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Double OT: Shaking out the Leafs

Matt Stajan has 33 points in 77 games this season. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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Matt Stajan has 33 points in 77 games this season. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

So where do the Toronto Maple Leafs go from here?

Assuming Tuesday’s 6-2 home loss to the Bruins is the final nail in their coffin, perhaps now the Leafs can get down to business and begin doing what they should have done much sooner – start rebuilding for the future.

One assumed that was what would have happened when Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment pulled the carpet out from under beleaguered GM John Ferguson Jan. 22 and replaced him with Cliff Fletcher. But Fletcher was unable to get any of Ferguson’s five golden boys to drop their no-trade/no-movement clauses. He was handcuffed in terms of the immediate moves he could make to benefit the team in seasons to come and by simply being too nice a guy to play hardball with those players. A tougher SOB would have threatened to bury them in the minors or send them to an undesirable location in the off-season, but that’s another story.

Given the Leafs have pretty much eliminated themselves from a lottery draft pick this June, whomever replaces Fletcher - who is only in on an interim basis - has some tough decisions to make regarding next season.

For starters, do the Leafs make a concerted effort at being a lottery team in 2009? I mean, you don’t start out the year trying to lose every game and there’s no guarantee they’d get the No. 1 overall pick even if they finished dead last. The fact is, with Vesa Toskala in goal, it will be awfully hard to be a lottery team – he’s that good.

But Mystery GM could start by getting rid of expensive veterans in favor of a youth movement, allowing players who are part of the team’s future to gain valuable experience in more significant roles than they have had in the past. One only needs to look at how Matt Stajan and Alex Steen have prospered in recent weeks when rewarded with valuable minutes while Mats Sundin and Nik Antropov convalesced.

It must irk Leaf fans to see how teams like Chicago (Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane), Washington (Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom), Edmonton (Andrew Cogliano, Sam Gagner), Pittsburgh (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin) and Anaheim (Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Stanley Cup) have positioned themselves with youth while Toronto, year after year, nearly makes the playoffs and winds up with a lousy draft pick.

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And if it is true, as has been suggested, the Leafs could have got Christopher Higgins as well as a first, second and third round draft pick from Montreal for Sundin, and Jeff Carter and a first round draft pick from Philadelphia for Tomas Kaberle, then it stings twice as much.

So who stays and who goes?

Of the players who’ve spent a good portion of the season with the Leafs, I’d keep Antropov, Boyd Devereaux, Kaberle (they didn’t trade him, I’d keep him), Dominic Moore, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Stajan, Steen, Anton Stralman, Kris Newbury, Jiri Tlusty and Toskala.

Everybody else would be expendable.

That might mean trading some players, buying out others and perhaps even playing a veteran or two in the minors to take their salaries off the books in terms of a cap hit.

The time is ripe for new leadership on this team. And the time is also ripe for a new plan.

Seems to me the old plan isn’t working.

Mike Brophy, the co-author of the book Walking with Legends, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor on THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and his column, Double OT, appears Wednesday.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

 

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