In the Nik of time

STEVE SIMMONS, Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:51 AM ET

After all that has gone down -- the injuries, the booing, the criticism and the trades that almost were -- here is big Nik Antropov, at 28, ready to finally be what he never has been before.

The opportunity is that rich, that unlikely and that apparent.

All he has to do is something new. All he has to do is deliver. And, if he does, he becomes the go-to guy for the Maple Leafs. The offensive star. The presence on the power play.

And dare we say this? The leading scorer.

Antropov is untying his skates in the Leafs dressing room yesterday afternoon, smiling as he tries to come up with the right answer, something he has been searching his entire career for.

He is well informed that there is no one to take Mats Sundin's place up front. He is well informed that he began training camp tabbed by management as the only "top six" forward on the team. He is well informed that at a chiselled 6-foot-6 with hands of butter, he will be given opportunities he never has been handed before. It's his job to lose.

"I don't know what to say," said Antropov, knowing what to say, just not saying it. "I'm not coming into this camp with an attitude, like: 'Oh, I know I'm in the lineup for sure.' That's not my personality. I'm not the kind of guy to say: 'I'm this and this and this.' I'm a low-key guy. Yes, it's a great opportunity for me but I'm going to work hard for it."

Then he can't help but reach for the hockey cliches. "I'm just going to show my best, work hard and compete and see what happens."

He doesn't sound much like the star-in-waiting the Leafs need him to be, but then again he never has looked the part, either.

Antropov's nine years with the Leafs -- yes, he has been here that long -- have not been uneventful. He has played 446 games in Toronto and missed 197. He has had maybe two decent seasons in between all the unfinished works of art. He has bounced from line to line, position to position, from favour to disfavour, and now he is just about the last man standing.

The only Leaf capable of big offensive numbers.

"There have been signs of greatness but a lack of consistency," said new coach Ron Wilson, who has had just a few days of watching Antropov to understand how much he could provide if he does what he has yet to do. There are no health concerns, no ice-time concerns. There is no lack of confidence on the part of either Wilson or Big Nik.

"Mats could create a lot out of nothing," Wilson said. "We need someone who can do that. I'm going to try to get Nik to take it to another level."

Pat Quinn believed in Antropov, but not enough to prevent him from trying to trade the forward on at least three occasions. One deal was for Eric Lindros, way back when he was still a player of consequence. Another was for Vinny Lecavalier, before he became a player of consequence. Antropov may not have had many admirers in Toronto but he had many outside the city.

"I'm not looking at the past," said Antropov, who is quick to point out that twice in free agency he signed in Toronto, rather than go elsewhere. "What happened, happened. I'm not going to stir the pot again.

"I've had my ups and downs. I've had a couple of bad seasons, a couple of good seasons. I heard all the rumours. And then you go back to normal life. That's the way it is in this market. If I wasn't mentally ready for this, I would be playing elsewhere.

"But I love the city. I love everything about hockey in this city. I love the atmosphere."

There is a chance the city may love him back, either as a centre or a winger. He has that much to offer. The question, as always: Can he deliver?


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