Rebuilding gems are so near, yet so far

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:35 AM ET

GUELPH -- Three Maple Leafs scouts are standing in the corner of the Sleeman Centre on a Sunday afternoon, with the prizes so evident and so available before their very eyes.

There is Steven Stamkos battling in the corner against Drew Doughty -- the consensus No. 1 and No. 2 picks of this year's National Hockey League draft -- and, for a brief instant, there is both belief and hope for a Maple Leafs future.

There is belief, yet doubt. That is the dilemma as the NHL trade deadline approaches tomorrow, as Mats Sundin's future remains forever debatable, with the Leafs this close and this far away from kids such as Stamkos and Doughty, the leading gems of a rich junior hockey market.

"We're going to be prepared no matter where we draft," said Dave Morrison, the Leafs' junior scouting chief, standing alongside European scout Thommie Bergman and Western scout Clint McConnachie. "We're making sure we're ready. That's why we have three scouts here today.

"With the position we're in (in the standings), we're spending a lot of time looking at the high-end kids."

The highest-end kids played against each other here yesterday until Stamkos' afternoon ended with a diving penalty that resulted in a 10-minute misconduct. He left the game with the lead, his Sarnia Sting was defeated in the final minutes without him.

Doughty, the Guelph Storm defenceman, is almost the opposite of Stamkos. He is that new breed of vision-first, pass-first, defenceman every successful team requires. Stamkos plays at a speed beyond those around him. Doughty plays at an intellectual level beyond those in similar colours.

The two stood out yesterday, if only for the way they battled against each other. Fighting for the win. Knowing the building was full of scouts, and not just Leafs scouts. Battling, as friends and former Team Canada teammates, to see who will end up drafted first in June.

Ideally, the Leafs should have a shot at one of them. Had Sundin, for example, chosen to waive his no-trade arrangement, and Anaheim stepped up with Edmonton's first-round pick as an exchange of some kind, then the Leafs could possibly have had a shot at both.

So here's the rub now. They may end up with neither. The Leafs are actually playing decent hockey when it is in their best interest to do the opposite. Sundin maintains he isn't going anywhere, so there won't be a second first-round pick, especially a potential lottery pick, in any deal.

In the end, the Leafs could play themselves out of a shot at the first or second selection and miss out on Stamkos and Doughty. They could get little at the trade deadline and find themselves trapped beneath the $40-plus million in salaries committed for next season.

"If they keep winning," said Morrison, the scout, "then we look at the next group available. We will know everything we can know about the top 15 in the draft."

Years ago, without any real proof, the Pittsburgh Penguins tanked the final month or so of the regular season to end up with Mario Lemieux. New Jersey didn't tank. The Devils got Kirk Muller.

One of them got an all-time great.

HAMSTRUNG

Look where the Leafs are now. They haven't drafted a star of any kind in the first round since maybe Vinny Damphousse, if you consider him a star, and that was more than 20 years ago. Wendel Clark, as beloved as he was, happened to be an all-time favourite, not an all-time great.

With the Leafs this close to a Stamkos or a Doughty -- and yet this far -- it has to be so terribly frustrating for Leafs fans to contemplate what is at stake right now and how Cliff Fletcher is hamstrung by veterans who are holding on to their address, hindering their favourite hockey club in the process.

"It's hard not to pay attention to what's going on with the Leafs," said the engaging Stamkos. "It's my favourite team. Like a lot of people, I'll be watching the trade deadline show on Tuesday to see what's going on."

When asked what he would do if he was Sundin, he said: "It's up to him, he's earned that right."

Doughty is not the diehard Leafs fan Stamkos is, but his family is. Still, he takes notice of where the Leafs are in the standings, what the possibilities include.

"If Mats loves it in Toronto, he should stay," he said. "If I was him, that's what I would do."

Now that Sundin stays and plays, the Leafs may well lose their opportunity for either Stamkos or Doughty. There is reason for hope, reason to be exasperated. Some legacy for Sundin.

After all these years, all that good will, he may go down as the captain who left his team without a future.


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