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Leafs Begin Promised Overhaul

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs
The promised overhaul of the Toronto Maple Leafs roster has begun in earnest.

While captain Mats Sundin is being wooed by the Montreal Canadiens, the Leafs are pruning their roster. Three players, forwards Darcy Tucker and Kyle Wellwood as well as goalie Andrew Raycroft are being cut loose by the Leafs.

“We advised Tucks today that that we would start the process tomorrow to buy him out,” said Maple Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher. “He is a real warrior and we wish him well.”

It will cost the Leafs $6 million over six years or $1 million annually against the salary cap to part ways with Tucker, who signed a contract extension with the club in 2007.

The 33-year-old struggled through knee and back injuries this season. His effectiveness dimmed after much of his power play time was siphoned off to free agent signee Jason Blake. Tucker still managed 18 goals including 10 on the power play but he was a minus player (-8) for the third year in a row.

Tucker spent nearly eight seasons with the Leafs and often stood out on many nights as the Leafs feistiest performer. A steady scorer and fan favourite, his output peaked with a 28-goal year in 2004-2005. But the years of battling bigger men and the headstrong style he played exacted a toll. His fate seemed sealed when incoming coach Ron Wilson described him as courageous but worn out.

The Leafs also waived Kyle Wellwood and Andrew Raycroft, Tuesday afternoon.

Raycroft’s exit was no surprise. After a 37-win season in 2006-2007, it was clear that more goaltending was needed. John Ferguson Jr. imported Vesa Toskala. Raycroft never adapted to his new status. His ineffective play in January with Toskala bothered by a bad groin, forced the Leafs to rush the Finnish goalie back into the crease.

Raycroft went 2-9 with a bloated 3.92 goals against. The 28-year-old cost the Leafs Tuukka Rask, a blue chip prospect who is steaming toward the Boston Bruins’ net.

Sometimes, organizations are hesitant to admit a failed trade. Raycroft was a goalie with excellent mechanics; he just kept being scored on. There was no allegiance or loss of prestige for Cliff Fletcher. Raycroft will scramble to find a backup job, the same role he disdained last year, just to stay in the league.

At times, the 25-year-old Wellwood looked like a find. Drafted 134th in 2001, the game turned toward the smallish, elusive Wellwood. He excelled on the power play and while he was far from physical, he had a small man’s gift for finding space and staying alive. In the 20006-2007 season, Wellwood scored 12 goals and registered 42 points in just 48 games. He was penciled in as the number two centre behind Mats Sundin.

But the lingering effects of a sports hernia and what was perceived as a lax attitude to conditioning cost Wellwood. He scored only eight goals in 59 games last year and was a minus-12.

A restricted free agent, Wellwood can now be chosen by a team and signed to a qualifying offer.

Raycroft has a year left on his contract. If he is unclaimed, and that seems likely for a goalie making $2.2 million, he is then put into re-entry waivers, where the Leafs are liable for half his salary under the cap. The team also retains the less than ideal option of choosing to pay Raycroft’s full salary by leaving him in the minors with the Toronto Marlies.

Fletcher has promised to dramatically revamp the roster and a deal that would involve defenceman Bryan McCabe has been long rumored. A contract provision means the club can trade Pavel Kubina but the Czech defenceman’s strong play down the stretch last season as well as McCabe’s possible departure could result in him returning.

Blake took over 300 shots to register just 15 goals but his contract may make him immovable.
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