by Scott Burnside
March 10, 2004
-- When the dust settled on the National Hockey League's annual trade circus Tuesday late afternoon, it was clear the Toronto Maple Leafs had won the Hall of Fame derby.
By adding first Brian Leetch from the New York Rangers and then, in a stunning move Tuesday, coaxing Sault Ste. Marie native Ron Francis to waive his no-trade clause in Carolina, the Maple Leafs managed to up their star quotient dramatically.
But adding two certain Hall of Famers guarantees only two things and one of them isn't a Stanley Cup win.
First, the Maple Leafs are older than they were a week ago given Leetch just turned 36 and Francis is 41.
With the addition of Calle Johansson, there are now 17 players who are 30 or older on the Leaf roster.
Gary Roberts joked with reporters that the team's training staff would have to place Grecian Formula in the dressing room showers. That and buying deep heating liniment by the gross.
But if the spectre of injury remains a given for this aged squad, the second certainty is that the lineup the Leafs will carry into the post-season fairly oozes experience and stability a critical element in playoff success.
Leetch was the Conn Smyth Trophy winner as the playoff MVP in 1994 when the Rangers won their first championship since 1940 and Francis won back-to-back Cups in Pittsburgh in '91 and '92.
Add Johansson into the mix, prodded out of retirement by the Leafs, and you include the Washington Capitals' all-time leader in games played.
In all, nine players in the Leaf dressing room have been a captain at one point or another in their NHL careers.
Chad Kilger, claimed off waivers from the Montreal Canadiens adds depth up front and given the injury habit the Leafs have yet to kick, he'll no doubt figure into the mix.
The standard joke among media types whenever the Leafs make a trade or go on even the slightest roll is where the parade route will run.
The Leafs are closer, in theory, than they've been since the halcyon days of the early 1990s when they went to back-to-back Western Conference finals under Pat Burns. This team is deeper, more talented and, if Ed Belfour remains healthy, has better goaltending.
But if the trade deadline proved anything it's that there are a bevy of teams that eye the same prize and more importantly, believe their chances are every bit as good as the next team's.
Past playoff history, including the Leafs' ill-fated first-round exit last spring after loading up at the 2003 trade deadline, proves the point that trade deadline gems can often turn into fool's gold in short order.
Not that that stopped many teams from mining the talent of the NHL's weak sisters.
Around the Eastern Conference every team currently holding a playoff position made a significant upgrade save the New York Islanders who once again seem destined to earn the eighth playoff seed by default.
The Islanders added journeyman forward Steve Webb and oft-injured former Leaf defender Alexander Karpovtsev and welcomed Alexei Yashin back from injury, but still look to be first-round fodder.
Beyond the Islanders, the contending team that made the smallest noise in the cacophony of the trade frenzy was defending Cup champion New Jersey.
General manager Lou Lamoriello will be questioned, as he was a year ago, for his passive stance. Of course when you answer questions with Cup rings, all debate is rendered moot. Still, if Scott Stevens is unable to return to full steam following his battle with post-concussion syndrome, the additions of Viktor Kozlov and Jan Hrdina will be seen as being much too little.
As they did a year ago the Philadelphia Flyers underwent a significant makeover during the trade period, adding a topflight goaltender Sean Burke to compliment the injury-prone Robert Esche.
Danny Markov and Vladimir Malakhov, when he is inspired (check lunar cycles for the time and location of the next expected inspiration), are upgrades over Eric Weinrich and Chris Therien shipped to St. Louis and Dallas respectively.
Alexei Zhamnov is an upgrade over Justin Williams (sent to Carolina for Markov) and Branko Radivojevic who came in the Burke deal gives the Flyers added size and skill up front.
Still, for all the moves, general manager Clarke is left with only modest depth along the blue line and given that Burke hasn't won a playoff series since 1988 and has won only 12 of 34 playoff games in his long career, goaltending may once again haunt the Flyers in the post-season.
Another potential first-round opponent for the Leafs that became an unexpected player in the trade wars is Boston. The Bruins are among a handful of teams that threw their traditional conservative trade history to the wind and anted up for big name talent.
By outbidding Toronto for the NHL's top-scoring defenceman, Sergei Gonchar, late of Washington, the Bruins solved one of their perennial problems, offence from the back end.
Earlier, the Bruins brought in veteran defenceman Jiri Slegr and late Tuesday the underachieving Andy Delmore from Buffalo.
Last season Delmore tied for the lead among all NHL defencemen with 18 goals although his play slipped appreciably in Buffalo.
Regardless, the Bruins now boast a solid and offensive capable blue line corps. Up front, Michael Nylander gives the Bruins another offensive threat to mix in with Joe Thornton, Glen Murray, Mike Knuble and Sergei Samsonov.
Boston also added former Leaf hopeful Brad Boyes in a three-way deal with San Jose and Buffalo.
Montreal, another team the Leafs could face in the opening round of the playoffs, also surprised observers by making a splash during the trade period, adding enigmatic Russian sniper Alexei Kovalev.
Although Kovalev suffered a slight shoulder separation in his first game as a Hab he is back skating and should provide offensive splash to a team committed to team defense and the heroics of Jose Theodore in net.
The Canadiens also added plugger Jim Dowd from Minnesota.
Of all the Eastern Conference foes, the moves made by the Ottawa Senators most closely parallel those of the Leafs.
The Senators once again dashed the notion that they're a team just happy to be here. For the second year in a row general manager John Muckler has added crucial pieces to what could be a Stanley Cup puzzle.
After bringing in longtime Washington sniper Peter Bondra, Muckler added toughness along the blue line and up front with Todd Simpson (Anaheim) and Rob Ray (retired, Buffalo). But yesterday was Muckler's finest moment as he added Greg de Vries to round out the blue line corps.
A tough, responsible defenceman, de Vries won a Cup in Colorado and adds veteran leadership to a group hungry to put behind them last season's heartbreaking seven-game loss to New Jersey in the Eastern Conference final.
Like the Leafs, the Senators will also enter the playoffs with questions regarding goaltending depth. While many thought the Leafs would add a veteran upgrade at backup as an insurance policy against Belfour's wonky back, there were likewise rumours Muckler would bring in a veteran to cushion Patrick Lalime who has endured an up and down season.
Those rumours proved false and so both Belfour and Lalime carry the weight of Stanley Cup dreams squarely on their respective shoulders.
Perhaps the most interesting team in the Eastern Conference is the one that was among the quietest during the trade period.
Tampa Bay general manager proved dozens of prognosticators wrong as he made good on his word to keep netminder Nikolai Khabibulin in Tampa Bay even though he could become an unrestricted free agent next season.
Feaster made only a cursory move Tuesday, bringing back injured defenceman Stan Neckar. But Feaster took care of business early in the going, bringing in former Stanley Cup winning defenceman Darryl Sydor.
The team has been on fire since Sydor's arrival from Columbus and along with becoming the first team to clinch a playoff berth, the Lightning are now fighting for top spot overall in the conference.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it may apply more fully to the youthful, talented Lightning than any team in the league.
On the outside looking in, the Buffalo Sabres proved they're not throwing in the playoff towel as they brought in Mike Grier from Washington and Jeff Jillson from Boston along with Brad Brown. More importantly, they held onto top scorer Miroslav Satan and will push to dislodge the Islanders for the final playoff spot, a possibility Leaf fans will be watching with a nervous eye given the Sabres manhandling of the Leafs this season.
In the Western Conference the Colorado Avalanche, as usual, dominated the trade deadline.
General manager Pierre Lacroix completely remade his defensive lineup in recent days, bringing in Bob Boughner (out with an injury), Kurt Sauer and Ossi Vaananen, shedding talented blue liners Martin Skoula and Derek Morris along with top-end prospect Keith Ballard.
Up front, the injury-plagued Avalanche brought in chronic underachiever Chris Gratton from Phoenix and Darby Hendrickson from Minnesota along with Matthew Barnaby from New York in the hopes of creating some energy and character from their third and fourth lines.
More critically, Lacroix finally added the veteran goaltender many had been predicting would be acquired in former Edmonton backstopper Tommy Salo.
Although his play has been uneven, Salo will provide a nice security blanket for untested number-one netminder David Aebischer.
The other half of the Western Conference trading duo, the Detroit Red Wings, were strangely silent Tuesday especially in light of a rib injury to blue-chip acquisition Robert Lang.
The NHL's leading scorer when the Red Wings grabbed him from Washington, Lang will be out as long as a month. Coupled with a long-term injury to Kris Draper, general manager Ken Holland was expected to dip back into the trade pool Tuesday but did not.
Vancouver, another western team with Stanley Cup designs, did its best to try and compensate for what will be the long-term absence of star Todd Bertuzzi, suspended after his cowardly attack on Colorado's Steve Moore.
General manager Brian Burke shed his lame-duck cloak long enough to add two talented, veteran scorers Martin Rucinsky and Geoff Sanderson to fill Bertuzzi's void.
Popular veteran defenceman Marc Bergevin will a welcome addition to the Canuck dressing room as well.
The surging Dallas Stars were relatively quiet, adding Valeri Bure and hulking if under appreciated defenceman Chris Therien.
Former Leaf Shayne Corson is trying to rewrite the final chapter to his long career with the Stars who have shaken off a slow first half to reemerge as a force in the west.
Perhaps the most interesting team in the Western Conference is the Nashville Predators whose addition of one-time Maple Leaf Steve Sullivan and two members of Minnesota's long playoff run last season, Sergei Zholtok and Brad Bombardir, make them a dangerous team as they head towards their first-ever playoff berth.
The suddenly slumping San Jose Sharks tried to offset the longterm loss of injured forward Marco Sturm by dealing for veteran Curtis Brown whose playoff experience in Buffalo may serve the young Sharks well.
Calgary, trying to end a seven-year playoff drought, also surprised some by making a trio of moves which should strengthen their playoff positioning.
Bruising Chris Simon and super pest Ville Nieminen who won a Cup in Colorado will be joined up front by underachieving Marcus Nilson of Florida.
In the battle for the final playoff spot in the west, Edmonton, Los Angeles and St. Louis all made moves they hope will tip the scales in their favour.
The Oilers brought in Petr Nedved and Jussi Markkanen from New York and their presence has paid immediate dividends as the Oil attempt to claw their way into the playoffs after an uneven season.
The once powerful Blues added overpaid veteran Brian Savage and Mike Sillinger to try and bolster an anemic scoring attack and Weinrich on the back end.
The Kings, perhaps the most unlucky team in the NHL in terms of injury, became Anson Carter's third home of the season as he's moved from New York to Washington to the left coast. Carter and Jeff Cowan, who was enjoying a solid season in Atlanta, will help up front while Nathan Dempsey, once a fixture in the Leafs minor-league system, moves in from Chicago.