Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Leafs darkhorse playoff team in 05-06

TORONTO (CP) - Nobody outside their ardent fan base is picking them to
win the Stanley Cup so the Toronto Maple Leafs will cast themselves as
underdogs and bark as loud as they can.

"We love being the underdogs," says right-winger Tie Domi. "We're
excited about the challenge." There are lots of ifs. If free-agent
pickups Eric Lindros and Jason Allison can stay healthy .?.?.

If winger Jeff O'Neill can regain the 30-goal form that put him in the
2003 NHL all-star game .?.?.

If Nik Antropov can turn the boos to cheers .?.?.

If Ed Belfour's back holds up .?.?.

Most of these things have to fall in Toronto's favour if it is to
approach the team-record 103 points amassed in 2003-2004, and head
coach Pat Quinn knows it.

"I look at the guys on paper and I like what I see," says Quinn.

Ah, but the game is played on the ice.

"We're going to have to work hard to pull it together," Quinn admits,
proceeding to mention that the season will be a success IF players who
have been stars in the past can regain that status.

It is a tenuous hope.

Lindros couldn't lift the New York Rangers into the playoffs the last
time there was an NHL season. He appeared in only 39 games and scored
only 10 goals. His next concussion will be his ninth.

Allison didn't play at all in the last season because of a
whiplash-type neck injury, and he scored only six goals while getting
into only 26 games in 2002-2003.

O'Neill slumped to 14 goals last time out. Carolina practically gave him away.

The only returning forwards who scored as many 20 goals are captain
Mats Sundin (31) and Darcy Tucker (21). Gone are five of the top seven
point-getters - Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk, Alexander Mogilny, Brian
Leetch and Owen Nolan.

Quinn has patched together forward lines he hopes will provide a
balanced attack.

He likes Sundin between Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky, all of them
tall Europeans on what has been dubbed the Sky Line; Allison between
Tucker and free-agent acquisition Mariusz Czerkawski, a one-way
wonder; O'Neill with Matt Stajan and rookie Alexander Steen, two
speedsters with a big future upside; and Lindros with enforcer Tie
Domi and the ordinary Chad Kilger or whoever else is chosen for a
checking role.

The defence corps certainly won't be ranked among the best in the
conference: sturdy Bryan McCabe partnered with erratic Tomas Kaberle,
the never-improving Aki Berg with unheralded free-agent pickup
Alexander Khavanov, and penalty-prone Wade Belak with rookie Andy
Wozniewski. Steady veteran Ken Klee (foot) remains on the shelf.

The Northeast Division will be a battleground. Eight games - up from
six - against championship contender Ottawa, burly Boston, improved
Montreal and underestimated Buffalo.

All the ifs have to go in the Leafs' favour if they are to avoid
missing the playoffs for the first time since 1998.

They open at home Wednesday against Ottawa amid the usual unbridled optimism.

"I like our team," says captain Mats Sundin.

Well, what else is he going to say? But Sundin, like Quinn, puts an
asterisk on what lies ahead.

"When we have our full lineup playing, I think we can beat anyone in
our conference," he says. "So, I guess we just have to prove (the
negative predictions) wrong."

Reread the first seven words of his comment.

Sundin will be the highest-paid player on the team at $6.84 million
US, Belfour will be paid $4.56 million, McCabe $3.46 million, Kaberle
$2.28 million, Klee $1.9 million, Tucker $1.59 million, Lindros $1.55,
Allison and O'Neill $1.50 million each, and Domi and Khavanov $1.25
million each. Berg and Antropov are slightly over $1 million, and the
rest are under.

GM John Ferguson already is maxed out at the $39-million US cap limit,
which leaves no wiggle room.

This could be a contender, or, it could all quickly fall apart.

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