Leafs' draft dream not dead

Coach Paul Maurice speaks to the ranks during practice at Lakeshore Lions Arena, Monday, March 17,...

Coach Paul Maurice speaks to the ranks during practice at Lakeshore Lions Arena, Monday, March 17, 2008. (Sun Media/Greg Henkenhaf)

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 6:28 PM ET

The final grains of sand are trickling through the hour glass of hope for the beleaguered Maple Leafs, who are fully aware that the clock has all but struck midnight on their post-season aspirations.

Mats Sundin has gone down. So, too, has Nik Antropov. And yet, coach Paul Maurice will not give up the fight, even if he must go down with his own ship.

Asked yesterday if he was ready to insert bench-friendly goalie Andrew Raycroft into the lineup tonight against New York Islanders, Maurice may as well have borrowed a page from the legendary Winston Churchill and said: "We shall never surrender."

"That's such a defeatist question," Maurice said, responding to the suggestion that he use his backups. "I think we are going to play our best forwards, defencemen and goalie because we're still in it."

Unfortunately, two of his best forwards -- Sundin and Antropov -- won't. Nor are they shoo-ins to be back Friday in Buffalo against the Sabres or Saturday versus the rival Senators in Ottawa. That's 129 total points siphoned out of an offensively challenged lineup that is missing its two top scorers.

Maurice, as has been documented, is in a no-win situation. Without knowing the identity of the incoming president/general manager who will decide if he keeps his job, the personable coach needs to rack up the wins, either to impress the board of directors or to boost the won-lost record on his resume.

Unfortunately for him, an Isles victory likely will be the final dagger for a Leafs team that comes in trailing the eighth-place Philadelphia Flyers by six points with only eight regular season games remaining after tonight.

Of course, many would consider an Isles win to be a positive for the Leafs in terms of drafting position.

The Leafs find themselves mired in 25th place in the overall standings with 74 points. A victory would bring the No. 26 Isles to within one point of Toronto with 73.

Falling one spot in the standings is key here.

Since the team that wins the draft lottery can move up no more than four positions in the selection order, only teams ranked 26th and lower have a shot at the No. 1 overall pick. And the guy who stands to be plucked first -- Sarnia Sting superstar Steve Stamkos -- has made it clear he would love to be a Leaf.

The Stamkos-to-Toronto dream, which appeared to have disintegrated during the Leafs' recent hot streak, is gaining momentum again, although the basement-dwelling Los Angeles Kings and their dismal 62-point total remain the odds-on favourites to land him.

Nevertheless the draft, according to one NHL amateur scout polled yesterday, is said to be a strong one "with the top seven guys pretty much all having potential to make an impact in the pros at some point."

It is no coincidence that interim general manager Cliff Fletcher spent his Sunday in St. Catharines watching two of those blue-chip prospects, defencemen Alex Pietrangelo of the Niagara IceDogs and Zach Bogosian of the Peterborough Petes.

In the likely event the Leafs are booted out of the post-season dance, there still will be many intriguing questions looming over the team over the final 18 days of the regular season.

Given the volatile nature of groin injuries, will Sundin be back this season? All involved parties are optimistic of his return, but keep in mind that if he doesn't because of a recurrence of the ailment, he may have played his last game as a Leaf. This is a guy who will seriously contemplate retirement this summer.

How much will Andrew Raycroft play? A solid stretch run, the optimists claim, might increase his trade value, which one scout said is "nill" right now. Cynics, meanwhile, are pulling for Raycroft to gobble up minutes, feeling he is the Leafs' best shot at losing and getting a better slot in the draft order.

Will Alex Steen continue to thrive at centre, a position he seems very comfortable in? Can youngsters such as Jiri Tlusty, Anton Stralman and Jeremy Williams impress Fletcher enough in the final nine games to be considered potential building blocks for the future.

And, for that matter, what of Maurice?

The clock is ticking.


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