TORONTO - There's one question that will run through the minds of the Toronto Maple Leafs as they vacation this summer. What if?
With the full services of their team, would the Leafs have pushed to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1967? The answer will never be known but can be speculated. Every team goes through injuries but the collective amount Toronto endured was incredible.
Coming out of December the Leafs were the least injured team in the league and that trend soon turned ugly around the Olympic break and held strong late into their playoff run.
Losing Dmitry Yushkevich in early February, to a blood clot in his right leg, was to put it mildly, devastating. He is the team's best hitter and blocks shots without a second thought. The rugged Russian would have allowed Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe to keep their playoff ice time down instead routinely reaching the 30-minute mark.
Yushkevich watched as his teammates scratched and clawed through 20 playoff games. The Leafs management wasn't willing to risk his future health on one playoff run, despite treatment that could have allowed him to play. But if the clot was somehow dislodged during a game he could have died.
Yushkevich was fighting for his right to play but in the end realized why it didn't happen.
"I can understand the Leafs' position," Yushkevich said just after the season "They had a lot to lose."
The defenceman becomes a restricted free agent this summer and will be completely healthy in time for training camp in September. He also recently underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips in the knee, after being told he wasn't going to be allowed to play in the playoffs.
As for what Yushkevich will be looking for in his new contract a one-year qualifying offer isn't going to cut it even though he wants to be part of the Leafs.
"I definitely won't take the qualifier," Yushkevich said. "We'll try to negotiate a long-term deal. I want to be part of this team."
Considering the lack of quality of defenceman in the NHL, the Leafs will do everything they can to ink Yushkevich for a long period of time.
Even if the two parties can get together for a deal, it won't take the sting out of the missed opportunity in 2002.