Loss likely to spark fire sale

LANCE HORNBY and TERRY KOSHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:32 AM ET

Much more than two points are at stake for the Maple Leafs tonight when the Montreal Canadiens drop in to the Air Canada Centre.

There is a growing sense that a loss tonight will push Leafs general manager John Ferguson to begin overhauling a roster on the verge of missing the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons.

Facing its second spring without hockey or basketball playoff revenues, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. will be more agreeable to look at next year in the hours leading to the National Hockey League trade deadline (Thursday, 3 p.m. ET).

The eighth-place Habs rallied for a point in Philadelphia last night to go up eight on the Leafs, who have 20 games to catch Montreal, Boston and Atlanta.

SELLER MODE

But a league source said last night that Ferguson will go into seller mode if they lose, beginning with marquee players Bryan McCabe and Ed Belfour, while intensifying his efforts to deal Jason Allison and even shopping fan favourite Tie Domi.

A Sportsnet report last night said McCabe has rejected what's believed to be a four-year offer from Ferguson in the $16.5-million US range. But McCabe will not take less than $5 million a season and the stalemate could make it easier to trade him. Partner Tomas Kaberle signed last month for five years at $4.25 million a season.

The source who said the Leafs will make big changes if they lose also said coach Pat Quinn's job is safe through the end of the season.

Ferguson was asked yesterday about the possible fallout of tonight, the fate of McCabe and Belfour and his game plan for Thursday.

"We've got to treat it as a playoff game, because if we drop (10 points) back, it's really going to exacerbate the whole position we've put ourselves in," he said. "That said, one game doesn't change a team's strategy."

Asked if he'll be a buyer or seller this week, Ferguson said, "It's interesting that you seek to define any approach as being black and white. There are moves we've discussed that can help us now and in the future, moves that players can use to seek to improve now and (in the future).

"You ask about (Belfour and McCabe), but we deal with the short- and long-term implications every day with all 23 players on our roster."

Ferguson, presiding over his second trade deadline since being hired here, was busy in March 2004 landing Brian Leetch and Ron Francis and adding Chad Kilger, Calle Johansson and Craig Johnson as free-agent/waiver acquisitions.

Ferguson said the trade chatter has intensified in recent days, but one Western Conference GM looking to upgrade his club complained this week that "there are about 25 teams who are buyers" because of the tight standings and clubs being unsure if they can move up or should blow up their teams.

SHOPPED

That means those players now on the market are being shopped at ridiculously high prices, such as the free-agent crop in the summer of 2002.

The advent of the salary cap also has made clubs more frugal, even though the limit is expected to rise from $39 million S to $43 million per team next year, with a floor of $27 million.

GMs such as Washington's George McPhee, who has been trying to accommodate defenceman Brendan Witt's trade request all year, acknowledged plenty of inquiries but no solid offers for Witt.

Jay Feaster of the Tampa Bay Lightning, trying to fortify for a repeat run at the Cup, has said that many teams are offering him draft picks where he wants live bodies.


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