Wednesday, July 27, 2005

 

Howard Berger: Special to Eklund's Hockey

As many of you know, on my new website I will feature some of the best of the best this sport has to offer. They will all be writing blogs in a section called "Hockey Blog World." In the days leading up to the Sept 15th launch date I will be publishing exclusive articles written for Eklund's Hockey by some of these hockey people. Today's comes from the outstanding Howard Berger. When I think of Howarrd Berger I will forever think about how he could make sitting in a lobby waiting for Goodenow and Bettman to finish sound exciting. I love his humor and I am so excited that he will be a part of my future website. So you Leaf fans out there...Here's a Berger Fix!


BY HOWARD BERGER

The Fan-590 Radio, Toronto



In this most unorthodox of hockey summers, followers of the Toronto Maple Leafs are acting quite normally. Fans are trying to convince themselves that the Maple Leafs will clear enough cap space to sign Peter Forsberg, Paul Kariya, Glen Murray, Jason Allison, Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger and Nikolai Khabibulin. And that all seven players have only one city on their free agency radar.

Media personnel are vying for exclusives, unwittingly boosting Toronto’s image as Rumor Central – a claim often made derisively by those on the periphery of the hockey universe. Couldn’t possibly be because Toronto serves as home base for T.S.N., Rogers Sportsnet and The Score: Canada’s all-sports TV networks; The Fan-590: Canada’s first and largest all-sports radio station; the National Post and Globe & Mail: Canada’s two national newspapers, and the Toronto Star: Canada’s most-widely circulated daily. It’s hard to imagine speculation emanating from such a black hole.

But, there is ample reason in the summer of 2005 for rumors to be flying all through the hockey world, as the NHL’s 30 teams scramble to fill their rosters under the foreign guidelines of the new CBA. In Toronto, there is evidence to suggest the Leafs could undergo a 50 percent overhaul in the squad that was eliminated by Philadelphia in the second round of the 2004 playoffs.

The customary Leaf method of buying aging, expensive stars at the cost of player development will change out of necessity… not that the previous method was an act of genius. The Leafs haven’t made an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final since they last won the mug, in 1967.

It boggles the mind to realize that since ’67, all five of Toronto’s pre-expansion brethren (Montreal, Boston, Chicago, the Rangers and Detroit) have made it to the Final, as well as 17 expansion franchises (St. Louis, Philadelphia, Buffalo, the Islanders, Minnesota/Dallas, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, New Jersey, Colorado, Florida, Washington, Carolina, Anaheim and Tampa Bay). As mentioned, no change in direction by the Leafs should be scoffed at.

The question is: How exactly will young general manager John Ferguson re-tool? Asking the man, himself, won’t get you too far… Ferguson volunteers information the way Fidel Castro permits freedom of travel. So, it’s paramount to try and interrogate those in hockey management who deal with the Leafs’ GM. Or, to question those who speak to the people that deal with Ferguson.

At this early stage of the off-season process, here’s what yours truly has cobbled together…

Despite a conflict over his injury status, the Leafs will undoubtedly buy out the remainder of veteran Owen Nolan’s contract, as they must create the additional cap space. In a best-case scenario, Toronto will cough up two-thirds of Nolan’s $5.6-million stipend for the coming season. A worst-case scenario – losing a grievance filed by Nolan’s agent, J.P. Barry – would see the club compensate Nolan in full to jettison his deal, an outlay of about $12 million. Either way, the Buds have no choice but to create more of a cap cushion.

There has been speculation Ferguson will attempt to buy out 40-year-old goaltender Ed Belfour, but Leaf ownership would seriously frown on that idea. In a move that is still hard to explain, Ferguson signed Belfour, prior to the lockout, to a lucrative contract that guaranteed the veteran netminder $8 million (all figures U.S.) during the lost NHL season ($6-million in “lockout protection” salary and a $2-million signing bonus). All of that for not a single game of service. Many hockey executives would like to be watching through a two-way window as Ferguson implores his bosses to forget about the lost money in Belfour’s deal while permitting a two-thirds buyout of his $4.56-million contract for ’05-06. Ferguson would stand a better chance of being bought out than Belfour.

Besides, the Leafs hold the option on Belfour’s contract for the 2006-07 season, and it would make infinitely more financial sense to part ways at that time.

What about the other incumbent Maple Leaf veterans? Will any or all of Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk, Tie Domi and Alexander Mogilny be back with the club? A hunch suggests that Ferguson will offer Nieuwendyk a new contract, but will pass on Roberts. Remember that last summer, Ferguson re-signed both players to one-year deals – Roberts taking a $500,000 pay cut while Nieuwendyk got a $1 million raise. Both players are injury prone, but Nieuwendyk still has great wheels at age 39. When healthy in 2003-04, he skated like a 25-year-old and played extremely well.

Roberts has given the Leafs almost half-a-decade of good service, and will always be lauded for his courageous comeback from a neck injury that forced him to miss the 1996-97 season in Carolina. But, he and Leafs’ coach Pat Quinn are not fond of one another. Roberts has a strong personality and has garnered immense sway in the Leaf dressing room in recent years – too much power for Quinn’s taste. It’s likely that Quinn would heartily endorse a parting of the ways.

What still must be determined, however, is whether Roberts and Nieuwendyk are a dual entry, as they say at the racetrack. Nieuwendyk joined the Leafs in the autumn of 2003, ostensibly so he and Roberts, his best friend, could finish their careers together close to home. Would they now accept going in separate directions, or are they joined at the hip? Only time will tell.

As for Domi, he might have to be placed on suicide watch if the Leafs choose not to re-sign him. One of the club’s most popular skaters of the past generation, the 36-year-old is entrenched in Toronto’s hockey persona and has shown no enthusiasm for pulling on another team’s jersey. In fact, he suggested last month he would consider retirement before playing elsewhere.

But, Domi also has pride, as well as a respected agent/advisor in Pat Morris, and though he’ll clearly have to play for less than the $1.9-million he would have made last season, will he fall at the Leafs’ knees for an offer near the NHL salary minimum of $450,000? And would the Leafs risk a post-lockout backlash by not re-upping with a long-time fan favorite? There will be interest in Domi from other teams – Pittsburgh, Ottawa and Nashville chief among them. It all depends on whether Tie would consider uprooting his family and leaving Toronto, where he has significant business interests outside of hockey.

Mogilny suffered a serious degeneration of his hip in the past 18 months and has twice undergone invasive surgery to try and alleviate the problem. Alex was off the ice for almost six months before painfully resuming his skating in April, but he is intelligent enough to seriously contemplate retirement if he deduces that his body will not stand up to the rigors of a full NHL season. It’s extremely doubtful that the classy veteran will return to the Leafs.

That brings us to the many attractive players who will possibly be unrestricted free agents this summer. Though forwards Peter Forsberg and Jason Allison have increasingly been linked to Toronto, sources tell yours truly that Scott Niedermayer is far and away Ferguson’s number-one off-season target… if, as expected, Niedermayer and the New Jersey Devils cannot come to terms before Aug. 1. And, why wouldn’t he be?

Niedermayer is the defending Norris Trophy winner and will be only 32 years old this season. He is the closest of any defenseman in the past 20 years to resembling the NHL’s all-time greatest skater – Paul Coffey – and is highly efficient at both ends of the ice. Despite moderate success since 1993 (103, 100, 99 and 98-point seasons and three losing trips to the Cup semifinals), the Leafs haven’t had a Norris Trophy caliber defenseman in the prime of his career since Borje Salming’s heyday from 1976-79. It goes a long way to explaining why Toronto hasn’t been to the dance since ’67.

Forsberg would be a luxury on a Leaf team that features Mats Sundin. Allison would be a cheaper addition, but a risky one, as a pinched nerve in his neck has drastically slowed a promising career. Besides, the Leafs have frequently been able to score goals in recent years, but have not had an overwhelming presence on the blue line. And it’s proven beyond question that teams almost never win the Stanley Cup without one (the ’04 Tampa Bay Lightning being a rare exception).

Niedermayer told yours truly two weeks ago that he wasn’t expecting to be “overwhelmed” by an offer from Devils’ GM Lou Lamoriello, and that Toronto would be attractive to him because “…you know, as a player, the arena is going to be sold out every night. And that’s important.” It’s also something he has never experienced in 13 years at the Meadowlands. Despite three Stanley Cups, the Devils routinely play before four and five-thousand empty seats on most nights.

Ferguson would almost surely offer Niedermayer close to the $7.8-million salary maximum if he can create enough cap space. But, Niedermayer would optimally like to remain in New Jersey; he and his wife, Lisa, are both from western Canada (where the Vancouver Canucks reside), and he reportedly wants to play with his brother, Rob, recently of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. So, it’s no certainty that even a blow-away offer from the Leafs would be enough to lure him into blue and white. Landing him, however, would put Ferguson on quite a pedestal among the NHL’s young managers.



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