Leafs need elite player -- and muscle

DEAN MCNULTY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:52 AM ET

Count New York Rangers legend Harry Howell and Detroit Red Wings senior vice-president Jimmy Devellano among those who think the Maple Leafs are a much better team this season.

The pair, however, disagrees on how far the team can go in an 82-game National Hockey League schedule.

Howell and Devellano were guests at a gathering of friends in Markham yesterday who have been meeting for more than 10 years for lunch and a hockey discussion at Shopsy's that always includes a healthy portion of what the Boys in Blue are doing at the Air Canada Centre.

The current Leafs lineup, Howell said, is one that should put the team in contention for a playoff spot this season, but he is concerned the lack of a bonafide star and a genuine enforcer will make the locals easy prey in any first-round playoff matchup.

"You need a star player who can change the course of a game all by himself," the Hall of Fame defenceman said. "Right now, the Leafs don't have such a player with Mats Sundin still sitting out."

Howell also believes that new head coach Ron Wilson needs a tough guy who can play a regular shift like Georges Laraque of the Montreal Canadiens.

"Every team needs that kind of player and if you don't have one, don't expect to go far," the 75-year-old Hamilton native said.

Devellano said that in the NHL of 2008 teams can get along just fine without an enforcer.

"The league is changing," he said. "You need all of your players to be able to stay on the ice and contribute on the scoresheet in ways other than penalty minutes."

NEED CRACKDOWN

Both men did have a meeting of minds on the subject of the growing number of violent checks to the head that have plagued the league the past few years.

"Look, the players are bigger, stronger and faster than they have ever been," Devellano said. "The league is aware of head injuries and is actively seeking solutions."

The most recent case, in which Carolina Hurricanes rookie Brandon Sutter suffered a serious concussion after being levelled by New York Islanders centre Doug Weight, has many observers calling for stiffer penalties for head hunters and an end to the instigator rule, which Howell said takes away the protection stars could count on in his era.

"Nobody took liberties with Darryl Sittler when Dan Maloney was on the ice," he said of the former Leafs captain and his rugged sidekick.

Howell and Devellano said the Sutter incident was different. Both felt the Weight hit was not an attempt to injure.


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