Thursday, August 25, 2005

After years of trading away youth for expensive older talent to take runs – that inevitably ended up falling short – at the Stanley Cup, the Toronto Maple Leafs find themselves in a bit of quandary at the dawn of the NHL’s salary cap era.
Gone are high-priced veterans Alexander Mogilny, Brian Leetch, Owen Nolan, Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk, who the team couldn’t fit in its new salary structure. Age and health concerns made all of them risks to re-sign to multi-year, multi-million-dollar deals, but their production will be missed.
The team has less than $3 million left under the $39-million cap and might want to hold on to a bit of that money for mid-season acquisitions. And with the cap expected to fall next year due to decreased revenues from the fallout of the lockout that wiped out last season, that will put an even tighter squeeze on the formerly free-spending squad.
But the Leafs haven’t been sitting idly by in this craziest of summers for NHL general managers, agents and players. They added former MVP Eric Lindros for $1.55 million and former 90-point scorer Jason Allison for around the same price in a contract that could escalate to $4 million if he lives up to past performances and meets all of his incentive clauses. While both players have a history of major injuries and can be considered risky signings, their relatively low price tags can be considered coups for the Leafs.
Combined with captain and perennial leading scorer Mats Sundin, Lindros and Allison will give the Leafs as much solid depth at centre as any team in the league. Nik Antropov will either centre the fourth line or move to the wing and allow promising youngster Matt Stajan some playing time up the middle. Look for Allison and Lindros to also play some wing on the power play.
While the Leafs look strong up the middle, they don’t have much in the way of speedy snipers to take advantage of the new no red line rule who can streak down the boards to put the puck in the net. New acquisition Jeff O’Neill was once that type of player, but struggled in his final season for the Carolina Hurricanes. If the 29-year-old can regain his past 40-goal touch, he should make a solid linemate for Sundin and, most likely, Darcy Tucker. Tucker, a rambunctious winger and agitator, has also shown a nose for the net.
After that, however, things take a dramatic drop. While Tie Domi is a fan favourite and was coveted by other teams this summer, the 35-year-old tough guy has never scored more than 15 goals or 29 points in a season. Wade Belak is another enforcer, but his offensive prowess makes Domi look like Martin St. Louis. Chad Kilger, Nathan Perrott and Clarke Wilm won’t strike fear into the hearts of any defenders, so the Leafs will have a long look at 2002 first-round draft pick Alexander Steen.
Thomas Kaberle, Brian McCabe and Ken Klee, who should give the team a decent balance of defensive toughness and offensive skills, will anchor the blue line. Free agent acquisition Alexander Khavanov and the returning Aki Berg will likely get the bulk of the remaining minutes, but it’s hoped that former first rounder Carlo Colaiacovo can stick with the big club this fall and add more offence to the back line. On a team short of real prospects, he may be the top one.
Ed Belfour is a future Hall of Fame goaltender, but the advancing years and recurring back problems could haunt him this season. If he plays as well as he did in 2003-04, when he racked up 10 shutouts, the Leafs should be in good shape. If he goes down, Mikael Tellqvist or former Pittsburgh Penguin Jean-Sebastien Aubin will have a heavy burden on their shoulders.
Both goalies played for St. John’s last season, but the Leafs’ AHL franchise has moved from Newfoundland to Toronto and been renamed the Marlies. Former Carolina coach Paul Maurice has been hired to oversee the team (and perhaps take over from Leafs coach Pat Quinn a year or two down the road), and the front office and scouting staffs should be able to keep a closer eye on things down the street at the Ricoh Centre then they could with players on the rock.
The Leafs have beefed up their scouting in an effort to look to the future, but such potential free agent stars as Jarome Iginla, Joe Thornton and Vincent Lecavalier have all been locked up to long-term deals by their current clubs, so there may not be that much for the team to pick from next season to bolster the roster either.
The Leafs should contend for a playoff spot this season, but the Stanley Cup drought that has lasted since 1967 shows no sign of ending soon.

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