A comedy of errors

LANCE HORNBY

, Last Updated: 7:33 AM ET

Blow it up, clean it up, pimp it up.

Some or all of the above will be applied to the Maple Leafs in the next six to 12 months as the hierarchy finally responds to three straight years of playoff stagnation, part of the Loserpalooza that began in the late 1960s. Interim general manager Cliff Fletcher will lead the assault, with marching orders to rid the hockey team of dead wood, supposedly handing off to a president/GM free of meddling from the suits at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd.

It could mean a couple more nuclear winters for a franchise too used to watching Stanley Cup parades in other cities, though some would argue its necessity. But as Fletcher said "sometimes you don't need a lot of pieces in place, but you need some important ones. And we're going to change this hockey team."

No part of the on-ice product should escape a makeover.

THE ROSTER

Fletcher shed a little salary by trading Chad Kilger, Hal Gill and Wade Belak at the deadline, but an extensive slash and burn is coming in the days leading to July 1.

The Leafs end the season just under the salary cap at $49 million and one or two buyouts are a certainty if aggressive trade talk doesn't yield results. MLSEL has likely set aside a few million to cut the actual buyout cheques, but the cap hit can't be avoided. A $3 million a year man such as Darcy Tucker would represent a $1 million hit in each of the next six years. So the Leafs might have to live with salaries such as Jason Blake's and even stick it out with $2.2 million back-up goalie Andrew Raycroft for one more season, if not demoting him to the Marlies.

Salaries such as those of Bryan McCabe and Pavel Kubina will be hard to eat, but Fletcher will also follow up on swap talk begun at the deadline; McCabe to an Eastern seaboard team is frequently mentioned, while the Leafs' failure to make the playoffs provides a small summer window to deal Kubina. With some extra salary to play with, further enhanced by next year's projected rise of $3 million to $5 million in the cap, there will be cash to lure at least one quality free agent -- Marian Hossa for instance -- or put it towards Mats Sundin's projected $6 million to $7 million deal.

Ex-GM John Ferguson did leave the team set in goal with Vesa Toskala, while on the back end, if Carlo Colaiacovo stays healthy for even 75% of a season and Anton Stralman keeps improving, the Leafs can pursue a cheaper version of McCabe or Kubina.

Ditto up front where Jiri Tlusty is showing signs of playing full-time and the emergence of checkers Dominic Moore, a UFA, and Boyd Devereaux make a decision on dumping an expensive veteran easier. But there is not yet a first-line centre capable of filling Sundin's skates.

THE FREE AGENTS

This isn't considered to be a great shopping year, because most big names are either expensive, on the wrong side of 30 and in the cases of Brendan Shanahan, Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Teemu Selanne, aren't likely to leave their present contenders to risk a year with the rebuilding Leafs.

Defencemen such as Wade Redden and Brian Campbell will be too pricey here, but a second tier could feature names such as Marek Malik, Mike Commodore, Bret Hedican, Ron Hainsey and ex-Leaf Jason Smith.

Fletcher says he wants a team with more bite next season and forwards such as Jarkko Ruutu, Chris Kelly and Mats Sundin's old antagonist, Bobby Holik, might be available. Oh yes, Sean Avery is a UFA in case the Leafs want to really spice up their game.

THE NEW BOSS

At one time, finding candidates to reshape this famous franchise would be like placing want ads to paint the Sistine Chapel. But years of internecine squabbling in MLSEL regarding its hockey vision, the tangled contractual web left by Ferguson and a success-starved fan base and media horde second guessing every move is not to all tastes.

CEO Richard Peddie's insistence on heading the search committee has brought predictions of more board interference, though he has vowed the new man will get Bryan Colangelo-style autonomy. The flavour of the month is Brian Burke, unless he finally signs an extension with the Anaheim Ducks.

There is already panic in some media circles that the actual interview process hasn't begun, even though some big names won't be clear of present contractual obligations until the summer. Remember how Fletcher and later, coach Pat Burns, unexpectedly fell into the Leafs' laps?

Carolina Hurricanes' owner Peter Karmanos has already said he'd let GM Jim Rutherford interview and even act as go-between with MLSEL, while Doug Armstrong, ex of the Dallas Stars, has declared his candidacy.

Fletcher took a lighter version of the adviser's role that Scotty Bowman turned down last year, and though Bowman might be thinking twice about getting involved, a pair of 70-somethings joining forces to save the Leafs is intriguing, but not likely.

GM Ken Holland won't likely leave Detroit unless Steve Yzerman is fast-tracked, while Colin Campbell and Don Meehan are more likely team president types, hiring a GM to work under them.

THE DRAFT

Toronto is guaranteed its first top 10 pick since Brandon Convery in 1992, with a slim chance to be top five when the NHL lottery is drawn tomorrow.

"This is a good year to be picking 7-13, even as far as down as 20," NHL director of central scouting E.J. McGuire told Sun Media last month. "It does not drop off that much."

Diligent Leafs scouts have had the rug pulled out from under them a few times where the top pick is concerned for deals that cost such stars as Scott Niedermayer, Roberto Luongo and Mike Cammalleri.

But this is not the "draft, schmaft" Fletcher of the 1990s. He's been beating the bushes along with his bird dogs.

THE COACH

The Leafs are very good at finding coaches well suited to taming the Toronto media beast and the insightful, accomodating Paul Maurice is no exception.

But the bottom line is making the playoffs and St. Francis of Assisi would be road kill here without any lucrative mid-April home dates for two or three seasons.

However, Maurice is under contract one more year and if Fletcher is still in charge, or the new man needs time to adjust, there's a case for letting him return. In that scenario, he survives only if the Leafs break from the gate and clean up areas such as special teams and overtime/shootouts. But slow starts the past two years and an overall poor playoff qualifying record are exactly what's put Maurice on the firing line.

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FORTY ONE YEARSOF NOTHIN'

(How the hockey world has unfolded since the Maple Leafs last won the Cup on May 2, 1967)

- To date, 15 other teams have won the Cup, 11 of those starting from expansion. Chicago is the only other Original Six team not to have won.

- Nine teams have won the Cup twice or more.

- The Leafs made the semi-finals five times, but nine other non-Cup winning teams have at least made the final.

- Every Canadian team with the exception of Winnipeg/Phoenix has either won or gone to the final.

- The Leafs have had 18 coaches or co-coaches since '67.

- The Leafs have had 10 general managers, including Punch Imlach and Cliff Fletcher serving two terms.

- The Leafs have had three ownership changes.

- Canada has had nine Prime Ministers.

- The Leafs missed the playoffs 14 of those 41 years.

- Dave Keon played the longest of any of the '67 Cup winners, retiring in 1981-82.

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50 LOOMS ...

With failing hands, the 1967 Maple Leafs agree it's time to pass the Stanley Cup torch.

But after 41 years, no one in blue and white is worthy of taking the handoff. Now after 18 coaches and co-coaches, 10 general managers and yet another facelift in the works, it seems a half-century gap in Cup parades is the next infamous milestone.

The only silver that '67 vets such as Larry Hillman and Larry Jeffrey can see in their future is in their hairline.

"I was hoping 40 years was enough," said Hillman, a rock solid defenceman who played on all four Toronto Cup winners in the 1960s. "Somebody told me that 50 was going to be a nice, round number, but I'm a Leaf fan and I want to see them do well.

"It's harder now to win with 30 teams in the league instead of six. You're gambling all the time when you often have no cards to start with.

"It was too bad that they broke us up after the last Cup, because a group of us, such as Johnny Bower and Dave Keon, had been there for a long time. I used to joke that I put the hex on them in '67, but it has been long enough."

Left winger Jeffrey, who played eight years in the league including two with the Leafs, thinks long-suffering fans might have to endure a few more long seasons.

"No one wants to start over and go through three or four rebuilding plans," he said. "But I would've liked to see them make some moves earlier this year, to dump some people.

"Now, will fans have the patience to wait (to develop a younger lineup)? The Leafs are still thought of as the Yankees of the NHL. But players don't want to come here as much as before and the team turmoil is used as a crutch."

Hillman points out today's schedule is longer, a playoff spot is harder to attain and a Cup team must win four best-of-seven series compared to two in the old days.

"Forty years ago, you could use a lot of veterans because there were only six teams," Hillman said. "The young guys had to listen to the older guys before they could make it. Now, they're so talented coming up from junior and they already have star status."

But he thinks the Leafs can tailor their roster to improve their outlook to some degree for next year.

"I played defence, so I look more at that position," Hillman said. "It doesn't seem like the fit is there with Bryan McCabe anymore and they should try and send him to a team such as the Islanders. But Pavel Kubina has picked up his game."


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