TORONTO – With the losses mounting, it’s hard to ignore the shadow that the upcoming trade deadline has cast over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Following practice Wednesday, forward Darcy Tucker bristled when asked if he’d spoken to interim GM Cliff Fletcher about the possibility of waiving his no-movement clause. Minutes after that, it was captain Mats Sundin’s turn to answer the same series of questions about his future in Toronto.
And the NHL’s third-worst team can expect more of the same every day leading up to the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
“I think when you’re a team in the position we are in there’s always going to be trade talks about pretty much all the players in the room,” said Sundin. “We’re in a winning business and when you’re not playing up to par where you’re expected to be, there’s going to be all kinds of changes made. We’ve already seen that this year.
“As players, you’re obviously in the position where anything could happen for any of us. That comes with the territory, especially around the deadline.”
The players, of course, would rather talk about going on a long winning streak and qualifying for the playoffs.
It’s incredibly unlikely at this point. The eighth seed in the Eastern Conference the past two years has qualified with 92 points, and the Leafs would have to win 22 of 30 games to finish the season at that mark. You don’t need to be a mathematician to grasp just how long those odds are.
In the meantime, trade talk is only going to heat up in frigid Toronto and you can expect Sundin to be at the centre of it.
The big Swede has remained steadfastly against the idea of waiving his no-movement clause to facilitate a trade but says he’ll sit down for a meeting with Fletcher if the GM requests one.
“Yeah, why wouldn’t I?” said Sundin. “I can talk to Cliff. I’m sure he’s got all kinds of stuff to talk to me about but it doesn’t change my position.”
Sundin is currently the longest-serving Leaf in the team’s dressing room and is the franchise leader in both goals and points.
You can count rookie Jiri Tlusty among those who can’t imagine what it would be like if Sundin were dealt away.
“If he were traded, it’s a big minus for us,” said Tlusty. “He’s a great leader, great player, great man. I think it would be a (loss) for us.”
Tlusty played on the top line with Sundin during Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to St. Louis and marvelled at the captain’s ability to find him anywhere on the ice. He also appreciated how much instruction Sundin gave him during the game.
At 19 years old, he’s the youngest player on the Maple Leafs roster. Tlusty acknowledged feeling the mounting tension around the team.
“It’s hard to play with pressure, pressure – because we have to win a lot of games right now,” he said. “We’ve still got a chance to make the playoffs. We’ve got 30 games left and if we win 20 games, we can make it.”
The same thing is being said by every member of the Maple Leafs even as the season appears more and more bleak. Toronto plays in Carolina on Thursday before hosting Eastern Conference-leading Ottawa on Saturday.
Forward Chad Kilger will not play against the Hurricanes. The Leafs said he did not join the team on the trip to Carolina due to personal reasons. Also Wednesday, Toronto recalled forward Ben Ondrus from the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League.
Next week the Leafs will play Florida, red-hot Montreal and NHL-best Detroit.
By the time that tough stretch of games is done, you can expect a few general managers to be in talks with Fletcher. One player they might have interest in is Tucker but the gritty Leafs forward isn’t saying if he would consider a trade away from the team he’s been with since February 2000.
“I’m not talking about that at all,” Tucker said combatively.
Sundin was much more obliging.
The 36-year-old seems remarkably relaxed and claims not to be tiring of the mood around the Maple Leafs.
“You can never get discouraged as a professional athlete,” said Sundin. “You’ve got to keep going. Every night you play a game you have a chance to win the hockey game and a chance to move up in the standings. That’s all we’re trying to do.
“It doesn’t matter how many games you lose or how much that you’ve been struggling as a group, we’ve got to keep bouncing back.”
Sundin and agent J.P Barry ultimately control the captain’s fate.
Everyone, including his teammates, will be interested to see what happens. However, the other Maple Leafs say that Sundin’s situation will not become a distraction.
“As he goes forward in his career, that’s his decision,” said veteran forward Jason Blake. “Whatever he does, he does.
“We still have some hockey games left here and we’re trying to obviously make the playoffs. That’s between those two gentlemen (Sundin and Fletcher) and we’re just concentrating on trying to play hockey.”
In the meantime, Sundin expects the questions about his future to keep on coming.
“That’s part of the deal,” he said. “When you’re a team in the position that we are in it just comes with the territory. It doesn’t bother me.”