Sundin stall stiffs Cliff

The priority for the Leafs is finding a No. 1 centre to possibly replace Mats Sundin. SUN...

The priority for the Leafs is finding a No. 1 centre to possibly replace Mats Sundin. SUN MEDIA/Dave Thomas

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:19 AM ET

With Mats Sundin likely making all his suitors wait beyond tonight's midnight free-agent deadline, the Maple Leafs will move ahead and concentrate rebuilding efforts on trades and a lesser-known group of free agents in their late 20s.

General manager Cliff Fletcher will keep the porch light on one more night for Sundin, but likes neither of the options left for him by his indecisive captain. If he waits for Sundin's inner Leaf to emerge later this week, he loses out on first- and second-tier National Hockey League free agents. If he tries to replace him, he will risk overpaying in a seller's market for a limited number of impact centres.

"I haven't got the sense entirely that Mats (won't be a Leaf)," Fletcher said last night. "But you have to make other plans."

He had tried to prod Sundin by giving the Montreal Canadiens exclusive rights to negotiate a trade before tonight, a move that would have given the Leafs some kind of return if Sundin signed. But Sundin's agent, J.P. Barry, e-mailed the Montreal media last night to tell them Sundin hadn't made up his mind about playing at all, trying not to offend GM Bob Gainey's efforts to sell the Swede on the division champion Habs.

One report said Gainey was prepared to go as high as two years at $8 million US a season. But Gainey will look elsewhere after 12:01 a.m. tomorrow, while the Leafs' war room plots its own post-Mats strategy.

The Tampa Bay Lightning made some proactive moves late last week to boost their chances, trading with the Pittsburgh Penguins to land the rights to Ryan Malone (signed last night to a $31.5-million, seven-year contract) and Gary Roberts.

GETTING LATE

"It's a little late in the game before July 1 for us to get involved in something such as that," Fletcher said.

Wingers Jaromir Jagr, Marian Hossa, Markus Naslund and defenceman Brian Campbell are tomorrow's UFA headliners.

The priority for the Leafs is finding a No. 1 centre, unless they plan to move Nik Antropov over and surround him with star wingers or give a heck of a promotion to Matt Stajan.

"The number of top first- and second-line guys at that position is very limited this year," Fletcher said. "But it doesn't mean you can't look at fixing it through other ways."

He meant a trade, but the Leafs couldn't get anything in the days leading up to buying out Darcy Tucker and Andrew Raycroft, and cutting Kyle Wellwood.

As of today, Fletcher's biggest bargaining chip, defenceman Bryan McCabe, would immediately invoke his no-movement clause, even though the Leafs are trying every civil way of convincing him to start anew elsewhere.

Failing a trade, Fletcher will go back to a second group of free agents for help on forward, defence and backup goaltending.

Money won't be such a hindrance in those cases with the Leafs having around $15 million to spend towards the cap, but the problem then becomes selling new players on the Leafs, with no Sundin, poor playoff chances and the only guarantee being lots of grief from fans and media ready to flip the calendar to 42 years since a Stanley Cup.

"You go after the players who want longer deals, who are big on being part of the rebuilding here," Fletcher said.


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