Antropov centre of attention

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:43 AM ET

Nik Antropov could go from a nobody to No. 1 centre in less than a year.

The 6-foot-6 Kazakh is aware of the Maple Leafs' proposed training camp experiment, and though he's not practising ceremonial faceoffs while Mats Sundin is still in the mix, Antropov won't turn down the chance to be the first line's engine.

"It would take a while to get used to playing there again," Antropov said yesterday. "I heard from my friends last week that (general manager Cliff Fletcher and coach Ron Wilson) were talking about me at centre. We'll see. A lot can happen in camp with the forward lines."

A natural centre who switched to left wing with Dynamo Moscow in 1998-99, Antropov has seen some time in the middle with the Leafs.

But since 2000, he has been too concerned just with staying healthy, never mind keeping a set position.

His future as a Leaf was so much in doubt a few years ago because of his health that he took a cheap contract before proving himself worthy of his first-round draft pick status.

Now, after his current $2.15-million US deal is up in June, he could be a much sought-after free agent.

Last week, Fletcher and Wilson acknowledged the foot dragging by Sundin and the lack of affordable free-agent centres likely pointed to Antropov getting first dibs on the job. The only centre Fletcher pursued was Canadiens' prospect Mikhail Grabovski, who has just 27 games NHL experience.

Meanwhile, Antropov's 56 points, 12 power-play goals and 72 games played, all career highs, made an impression on Wilson, who was used to the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Joe Thornton setting the table at centre in San Jose.

Wilson might put Antropov with another big man, Alexei Ponikarovsky, keeping two-thirds of his predecessor Paul Maurice's first line intact.

'NICE CHEMISTRY'

"Alexei and I had nice chemistry when I was a centre in Dynamo (where Ponikarovsky played left), but it's up to Ron," Antropov said. "And we don't know about Mats. Hopefully, he comes back, not because he's the first-line centre, but because we need him."

Sundin might take until August to decide to return to the Leafs, or retire or take more money with another team. Both the Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks have said in recent days that Sundin's stated desire for more time to think does not mean he has rejected their generous contract overtures.


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