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While his teammates kibitzed and assisted each other in skills they needed to work on at the end of practice at the Hershey Centre yesterday, Gary Roberts was a solitary figure on the periphery, trying to get accustomed to a new pair of skates.

Roberts, the former Toronto Maple Leafs veteran who will make his return to the Air Canada Centre tonight as a member of the Florida Panthers, later admitted that becoming comfortable with his new surroundings has been a difficult process.

"Once you move to a new team, you have to reprove yourself," said Roberts, who spent four seasons with the Leafs before signing as a free agent with Florida last summer. "I'm going through that right now.

"Training camp went well and I felt pretty good. But when you get hurt [he has missed five of the Panthers' 11 games with a groin injury]it's tough to feel as much a part of the team as you would like."

Roberts is still searching for his first point in his 18th National Hockey League season. But, despite his slow start, when Roberts is on the ice tonight in his white Panthers sweater, crashing and banging with his unmatched work ethic, the wonderment of how the Leafs let him and Joe Nieuwendyk bolt to another club will no doubt resurface.

Nieuwendyk, who will miss his fifth consecutive game because of back spasms, and Roberts never hung up a sign that they were a package deal. But Roberts confirmed yesterday that he wanted to remain teammates with Nieuwendyk.

"He signed with Toronto [for the 2003-04 season]to play with me," Roberts said.

"I was excited because not only are we friends, but because Stanley Cups seem to follow him around. We never got that chance to win one in Toronto, so I wanted a chance to win one with him some place else."

The Leafs made an offer to the two players in the week they had exclusive negotiating rights with them.

But the offer to Nieuwendyk was less than desirable in term and value.

The Leafs later sweetened the deal, but still Nieuwendyk's salary was not what he considered up to snuff.

When the clock struck 12, allowing other clubs to jump in, the Panthers were quick with an offer of two-year contracts for both players.

The two went back to the Leafs one final time, but before there was an answer, the Panthers sweetened their tenders and both signed two-year, $4.5-million (U.S.) deals.

"We knew [Leafs general manager]John Ferguson Jr. was in tough because they had some big contracts committed and still had to stay under the salary cap," said Roberts, who added that he didn't believe the Leafs could afford what he considered market value for his services.

"I basically tell [friends]that it was a move that I wasn't crazy about at the time. But now that I've made it, I'm excited."

Roberts, 39, is playing beside a couple of youngsters, centre Stephen Weiss and right winger Nathan Horton.

Weiss was 3 when Roberts began his NHL career with the Calgary Flames in 1986-87, and Horton was 1.

Roberts chose Florida because he considers Roberto Luongo among "the top three" goaltenders in the league and his familiarity with the coaching staff.

Head coach Jacques Martin was his junior coach with the Guelph Platers when they won a Memorial Cup two decades ago, and he knew assistant coaches Guy Charron and George Kingston from his days in Calgary.

Charron was an assistant coach with the Flames and Kingston was the long-time bench boss at the University of Calgary.

"We felt that [Roberts and Nieuwendyk]would be great examples to our younger players with their work ethic on the ice and off the ice," Martin said.

"They have an understanding of professionalism and that's important. Whether it's Gary, Joe or [other veterans signed, such as]Martin Gelinas or Sean Hill, it's brought a lot of stability to our organization."

Stability the Leafs lost. They may not feel it right now -- although the Panthers have a one-point advantage in the Eastern Conference standings -- but the Stanley Cup experience of Nieuwendyk and Roberts will be missed come playoff time. Combined with Brian Leetch and Alexander Mogilny, the Leafs lost a total of six Stanley Cup championships when that foursome walked, leaving goaltender Ed Belfour as the only Toronto player who has won a Stanley Cup.

"It felt kind of strange flying into Toronto," said Roberts, who is only three goals shy of 400 in his career. "It definitely felt weird."

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