Leafs hoping for July 1 fireworks

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:47 PM ET

The timing of the NHL's Canada Day fireworks never seems to work out for Maple Leafs, at least in recent years.

In the late 1990s, by the time the age limits for unrestricted free agents became low enough for teams to consider moves, frugal chairman Steve Stavro often refused to open the vault. Then there was old-school general manager Pat Quinn, who thought he was close enough to a Cup without paying what he thought were inflated opening-day prices.

John Ferguson Jr. was in charge when the salary cap era began and sought to be a man of action on July 1. But fast-tracked signings such as Pavel Kubina, Hal Gill and Jason Blake never had the desired impact where a playoff spot was concerned. Part of Ferguson's problem in luring bigger fish was some payroll tied up in pre-cap contracts and an uncertainty about the Leaf management structure.

Cliff Fletcher, who at one time would have said "budget, schmudget" had the market been this wide open, over-paid for Jeff Finger in 2008, but did get some use from Niklas Hagman. Which brings us to Brian Burke.

His first haul in 2009 netted Mike Komisarek, Francois Beauchemin, Jonas Gustavsson, Colton Orr and Rickard Wallin. Beauchemin eventually went back to Anaheim, netting a nice trade return in Joffrey Lupul and former first rounder defenceman Jake Gardiner. Wallin went home, Orr was a legit enforcer before getting hurt last season, but the jury is still out on two of the players Burke was highest on, Komisarek and The Monster.

Last summer was a lean one, but the Leafs did get Colby Armstrong in their cart on opening day. missed on Brett Lebda, then came upon the productive Clarke MacArthur just before training camp.

Excitement about this Friday is also tempered by a lacklustre shopping catalogue, at least to fill the Leafs' gaping hole at first-line centre. It's just Toronto's luck to be sitting on close to $19 million US in cap space.

The betting is that star attraction Brad Richards goes to a team with more upside and less scrutiny than the Leafs, perhaps the Buffalo Sabres. There are also some minor medical problems that have to be cleared up before any serious suitor throws between $6.5 and $7 million-plus a year at the 31-year-old. Beyond that, names such as Brooks Laich have been re-signed.

If Burke was serious a week ago when he said he wouldn't trade an asset for negotiation rights prior to Friday, then he'll put his cash on the table with everyone else and see if the right player buys into the Leaf re-build. Or go the trade route as his last resort.

RED LIGHT AT HHOF

You can already hear the horn honking and sense the road rage that will define the car jam for the 2012 Hockey Hall Of Fame inductions.

With the exception of slam dunk Ed Belfour, those admitted Wednesday can be thankful they won't have to jostle with the incoming field, led by Joe Sakic, Brendan Shanahan, Gary Roberts, Claude Lemieux and trailing a bit behind, the Cup-less Mats Sundin, Jeremy Roenick and Curtis Joseph.

The selections of Doug Gilmour and Joe Nieuwendyk were immediately challenged by supporters of five-time 50-goal man Pavel Bure and 1,400-point forward Adam Oates. Another strong case will be made that it's time to honour a multi Cup-winning defensive forward such as Guy Carbonneau, or to give a European some due to remind the world that the Hall is not an exclusive NHL domain.

This was the first time in 30 years there was no builder admitted, which meant another year for arguing on behalf of late coach Pat Burns. Also gathering renewed steam is a push for two-time Cup winner Fred Shero, who was not just a coach, but an innovator. University of Alberta legend Clare Drake was also discussed by this year's committee.

RUSSIAN POCKET ROCKET RAGES

Valeri Bure, already upset his brother Pavel was overlooked again by the Hall this week, took a swing at the Vancouver Canucks for not yet retiring Pavel's No. 10. Known as the Russian Rocket, Pavel had three 50-goal seasons for Vancouver, including back-to-back 60-goal runs in the early '90s.

Both Pavel and Valeri were represented by current Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis in their playing days. But Gillis, who did discuss the matter with Pavel earlier, denied he and the team are dragging their feet and said the process and timing of such an honour is more complicated than Valeri realizes.

ICE CHIPS

Cup-winner Tomas Kaberle has no plans to finish his career in the Czech Republic if he doesn't get the free agent offer he wants in July.

"It's safe to say he will be somewhere in the NHL next year and there is interest in having him stay right in Boston," agent Rick Curran said. "He's taking the Stanley Cup home, but he's not staying there."

...

TSN reports the NHLPA is studying alleged timing irregularities with the Nashville Predators sending out qualifying offers to a handful of players after Monday's deadline ... Quite a month for Ian Laperriere, who just won the Masterton Trophy last week and joined a group of NHLers who bought the Montreal Juniors of the QMJHL.

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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