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O'Neill Thrilled to be Blue and White Leafs Land Netminder in 1st Round

Saturday, 30.07.2005 / 11:08 PM / News
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O\'Neill Thrilled to be Blue and White Leafs Land Netminder in 1st Round

July 30, 2005

OTTAWA (CP) - The Toronto Maple Leafs made a deal to help them now and selected a first-round pick to help them down the road at the 2005 NHL entry draft Saturday.

The Leafs acquired forward Jeff O'Neill from the Carolina Hurricanes for a conditional 2006 draft pick. The deal was announced a short time after Toronto took Finnish goaltender Tuukka Rask with the 21st overall selection.

"We're looking for some scoring on the right side,'' Leafs GM John Ferguson said of O'Neill. "It did help the situation obviously that he wanted to come to Toronto.''

The deal to acquire O'Neill, 29, had been rumoured for the last few weeks. O'Neill agreed to a two-year contract that will pay him $1.5 million US annually, a bargain considering O'Neill was scheduled to earn $2.812 million this season although Carolina had no intention of tendering a qualifying offer for that amount. By making the move, the Hurricanes get a pick for the former 41-goal scorer that could be as high as a third-rounder, depending on how many goals O'Neill scores this season.

For O'Neill, a native of Richmond Hill, Ont., it's a chance to play for the team he grew up watching.

"I'm as ecstatic as I can be,'' he said in a phone interview. "I'm 20 minutes down the road from the rink.''

O'Neill has 198 goals and 218 assists in 673 regular-season games. He was selected fifth overall in the 1994 draft when the Hurricanes' franchise was based in Hartford, Conn.

"I talked to (Canes GM) Jim Rutherford today,'' O'Neill said. "I told him and (owner) Peter Karmanos how grateful I was that they gave me the chance to play in the NHL for 11 years.

"I'm grateful to be given the opportunity for the lifestyle and success. I said we'll see you down the road and we left it at that. I've been there 11 years and it's time for a change.''

The trade comes just over a week after a tragic loss for the O'Neill family. Donny O'Neill, Jeff's older brother, was killed in a car crash in Vaughan, Ont., just north of Toronto, when his vehicle rolled over on a ramp linking two major highways. He was not wearing a seat belt.

"I'm thinking outside the box right now,'' O'Neill said. "I'm happy to be playing for the Maple Leafs in a new city, but with everything that has happened to my family . . . if I put a smile on their faces for just half a day (with this news) then I'm glad.''

Somewhat lost in the shuffle with the O'Neill trade was the first-round selection of Rask, the top-ranked European goaltender by NHL Central Scouting. He spent last season in his native Finland with the Ilves Juniors team, where he had a 1.86 goals-against average and .935 save percentage in 26 games. Rask has size at six foot two and 183 pounds, and is known for his good glove, quick reflexes and butterfly style. He played for Finland at the last world junior hockey championship and his country's under-18 squad.

"We project him to be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL _ down the road,'' Ferguson said.

Rask didn't make the trip to Ottawa's Westin Hotel for draft day, but instead watched the proceedings on the Internet at his girlfriend's apartment in Finland. He knows it could be awhile before he's ready for the top level.

"Maybe two, three years, four years,'' Rask said. "Whatever it takes.''

The Leafs selected defenceman Phil Oreskovic of the OHL's Brampton Battalion with the 82nd overall pick. Toronto selected forwards with its two other picks, taking American Alex Berry of the Empire Junior Hockey League's Junior Bruins 153rd overall and Johan Dahlberg, who played for the Modo Juniors in his native Sweden last season, at No. 173.

O'Neill was a thorn in Toronto's side during Carolina's run to the Stanley Cup final in 2002. He finished with 13 points in 22 games that post-season as the Hurricanes knocked off the Maple Leafs in the conference final before losing to Detroit in the Stanley Cup final. To help eliminate the Leafs was ironic since that was the team O'Neill would cheer during Toronto's playoff runs in the early 1990's.

"I hate to say it because I was drafted by Hartford, but I couldn't help cheering for Dougie Gilmour,'' O'Neill said. "My whole family cheered for the Leafs all their lives.

"Secretly inside, I think they cheered for the Leafs a bit every time we played them.''

With the draft and the O'Neill deal done, Ferguson's next task is to get some key players signed before they become unrestricted free agents Monday. Three veteran forwards at the top of his list are Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk and Tie Domi.

Ferguson also has to make qualifying offers to restricted free agents like defenceman Aki Berg and forwards Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov if he wants to retain their rights. However, it is possible they could still end up with the Leafs if they were willing to sign for less.

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