Leafs just not measuring up

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:22 AM ET

John Ferguson and Cliff Fletcher come from different hockey eras, but agreed on this: The Maple Leafs need to be tougher, especially around the net.

Last summer, Ferguson and a few other general managers, sought to steal a page from the Cup-champion Ducks, striving for success down low with size and scoring. Ferguson first headed off Nik Antropov's free agency by bringing back the big Kazakh to play with 6-foot-somethings Mats Sundin and Alexei Ponikarovsky.

He hoped they'd join Chad Kilger, Mark Bell, Matt Stajan, Darcy Tucker and Jason Blake in making the Leafs harder to play against and maybe produce five to six 20-goal shooters.

"The will and the skill," Ferguson said at the time of his vision, wryly noting it was a much more catchy team slogan than 'The Passion That Unites Us All'.

But with the exception of a few Leafs, both attributes have been lacking as they face a third season out of the playoffs. Heading into tonight, Sundin and Antropov are the only ones to clear 20 goals. Injuries have taken a toll and some of the hardest two-way workers turned out to be the unbilled Boyd Devereaux, Dominic Moore and Alex Steen.

At the trade deadline, interim GM Fletcher dumped three of the team's biggest players -- Kilger, Belak and 6-foot-7 defenceman Hal Gill -- mostly to get draft picks, but also figuring he or a successor can improve in that department.

"There are a number of ways we can get better and one is by adding more bite to our game," Fletcher said yesterday as the Leafs took off for Boston. "I don't think it will be that hard. Once you have an idea of what you're looking for, there are a lot of players out there."

The NHL template is Sean Avery and though he's about a million bucks apart in talks with the New York Rangers, it's a stretch to think the potential free agent will come here after dissing his home and native land in November, never mind dressing beside Blake.

Fletcher was careful to say he wasn't going to scout the Federal League for the next coming of the Hanson Brothers, nor was he tarring all Leafs with one brush for their response in Tuesday's 4-1 loss to the Devils that exposed their weaknesses.

"Jersey has a great goalie in Martin Brodeur, then they sit back and wait for your mistakes," Fletcher said. "All I'm saying is that we could use some more aggressiveness.

"We've given a lot of chances to players from the Marlies so far and we might give more a chance as the season goes on. Hopefully, the Marlies go on a long playoff run and we get to see more of what those players can do. And obviously next year, the slate is clean."

Coach Paul Maurice defended the physical response of his team, especially when the trades took big men out of the lineup and they still managed a 2-2 post-deadline record.

"Poni and Devereaux (the latter is hurt) add to that physical element, but we've never really been built to run over people," Maurice said.

However, players such as Kyle Wellwood, Jiri Tlusty and Bell must show different sides to their game in the next reincarnation of the team.


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