Expensive escape hatch

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:58 AM ET

With Cliff Fletcher apparently in for a tough fight getting any high-priced Maple Leafs to waive their no-trade clauses, the club could be resorting to a buyout or two.

It was suggested by a panel on Hockey Night In Canada on Saturday that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. already has put aside millions to clear the decks should interim general manager Fletcher's hands be tied at the trade deadline on Feb. 26.

"That's obviously an option open to all National Hockey League teams," Richard Peddie, CEO/president of MLSEL, said yesterday. "But we aren't focusing on that right now."

While Mats Sundin is reaching the end of a one-year contract and seems to be leaning toward re-signing as opposed to waiving his no-trade clause, forward Darcy Tucker and defencemen Pavel Kubina, Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle all indicate they will dig in their heels if asked to go.

The idea of demoting players or reducing ice time also has been raised, but Fletcher has said he won't demean veterans in such a way. But if he can't perform any of those hocus-pocus, salary-cap-relief moves that Lou Lamoriello did in New Jersey a couple of years ago, that leaves buyouts. It's an expensive escape hatch, but one that must be considered for one or two Leafs.

Players ages 26 to 35, the age group where the Leafs in question fit in, are subject to having their deals bought out at season's end for two-thirds the value of the contract. The catch is that in addition to paying off the player, there is a continued cap hit for twice the remaining length of the contract.

That gets tricky and expensive when you get into the $3 million US a year that Tucker is due through 2010-11, as well as Kubina's $5 million in each of the next two seasons and McCabe's final three seasons of $6.15 million, $4.15 million and $4.15 million.

Fletcher continues his assessment of the Leafs, which could take on a different path at the end of this week. If the Leafs can't get past the Florida Panthers tonight, one of three teams sitting directly ahead of them with 53 points, then there's little hope of getting past President's Trophy aspirants such as Montreal on Thursday and Detroit on Saturday.

"I might (present something to the MLSEL board) on this subject or that subject, or move ahead on my own," Fletcher said yesterday.

An 0-for-3 week certainly would end talk of a playoff spot once and for all.

"We're approaching Florida like we did Ottawa (a 4-2 win on Saturday)," coach Paul Maurice said. "We don't want to spend a lot of time looking at the base of the mountain, you want to start walking it."

There's a chance the Leafs could get back McCabe (broken hand) and winger Alex Steen (shoulder) as early as the Montreal game. McCabe, out since mid-December, took part in his first full practice yesterday and said his bread-and-butter slapshot was "about 75% to 80%" and that he can play with extra padding in his glove.

Both will be re-evaluated tomorrow morning and by Saturday's game against Detroit, forward Nik Antropov's three-game league suspension will be up.


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