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Leafs Need Belfour Encore

From The Toronto Star...October 9, 2003

He arrived last season as the Maple Leafs' biggest question mark. Now, on the cusp of his second season in Toronto, Ed Belfour is the club's most emphatic answer.

He's the response to concerns about a feeble defence; the constant on a veteran squad that may be hamstrung by injuries all season.

Despite being the Leafs' oldest player predating that spring day when Nathan Phillips Square was last used to celebrate a Stanley Cup championship Belfour has already demonstrated the resolve, competitive fire and well-honed skills to be the potential solution to whatever weaknesses might unfold in front of him.

If Belfour can, at 38, continue the brilliant goaltending that made him a finalist for the Vezina Trophy last season, breaking in kids on the blue line suddenly isn't quite as risky. Turnovers at both blue lines, a bane of this team, aren't necessarily costly. And discipline, a foreign concept to the yapping Leafs, can slip on the ice without a subsequent tumble in the standings.

"He's proved," Alexander Mogilny once said, "that he doesn't have a ring on his finger for nothing."

And for the Leafs to have a shot at any jewelry this season, Belfour will have to be as good as, if not better than, last season's eye-opening reminder that he is one of the NHL's best. Gone from the Leafs' blue line are Robert Svehla, Glen Wesley and, for at least the start of the season, Bryan McCabe. Toronto grudgingly embraced a youth movement and still lacks the front-line stud defender around which championship are built.

Last season, behind a squad that struggled in its own end, Belfour set a team record with 37 wins. But his biggest victory doesn't show on the stat sheet. He arrived in a city, and on a team, still wallowing in the loss of beloved netminder Curtis Joseph, and won over the naysayers. It was a remarkable comeback season on the heels of an uninspiring wrap-up campaign in Dallas.

While Belfour says he never doubted himself, he credits his teammates with helping him through a rough start in Toronto. In a bizarre coincidence, Belfour allowed goals on the first shot he faced in his first scrimmage, in the blue and white game, in his first exhibition game and in his first home game. Fans wondered if Cujo had been replaced by a real dog. They were on Belfour to the point where teammate Tie Domi publicly admonished ticket buyers for not supporting the netminder.

"Everyone really believed in me in here and helped me out," Belfour said of the men who occupy the same dressing room.

"Tie came out and spoke up. (Coach Pat Quinn) was great with me, showing lots of confidence and patience, and that all made a huge difference. Eventually fans see the work ethic, determination, drive and all that. Sooner or later they recognize it. That's all they want, someone who will give them their best."

But it wasn't only the fans Belfour had to win over. Joseph was hugely popular among his teammates and when he departed and the Leafs replaced him with an aging puckstopper coming off a season in which he ranked 35th in goals against average (2.65) and 53rd in save average (.895). Sure, they supported him but some of his teammates were also among the skeptics.

"With Curtis Joseph, we loved that guy and we knew how good he was and how many games he won for us," recalls Gary Roberts. "Eddie didn't have a good year the year previous and we really didn't know Eddie. Initially things didn't go well for the team and there was some extra pressure early, but you don't win the Stanley Cup without being able to deal with that and Eddie obviously dealt with it and he ended up being the reason we had so much success last year."

Any regular season success is tempered by the memory of a first-round ouster at the hands of Philadelphia and although the Leafs lost 6-1 in Game 7, it's tough to hang that series loss on Belfour. He made 258 saves in those seven games, the third-most in an NHL series since 1967-68.

The numbers for Belfour tell only part of the story. His .922 save average ranked him sixth during the regular season and a goals against average of 2.26 put him eighth among starters. But more important is that he was Steady Eddie again. He looked solid almost every time out, squaring to the shooters and rarely getting out of position, and exuded a sense of confidence that his teammates fed off.

But can he do it again? Is there a time when, after 15 seasons of stopping pucks at this level and after a 62-appearance season, his age will catch up to him and his body will start to break down?

"I wouldn't know," Belfour says caustically. "Look, not to be cocky or anything but I've been doing it my whole life. I'm still playing what, 60, 61 or 62 games? I've played that many my whole career and it's never bothered me."

In many ways, Belfour is the face of this year's edition of the Maple Leafs, which with 13 players over 30, will be among the oldest teams in the NHL. This is a team with a very narrow window to succeed. And if the 2004-05 campaign is wiped out by a contract impasse, this could well be the NHL swan song for as many as a half-dozen of them, including Belfour.

Management acknowledged that urgency and created a rush of excitement for Toronto fans in the days leading up to last spring's trade deadline, bringing in Doug Gilmour, Glen Wesley, Phil Housley and Owen Nolan. There was a real sense that the Leafs had bulked up for a championship run. But that enthusiasm waned early in the summer, with veteran defenceman Bryan Marchment the only free-agent signing by that point. After John Ferguson Jr. was hired late in the summer as the new general manager, the patching began anew. Ferguson twice dipped into the free-agent pool, for centre Joe Nieuwendyk and defenceman Ken Klee.

Those additions should help Toronto defensively Klee because he is steady in his own end; Nieuwendyk because he is such an excellent faceoff man and because his attention to both ends of the ice should rub off on some of Toronto's less defensive-minded forwards.

Quinn is, again, trying to put the emphasis on team defence and he'll never be accused of preaching to the converted.

"We were a little too soft and probably a little too dainty at playoff time when it came to playing Philadelphia because we didn't win the battles for the puck in our zone," the coach said. "It doesn't matter if you've got nice forwards you want to get the puck to, if you never really come up with it.

"The object for us is to get the forwards to contribute a little more in the defensive zone. I think our (defencemen) are fine. We want our third guy back to be a little more responsible because we give way too many outnumbered attacks."

But no matter what happens in front of him, Toronto's season will again hinge on Belfour. This is a netminders' league, with recent champions boasting the likes of Martin Brodeur, Dominik Hasek, Patrick Roy and Belfour himself between the pipes, but the play of the goalie will be even more crucial here because facing 40 shots likely won't be all that uncommon.

"You just play the best you can," Belfour says when asked if he'll have to be even better this season. "The better you play, the more you help your team out."

And with the Leafs, that may be even more insightful than it sounds.