Toronto Maple Leafs general manager John Ferguson Jr. is following a well-worn path, travelled by his predecessors Pat Quinn and Cliff Fletcher, in trying to end the club's 37-year Stanley Cup drought with a late-season deal.
In the first substantial move in his six months as the Leafs' rookie general manager, Ferguson acquired another senior citizen, defenceman Brian Leetch from the New York Rangers last night.
The Leafs didn't give up a player on their current roster, but they paid a heavy price because they trade away prospects Maxim Kondratiev and Jarkko Immonen, their first-round National Hockey League draft pick in 2004 and their 2005 second-round selection in exchange for Leetch. The Leafs also will receive a conditional draft choice from the Rangers, either a fourth-round pick in June or a third-round selection in 2005.
The Leafs, whose average age was 31 before the Leetch deal, became even older, but added a player they dearly needed to run the club's inconsistent power play.
The Leafs haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1967, and their veteran-laden roster was considered a contender before they acquired Leetch.
"The bottom line is we did this to improve our chances of winning the Stanley Cup this year," Ferguson said. "It puts us right there with that full group.
"I'm comfortable with the price we had to pay."
Leetch, who was celebrating his 36th birthday with his Rangers teammates in Boston when he was told the news, flew home to New York and will travel to Toronto this morning. He is expected to play for the Leafs against the New York Islanders at the Air Canada Centre tonight.
The Leafs will pay Leetch's full contract -- the remainder of his $6.6-million (all figures U.S.) salary this season and the $6.4-million he will make next year.
This deal was in the works for the past few weeks and heated up last weekend when Rangers general manager Glen Sather decided to unload the veteran Rangers blueliner.
There were some reports that the Leafs were in the Sergei Gonchar sweepstakes right up until he was dealt yesterday to the Boston Bruins in exchange for defenceman Shaone Morrisonn and a first-round and second-round draft pick. But Ferguson intimated that the Leafs were never seriously in the running for Gonchar.
The price was too steep once they found out the Capitals wanted both Nik Antropov and prospect Carlo Colaiacovo.
"Brian is a premier defenceman and to my mind the best defenceman available," said Ferguson, who added that other teams tried to pry Matt Stajan and prospect Alexander Steen in other deals.
Quinn knows how well Leetch can play, but he is 10 years removed from his Conn Smythe performance when the Rangers defeated the Quinn-coached Vancouver Canucks in the 1994 Stanley Cup final. He had five goals and 11 points in that final.
Quinn could use the left-shooting Leetch with veteran Ken Klee in one pairing and keep Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe paired.
Leetch, who had spent his entire 17-year career with the Rangers, also won the Norris Trophy as the top defenceman in the league in 1992 and 1997. He hasn't competed in the playoffs for six seasons, but he has played well this season on an underachieving Rangers team.
He is an offensive defenceman with outstanding skating ability. Throughout his career, Leetch has been one of the best puck-carrying blueliners.
In 57 games this season, Leetch has 13 goals and 36 points and led the Rangers in ice time with an average of 26 minutes 14 seconds. Before last night's league action, he was tied for 10th place among defencemen in league scoring.
Leetch, of Corpus Christi, Tex., played college hockey at Boston College and played for the United States at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and the 1998 and 2000 Olympics. Leetch played 1,129 career games for the Rangers, collecting 981 points (240 goals and 741 assists). He was the Rangers' first choice, ninth overall, in the 1986 entry draft.
The Leafs beat out the Dallas Stars to land Leetch.
Rangers general manager Glen Sather was pleased with his end of the deal.
"We think we did well with this one," said Sather, who added that Kondratiev will likely play for Russia at the world championship in Prague in the spring.
"If we are going to go ahead and reorganize the team, this was the time to do it," Sather said. "There was a market out there. We couldn't turn it down."
Sather likes the fact that Kondratiev has played with the Rangers' young defenceman Fedor Tjutin.
Kondratiev, 21, may have been the Leafs' best blueline prospect. He played the first seven games of the season with Toronto before being demoted to the St. John's Maple Leafs of the American Hockey League and then opted to finish the season with Tolyatti Lada in Russia.
Immonen, a 21-year-old centre who was impressive at the Leafs' training camp in Stockholm in September, plays in the Finnish elite league.
The giving up of the two draft picks means the Leafs will be without their first-round pick for the second consecutive year. They also don't have a second pick this year because they traded it away in the Glen Wesley deal with the Carolina Hurricanes last March.
You can also scratch Chris Pronger off the wish list of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
St. Louis Blues general manager Larry Pleau said yesterday he has no intention of trading the former Norris Trophy winner.
"I don't know where this stuff comes from," Pleau said of the rumours that the big defenceman is on the trade block. "All I can tell you is that it's not true. We want Chris to be here for a long time."
Pronger, 29, is in the final year of his contract, which is paying him $9.5-million this season. The native of Dryden, Ont., is scheduled to become a restricted free agent on July 1.
Notes: Toronto veterans Darcy Tucker and Ed Belfour were allowed to skip practice yesterday to rest their ailing bodies. Both are expected to play against the Islanders. . . . If Leafs forward Craig Johnson clears waivers at noon EST tomorrow, he would be reassigned to St. John's and then recalled when NHL rosters can be expanded after the trade deadline on Tuesday.
Acquisitions by the top eight teams in the NHL Eastern Conference since the start of the 2003-04 season:
Team: Tampa Bay Lighting
Team: Ottawa Senators
Team: Philadelphia Flyers
Team: Toronto Maple Leafs
Team: Boston Bruins
Team: New Jersey Devils
Team: Montreal Canadiens
Team: New York Islanders