merely making the playoffs is some sort of lofty aspiration.

It's not as if there's not recent history to support blowing things up and building it right from the ground up. Look at the Philadelphia Flyers, who hit rock bottom two years ago and have recycled their entire team into a contender.

Or how about the New York Rangers, who used the lockout to unload most of their deadwood and have been a rebuilding power ever since?

The Maple Leafs had the same window of opportunity but missed the mark by a country mile.

Believing that there would be no salary cap, they re-signed Ed Belfour to a ridiculous contract. And then, when the new collective bargaining agreement was signed, the Leafs were left at the gate in the flurry of deals that followed.

Now, two years on, the Leafs are hamstrung by bloated contracts handed out to Bryan McCabe and Pavel Kubina, as well as their stubborn refusal to realize some rebuilding value from their one true asset, Mats Sundin.

Last year, when Philadelphia decided to trade Peter Forsberg, bad foot and all, they got two good young players in Scottie Upshall and Ryan Parent, along with two draft choices they turned into Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen in subsequent trades. Nice haul for a guy who was injured.

Makes you wonder what a contender would shell out for a healthy Sundin. Presuming the Leafs aren't still pretending that Sundin is crucial to their future when trade deadline rolls around, he could be a terrific pickup for a Stanley Cup contender as well as the starting point for a roster turnaround in Toronto.

There might also be some good news for the Leafs in a proposal being floated by Anaheim GM Brian Burke that would allow teams to trade players while retaining a portion of their salary, outside the salary cap. It's a collective bargaining agreement change that needs NHL board approval but Burke believes it would open up the trade logjam that now exists.

It would make it possible for an over-priced player, like Kubina, to be dealt while not taking back another enormous salary. There would be limits on how much and how often a team could use the mechanism but it would certainly help a financially-strong team like Toronto.

For the past 15 years, the Leafs have made money hand over fist off the backs of their loyal following, occasionally dabbling on the edges of contention, only to fall short, taking steps backward instead of forward.

EXPECTATIONS SOARED

The last time anyone took a realistic approach to managing this Leaf team was back when Cliff Fletcher came on board in 1991. It was his intent to rebuild from bottom to top over a matter of years. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the blockbuster trade that brought Doug Gilmour to Toronto early in 1992 had such a dramatic effect that the rebuilding job really didn't get done because expectations soared.

As happy as he was about suddenly being in Cup contention, at least for two years, Fletcher always maintained that it would have been better -- long term -- had things not gone so well, so quickly.

Now the Leafs are in desperate need, not just of a facelift, but of major reconstructive surgery. It can be done, but only if they have the will.


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