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Leafs have means for deadline move, if it makes sense

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs
TORONTO (CP) - The NHL's trade deadline is still six weeks away but the media in hockey's centre of the universe is already drumming up interest.

The focus this year heading into the March 11 deadline will be star forward Alexei Kovalev of the Pittsburgh Penguins, whom reports indicate is being sought after by Philadelphia, Dallas, both New York teams and, of course, Toronto.

Kovalev, who turns 30 next month, will be a restricted free agent July 1. On the surface, one wonders why the Pens feel they must dump him now. But, because the Russian sniper will probably elect for salary arbitration this summer, he's going to get a significant raise from the $4.6 million US he's earning this year - probably between $7 million to $9 million, which is money the cash-strapped Pens don't have.

The one-year arbitration award would get Kovalev to July 1, 2004, when he'll qualify for unrestricted free agency. So, the Pens appear to be looking ahead on two fronts.

Alexei Kovalev appears to be on his way out of Pittsburgh.
Getty Images
The Maple Leafs, who are getting nearly all of their offence from Mats Sundin and Alex Mogilny, are definitely interested in acquiring the league's No. 4 scorer.

The difference this season for Toronto from years past is that the financially-rich club has depth among its prospects. The last two entry drafts under GM-coach Pat Quinn have procured Carlo Colaiacovo, Brendan Bell, Kyle Wellwood, Matt Stajan, Ian White, Alexander Steen, David Turon, Jan Chovan and Maxim Kondratjev - all of whom played in the recent world junior championship in Halifax. Other prospects include Brad Boyes and Jay Harrison.

Whether or not the Penguins would part with Kovalev in exchange for prospects remains to be seen, but the Leafs at least feel they've joined the likes of Colorado, Dallas and New Jersey, among others, as teams that can add a star player in his prime by trading away future NHLers.

"We had less ammunition to make those sorts of deals before because most of the teams that are going to give up on a (star) player are looking for young guys, prospects, future guys," Quinn said after practice Thursday. "So we're finally in a better position to have that luxury of some good drafts.

"The philosophy still remains the same: if we can make a trade that makes sense for the organization then we'll do that. We now can maybe give up a little long term for the short term."

Quinn's right-hand man, Bill Watters, the assistant to the GM, agrees.

"It's pretty obvious that we do have better assets," Watters said Thursday. "One had to only look at the world junior tournament to verify that."

Giving up future players for the likes of Kovalev is a no-brainer for most long-enduring Leaf fans, who are desperate to see their team end a 38-year Stanley Cup drought.

Quinn says he'll will keep an eye on the future as well. There must be a balance between using the buying power the Leafs have and still build a team for the future, he says.

"I've said many times, if you get in the buying stage, it's so hard to get out of it," Quinn said. "You need different assets other than just cash to be successful in this business.

"We don't want to be a buying team unless it's the right buy."

Despite the fact Vancouver and Ottawa are the two best bets to end Canada's Stanley Cup drought (Montreal '93), it's the Leafs that will get more attention heading towards the deadline because they have the financial means to add a big salary for the stretch drive. The Leafs also get more attention because any given day there's more than 15 TV cameras and 16 notepads staring players in the face.

"They're going to tell everybody that we're more likely to make a move than the other Canadian teams and I guess that's true," Watters said of the Toronto media's role approaching the deadline.

"But you have to be selective," Watters said, sounding like his boss. "You have to make proper use of what you have.

"There's no sense in making a deal for the sake of making a deal. Some people have done that already and they're paying a heavy price for it."

Quinn concedes his team is in a different position than the other five Canadian clubs when it comes to adding salaries at the deadline, but says that's not always an advantage.

"Sometimes some teams spend the money poorly if they have a little extra," he said. "I can think of teams that have not done a very good job of how they spent their money.

"This is a business where you're supposed to manage well enough for your owners and investors. You watch the money for that reason."

Another possible effect on this year's trade deadline will be the looming labour war. The collective bargaining agreement expires in September 2004. Many teams will be unwilling to add on long-term contracts until the dust settles.

Quinn, fined by the NHL last summer for predicting a lockout by owners in 2004, chose his words carefully when asked whether he thought 2004 considerations would have an impact at this year's trade deadline.

"I think I can safely say yes, it will affect it," said Quinn. "But, by the same token, I've been warned several times to keep my trap shut so I'm going to do that."
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