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Friday, July 19, 2002
Updated: July 22, 3:31 PM ET
Leafs: Financial flexibility vs. Cup quest

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

A year after Gary Roberts and Shayne Corson brought toughness and attitude back to Toronto, the Maple Leafs thought some new offensive toys would finally put them over the top in the Eastern Conference. Adding Alexander Mogilny, Robert Reichel and Mikael Renberg did improve the team's offensive production -- the Leafs scored the third-most goals in the league -- but the extra punch got them just one round further in the playoffs. Unfortunately, losing to upstart Carolina in six games rendered the season a disappointment in the eyes of most fans, no matter that the end came in the Eastern Conference finals.

2001-02 by the numbers
Record:
43-25-10-4, 100 points
(3rd overall, 2nd East, 2nd Northeast)
Goals for:
249/3.04 (3rd overall)
Goals against:
207/2.49 (T12th overall)
Differential:
42 (T5th overall)
20-goal scorers:
Mats Sundin (41), Darcy Tucker (24), Alexander Mogilny (24), Gary Roberts (21), Robert Reichel (20)
50-point scorers:
Sundin (80), Tucker (59), Mogilny (57), Mikael Renberg (52), Reichel (51)
Lost in the postseason demise was one of the team's best regular-season performances since the league expanded from six teams in 1967-68. The Leafs missed out on the Eastern Conference's best record by just a single point and shared goal-differential honors with Philadelphia at plus-42. Among individual accomplishments, captain Mats Sundin collected 80 points and 94 penalty minutes, silencing doubters who thought he'd go soft after signing a lucrative extension before the season.

Looking at next season
In the wake of GM/coach Pat Quinn's recent comments, and the resulting fine, concerning the likelihood of a lockout before the 2004-05 season, it's safe to say he's not building for a year or two down the road. Then again, his disgust with the league's free-spending ways also signals that the Leafs aren't willing to break the bank in search of their first Stanley Cup since 1967. With most of the big-name free agents off the market, Quinn's biggest splurge was more an attempt to avert disaster than an effort to improve the roster.

Curtis Joseph's 241-mile trek down Highway 401 to Detroit is both a crippling blow for the upcoming season and evidence that the team's window of opportunity may have closed. While most Canadian teams don't have money to spend even if they want to, the Maple Leafs had the resources to bring back their No. 1 goalie. In fact, Joseph's three-year deal with Detroit was reportedly several million dollars less than Toronto's three-year offer. While the oft-contentious relationship between coach and goalie was always an issue, including Quinn benching Joseph after Canada's first Olympic game, the goalie's defection also suggests he didn't think the Stanley Cup was in Toronto's immediate future.

At least new arrival Ed Belfour is no stranger to controversy. The veteran goalie is used to battling critics, but it's not clear if he still has the tools to successfully battle opponents. Last season's 21-27-11 record, 2.64 goals-against average and .895 save percentage were easily the worst marks of his Dallas career, but they also perpetuated a downward statistical spiral. At 37, Belfour is a little old to start reversing three-year trends.

While Belfour is no longer a force in net, at least he'll have some offensive support. Considering Sundin was the only player with more than 24 goals, it's not unreasonable to think the Leafs can match last season's scoring output. Their balance will prove useful early in the season, as Roberts is expected to miss the first half after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery. Roberts, a gritty team leader but also the only regular to finish last season with a negative plus-minus rating, will be missed, but one of Quinn's minor moves should help matters. Improving the team's middle-of-the-road penalty killing was part of the motivation behind signing veteran Tom Fitzgerald away from Nashville, but the versatile forward can handle third-line center duties, freeing Shayne Corson to take Roberts' place as a top-line winger.

Beyond the top line, Toronto needs to find a permanent home for Alyn McCauley and get more out of Mogilny and Jonas Hoglund. McCauley did little in mostly fourth-line duty during the regular season, but his playoff performance proved that the natural center can be effective as a scoring-line winger. Everyone already knows Mogilny can be a top-tier winger, but his first season in Toronto was mildly disappointing. After scoring 43 goals for New Jersey in 2000-01, Mogilny never enjoyed a prolonged hot streak with the Leafs. Whether skating with Reichel on the second line or Sundin on the top line, he needs to find more shots. Hoglund, on the other hand, needs to worry more about quality than quantity. Despite every chance to make a name for himself on the top line with Sundin, Hoglund drove fans crazy with ill-timed and erratic scoring attempts. Last season seemed to prove he's a bust, but Toronto feels differently and re-signed him in July.

The Joseph-for-Belfour swap in net may dominate the offseason chatter in Toronto, but the trade sending defenseman Dmitry Yushkevich to Florida for Robert Svehla is an almost equally contentious subject. Yushkevich is no lock to return at 100 percent from blood clots in his leg, the injury that prematurely ended his 2001-02 season, but in Svehla, the Leafs acquired a defenseman who had to be pried out of retirement with a one-year contract (and a series of one-year options). That Svehla annually ranked among the league leaders in hits is more a testament to creative scorekeeping than his own defensive prowess. Throw in the fact that he's coming off the two worst offensive seasons of his career, and it hardly sounds like Quinn acquired a player with a burning desire to win. On the plus side, Svehla can be counted on for heavy minutes.

If Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle repeat last season's offensive work, the Leafs won't need many points from Svehla. McCabe raised eyebrows with 17 goals in the regular season, then proved it was no fluke with five more in the playoffs. He's big, tough and possesses a wicked shot. In other words, his star is on the rise. Though frequently a target of criticism for uninspired play, Kaberle is a reliable power-play quarterback with 50-point potential. Veteran Cory Cross is unlikely to return, but Aki Berg, expected to return after filing for arbitration, Anders Eriksson, Jyrki Lumme and Wade Belak provide veteran depth. Youngster Karel Pilar held his own at the end of the regular season and in limited playoff duty, and he should be in the mix for regular minutes this season.

In an Eastern Conference race lacking a clear favorite, the Leafs cannot be dismissed. Losing Joseph is a tremendous blow, and swapping Garry Valk and Yushkevich for Fitzgerald and Svehla is at best a minor improvement, but offense wins games in the regular season. Even if Quinn puts his checkbook where his mouth is and doesn't seek out a player like Derek Morris or Jarome Iginla via trade, the Leafs have enough offense to compete with anyone. Beyond that, it's up to Belfour. Born the same year as Dominik Hasek and Patrick Roy, he needs to prove there's as much life left in his pads as those two showed last season.