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Blowing up the Leafs no easy task

Defenseman Tomas Kaberle is one of only a handful of players the Leafs may be able to deal, but even then it could only happen in the off-season.

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Defenseman Tomas Kaberle is one of only a handful of players the Leafs may be able to deal, but even then it could only happen in the off-season.

For the second time this season the Toronto Maple Leafs are struggling badly, and for the second time this season the Toronto media is calling for Leafs ownership to make sweeping changes.

Once again GM John Ferguson, head coach Paul Maurice and team captain Mats Sundin are rumored to be on their way out; JFJ and Maurice by season’s end, if not sooner, and Sundin by the trade deadline.

If that weren’t enough, some critics are calling for the Leafs roster to be “blown up,” demanding for Jason Blake, Tomas Kaberle, Darcy Tucker, Andrew Raycroft and Alex Steen to be shopped for whatever return they might fetch.

The fates of Ferguson and Maurice may soon be determined, but don’t expect most of those aforementioned players to be moving.

Sundin definitely has the most value of all Leafs. His strong performance this season would net a return at least comparable to what the Blues received last February from the Thrashers for Keith Tkachuk and what the Flyers netted from the Predators for Peter Forsberg.

But as always, it’s up to Sundin to decide if he’ll accept a trade and, if so, to where. For all the talk of what good a healthy return for Sundin would do for the Leafs, he might feel it’s better for the team if he remains.

Leafs ownership could feel the same way. Sundin may be aging and his career winding down, but he’s still the franchise player and the face of the team. If he doesn’t want to leave, it’s possible the owners might acquiesce to his wishes rather than force the issue.

As for Kaberle and Tucker, it must be remembered that, like Sundin, they both have “no-trade” clauses; unlike Sundin, it might not be easy to find any takers for their services if they did agree to be dealt.

They’re presently in the midst of expensive, multi-year contracts, which usually isn’t a keen selling point in a salary cap world, particularly at the trade deadline.

Blake meanwhile lacks a “no-trade” clause, but he’s in the first year of a five-year, $20 million contract and is presently on pace for his lowest offensive production since the 2001-02 season, hardly a strong selling point. His current battle with leukemia further lowers his trade value.

Raycroft’s had a season from hell. His confidence is shot and it shows in every game. With another season at $2.2 million remaining on his contract, trading him appears out of the question, leaving the Leafs to either demote him to the minors or buy out his final year in June.

That leaves Steen, who is only 23 and has the potential to become a star, which would certainly make him attractive on the trade market. Peddling him for a short-term fix in hopes of making the playoffs, however, could be a shortsighted blunder on the Leafs part, one of many this franchise has made over the years.

The sad reality is Ferguson has tied up too many players with hefty contracts that are very difficult to move, either because of salary, movement clauses or both.

Even if Sundin agrees to a trade that nets the Leafs a strong return of promising talent and even if he agreed to return to the Leafs this summer as an unrestricted free agent, the Leafs will still face the same problems.

Blake, Tucker, Kaberle, Pavel Kubina, Bryan McCabe and Hal Gill will be back next season and all but Gill in 2009-10.

Blake’s contract was based on his career high 40-goal performance last season, when in fact he’s really a 25-goal forward. $4 million per season for four more years is simply too much for that kind of winger.

Tucker has three more seasons remaining on his contract at $3 million per, and with his injury history and declining production that’s simply too rich for most teams to gamble on.

McCabe’s $5.75 million per season contract lasts until 2010-11, as does Kaberle’s at $4.25 million per. Kubina’s $5 million per season deal expires after the 2009-10 season.

Of those three, Kaberle would be the only one to attract considerable interest around the league, but he could only be dealt during the season if he waives his no-trade clause (he can, according to his contract, be dealt in the off-season if the Leafs fail to make the playoffs).

The earliest Kubina could likely be shopped is the 2010 trade deadline, McCabe in 2011. Considered around the league by observers as overpaid, Kubina and McCabe will still be Maple Leafs for at least the next two years.

Put simply, if there’s little or no interest in these players from rival teams now, it stands to reason there’ll be even less in the future.

Rebuilding this team will take time, a process made harder because of the players they’ll be unable to move. Ferguson will almost certainly be replaced as the Leafs GM between now and season’s end, but his legacy will carry over into the next two seasons.

As bad as this season and the last two have been for Leafs fans, there’s more troubled times to come.

Rumor Roundup appears Mondays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, www.spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Foxsports.com and Eishockey Magazine.

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