Wednesday, August 10, 2005


A Berger Fix


The Fan-590 Radio, Toronto

As the second week of the NHL's 2005 swap-meet draws
to a conclusion, a sense of reality is beginning to set in for the
Toronto Maple Leafs and their boundless legion of fanatics.

What began as a summer full of gleaming possibilities
quickly turned to numbness and disappointment amid the Leafs' poorly
devised cap strategy, as front-line players - many in their prime -
flocked to opposing teams in a frenzied orgy of signings and trades.
Now that much of the gold-dust has settled, emotions are beginning to
rebound, and a roster that appeared doomed last week at this time
might actually have some intriguing possibilities.

The saga involving Eric Lindros seems to be occupying
most everyone's attention, and for good reason. If healthy, the Big E
could become the hidden jewel of this year's summer crop, after his
concussion history dropped him to a lower tier among eligible
players. With all of the front-liners spoken for, Lindros has
suddenly generated a sizable amount of interest - the Maple Leafs one
of the prime suitors. While his father/agent, Carl Lindros, continues
to haggle over guaranteed money and bonus eligibility, the final word
in this odyssey clearly belongs to Eric.

If No. 88 still has a burning desire to don a Maple
Leaf jersey - and that seems crystal-clear -- he can do so, and the
Leafs can make it work. It hardly matters that Lindros does not
qualify for the same bonus exemptions as Jason Allison. No team
working with or without a salary cap has ever strongly pursued a
quality athlete solely out of fear that he'll achieve his incentives.
It hardly ever happens to begin with, and it should never be a
make-or-break consideration. Lindros simply has to be content to play
for a reasonable financial package in his home town, and the Maple
Leafs have to be reasonably assured that he can properly resume his
career before they sign away more cap space. That's why Eric is
undergoing a MRI exam at the club's behest.

If it should indicate that he's clear to proceed -
and barring any unforeseen obstacles - Lindros will join the team he
has longed to play for, and the Leafs will be sitting prettier than
they were when July turned to August. Should GM John Ferguson find a
way to accommodate Anson Carter as well, Toronto's scoring potential
will once again be the club's strength.

Where the Leafs will continue to lag behind other
elite teams is on the blue line, and that's about as newsworthy as
rising oil prices. The high-impact defenseman Ferguson sought when he
acquired Brian Leetch is a missing element once again, after poor
roster planning and/or instructions from above derailed a glorious
opportunity in the past fortnight. My sources tell me Ferguson will
soon add another "name" defenseman, but the cream of the crop has
signed elsewhere, and the Leafs must continue to swallow the
astonishing fact that they have not developed a Norris Trophy-caliber
blue-liner in the past 32 years, since Borje Salming joined the team
in 1973.

It remains one of the truly remarkable failures among
pre-expansion NHL teams, and will prevent the Leafs from ending their
Cup famine until it's finally resolved.

Another aspect of reality is the regaining of
consciousness for those who actually believed the Maple Leafs set
their sights on loading up with next summer's free agent crop. As if
that was a sure thing to begin with, now it's becoming apparent that
opposition teams are not guided by lunkheads, as valuable potential
UFAs like Jarome Iginla and Joe Thornton are either re-signed, or
close to it. And anyone who thinks that Eugene Melnyk in Ottawa will
allow Wade Redden or Zdeno Chara to march off to Toronto next July is
dreaming in Technicolor - a favorite pastime among Leaf fans.

If the Leafs are to challenge for a playoff spot this
season, they must avoid the most obvious of plagues, like poor
goaltending, debilitating injuries and prolonged slumps. From a depth
standpoint, they will also need strong performances from a large
supporting cast, comprised right now of Wade Belak, Alexei
Ponikarovsky, Chad Kilger, Clarke Wilm, Matt Stajan, Nik Antropov,
Nathan Perrott, Karel Pilar and, possibly including rookie Alexander
Steen. There are many more questions than answers in this group, but
that's not unusual. The strong play of unheralded performers can fill
huge gaps in the watered-down, 30-team NHL, and Toronto clearly fits
into that hopeful category.

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