Crunch time for Leafs

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:05 AM ET

A week today, the course will be charted for the 2008-09 Maple Leafs.

While they're hardly Canada's Team anymore after missing the playoffs three years running, the end of Canada Day should determine their intent to take their lumps this year, try to fast track a turnaround or adopt something of both the reload and rebuild philosophies and hope for the best.

For the first time since 1995, they'll also be planning for life without Mats Sundin, who is headed to the Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings or Florida Panthers, depending on who you believe.

While Montreal now has exclusive rights, Sportsnet reported last night that the Rangers actually were first to be given the chance by Toronto general manager Cliff Fletcher.

"There was nothing to do with anyone being first in line," Fletcher said earlier in the day. "It was well known that (Montreal) was a team interested in him and I made a decision (to try and re-coup a player or draft pick before July 1)." The Rangers will be prominent if a Habs deal isn't reached by July 1 and there's no hint of a snap decision by the captain.

The contract buyout window for big-ticket Leafs, such as Darcy Tucker, closes Monday night as well and trade talk will culminate by then. Sundin's departure would mean at least $7-million US in cap dollars to pursue one or two free agents.

At the top of the UFA list next week would be Sundin, Marian Hossa and defenceman Brian Campbell, while those slightly more affordable from the Leafs perspective include forward Ryan Malone and defenceman Ron Hainsey. The Leafs also can get bold and sign a restricted free agent, as long as it's between $1.3 million and $2.6 million a year, costing only a second-rounder.

Unfortunately, this isn't an attractive place for anyone seeking a quick Cup ring. Dire warnings that the Leafs are in for a storm similar to their talent-thin period of the 1980s have been heard for months and player agents aren't deaf.

But Fletcher and coach Ron Wilson, for all their talk of patience, are too used to winning teams to accept missing the playoffs without a fight.

Besides, Fletcher can't possibly go to boss Richard Peddie, the board of directors and those who pay mega-bucks for season's tickets, and tell them Matt Stajan and Dominic Moore are his top centres and that he'll patch the defence with Marlie callups.

"There's a lot of debate in the community -- go younger, go older -- but the message we send the fans will be in the best interests of the Leafs," Fletcher said.

BLOW IT UP

"How often have people told us we should blow up the team? Some people out there will be in favour of that, too."

Fletcher was asked about recent reports that the root of Sundin's wish to leave is that he wouldn't stamp out trade speculation for the captain in the days leading up to the Feb. 26 deadline.

"I don't believe that to be true," Fletcher said. "Nothing unprofessional has occurred in conversations with his agent (J.P. Barry).

"If Mats goes to Montreal, he goes (and the Leafs get a player or pick), if he comes back, that's fine, but we can't be left at the starting gate (on July 1)."

Reached last night, Barry denied any feud with the Leafs, though most think his client's leaving is now fait accompli.

"I'm literally just waiting for him to give me a call with his decision," Barry said, adding that he is sensitive to the Leafs' need-to-know-as-soon-as-possible stance.

Trades and buyouts are easier said than done, with no-movement clauses to be taken into account with the former and the cap hit coming into play for the latter.

Wilson is expected to confirm Rob Zettler and Tim Hunter his assistant coaches this week. Both worked for him in San Jose.


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