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Leafs Land Leetch, Others Move Too

Thursday, 04.03.2004 / 9:25 AM / News
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Leafs Land Leetch, Others Move Too

March 4, 2004

(AP) -- Once the Washington Capitals dumped star defenseman Sergei Gonchar on the Boston Bruins, it was Brian Leetch's turn to leave the only NHL club he'd ever suited up for.

It was Shakeup Wednesday in the Eastern Conference playoff race as the Bruins struck first by landing Gonchar. The Toronto Maple Leafs responded later by prying Leetch away from the New York Rangers.

"We've been doing this for a little while now," Rangers general manager Glen Sather said. "The market was really set by what was done with Gonchar."

Brian Leetch and Sergei GoncharTo get Gonchar, the Bruins dealt Shaone Morrisonn and first- and second-round selections in this year's draft to the rebuilding Capitals.

"The addition of Sergei makes us a better hockey club," Boston general manager Mike O'Connell said. "He is one of the premier offensive defensemen in the game and that was an element that we felt needed upgrading on our team."

The Maple Leafs couldn't agree more. They were very much in the market for the nearly 30-year-old Gonchar, and appeared to be the favorites to get him as rumors heated up before next Tuesday's NHL trade deadline.

After Gonchar went to their Northeast Division rival that is only two points behind, the Maple Leafs traded defenseman Maxim Kondratiev, forward Jarkko Immonen, a first-round pick in this year's draft and a second-round choice in 2005 for Leetch - a two-time Norris Trophy winner.

"We did this to improve our chances to win the Cup this year," said Toronto general manager John Ferguson Jr., who also acquired a conditional draft choice from New York. "Anything short of our ultimate goal will be disappointing."

There was no doubt Gonchar would be leaving Washington after spending his first 10 NHL seasons there. Capitals general manager George McPhee said so Tuesday night after Gonchar was scratched for the third straight game.

Washington didn't want to risk Gonchar getting hurt before he was traded. And Gonchar was ready to go, ready to be the latest star sent away from the Capitals.

That wasn't the case with Leetch.

Sure he's been stuck on the Rangers, who are about to miss the playoffs for the seventh straight season. But the 11-time All-Star, who was the MVP of the playoffs during the Rangers' 1994 Stanley Cup run, never asked Sather to trade him.

But on his 36th birthday, during his 17th season in New York, it happened anyway.

"There's a lot of tough deals you have to make," Sather said. "This certainly ranks right up there with the toughest."

And yet, it was only his latest. Leetch was the centerpeice of the third trade completed by Sather in less than 24 hours.

After sending underachieving forward Alex Kovalev to Montreal on Tuesday, after New York's latest loss, the Rangers continued the dismantling process by sending forward Petr Nedved and goalie Jussi Markkanen to Edmonton for forward Dwight Helminen, goalie Stephen Valiquette and a second-round pick this year.

Markkanen was acquired by the Rangers from Edmonton before this season for the rights to Leetch, who was about to become a free agent. That gave the Oilers compensation when New York re-signed Leetch to a two-year deal that will pay him $6.6 million this season and $6.4 million next season.

Last week, Sather came to the realization that the Rangers weren't going to make the playoffs again, the fourth straight failing season since he came to New York as president and general manager.

For a little over a year, he also tried his hand at coaching, but that didn't work out the final few months last season or this season. So he stepped down last Wednesday to concentrate on his GM duties.

"It's difficult to make any moves of this magnitude," Sather said. "But the state we're in now, we are obviously rebuilding and trying to do what we can to help this team proceed and be successful in the future."

The Maple Leafs are only looking at now. They haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1967 - two months after Leetch was born - and their fans are more than merely restless.

In Leetch, they will see a player who's second in Rangers history in games played (1,129), and is the leader among defensemen in goals (240), assists (741) and points (981).

"He's got a chance to win the Stanley Cup," Sather said of the former Rangers captain.

Gonchar was leading the Capitals with 42 assists and 49 points in 56 games. He joins Steve Konowalchuk, Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra and Robert Lang as players shipped out by the cost-cutting Capitals.

"It's been difficult, but ... we're trying to do what we think is best for the hockey club in the near future," McPhee said.

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