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Leafs try to heal, regroup for 1999-2000

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Posted: Saturday June 05, 1999 09:31 PM

  Hunger pains: Kris King and the Maple Leafs wanted so much more, but this year's loss will only make them more determined next season. AP

TORONTO (CNN/SI) -- The Maple Leafs, especially Steve Thomas, are looking to heal before regrouping for another playoff run during the 1997-2000 season.

Thomaas will not be joining his Maple Leafs teammates on the golf course anytime soon. The separated right shoulder and cracked collarbone he played with during the NHL's Eastern Conference final will have to heal first.

"I'm not talking about this out of any kind of bravado," Thomas said as the 1998-99 Leafs gathered in their Air Canada Centre dressing room one last time Tuesday. "I didn't know if, at this stage of my career, I would be in this position again.

"So I wanted to play. I wanted to push myself as far as I could go."

Thomas was hurt May 17, the night Toronto eliminated Pittsburgh, and kept it a secret while taking injections for five games against the Buffalo Sabres. He was bodychecked by Vaclav Varada on the damaged shoulder late in the first period of the Sabres' 4-2 series clincher Monday night, but after gathering his senses, and being stitched across the right eyebrow to close a cut, he finished the game.

"I won't be golfing for a while, that's for sure," Thomas said.

While disappointed that their season was over, the players were content with their accomplishments.

"Going through what we went through, the intensity of these playoffs, is something we'll take and put in the bank," Thomas said. "This was a learning experience that will help us get to the next level."

Captain Mats Sundin spoke of the morning after.

"It's an emptiness," he said. "You work so hard, and now all you feel is that the energy has been sucked out of you.

"But it's been by far the most exciting hockey season for myself. There was a great chemistry in the room, a feeling that we could win every night. We had a great run in the playoffs. We fell short in the end but we gained a lot of experience."

After missing the playoffs two years in a row, the Leafs finished fourth in the East with 97 points -- two off the club record -- and won a club-record 45 games.

They led the NHL in goals with 268. Six Leafs scored at least 20 as they went from a boring defensive club to a fast-skating, exciting team in head coach Pat Quinn's first season.

Hiring Quinn and signing goaltender Curtis Joseph were keys to the 28-point improvement. Associate general manager Mike Smith made good trades, including the one that landed Bryan Berard for disgruntled Felix Potvin.

Smith's contract expires, and if the 'associate' is not removed from his title by GM-president Ken Dryden, Smith is expected to quit and search out a GM's job with another team.

Smith's status, and the expansion and entry drafts later this month provide Dryden with a heavy workload to begin the off-season.

Garry Valk is set to become an unrestricted free agent and Quinn wants him back.

Defenseman Dimitri Yushkevich is in line for a new contract, and said Tuesday he expects to re-sign without a hassle.

"I don't want to be a holdout," Yushkevich said. "I want to be with the team at the start of training camp.

"I want to be part of this team."

Quinn was encouraged by the development of his younger players, especially defensemen Berard, Tomas Kaberle and Daniil Markov, and he pinpointed the change he wants added: toughness.

"We have to play better in the pits, in the one-on-one battles on the boards, in front of the net," he said. "It's going to be a challenge because there will be expectations now."

The most pressing on-ice personnel needs are a left-winger for Sundin and Thomas, and a defenseman with a booming shot to quarterback an impotent power play.

Today, however, is a day of rest and reflection.

"We were on a journey from the start of the season," said veteran forward Tie Domi. "Pat hit the nail on the head right from the start.

"He said, `Let's not just aim to make the playoffs. Let's try to do something here this season.'

"Maybe we're another player or two away but, hopefully, next year we can be where Buffalo is this year, go all the way. The city is starving for it."

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