|Leafs goaltender Jonas Gustavsson gets a face full of snow during practice on Monday. (DAVE THOMAS/QMI Agency)
They are playing for jobs, for pride and for each other.
But should the suddenly unbeatable Maple Leafs be injecting a dose of added motivation into this latest March surge?
If it continues for another couple weeks, June 24th in Los Angeles just might be much easier on the big boss, not to mention those who think he overpaid for leading scorer Phil Kessel, the most dynamic sniper the team has had in a decade.
“It would be easier to watch on draft day for sure,” rookie forward Viktor Stalberg said Monday when asked the significance of chasing down a few teams ahead of them in the standings over the final 10 games.
“We don’t want to give too high a draft pick to Boston. And it would be good for (Phil Kessel) if we can take some of that (talk) away.”
Since making the trade with the Bruins and watching his team skid to a horrible start, Leafs general manager Brian Burke has been consistent in his message.
He knew that dealing this year’s first-round pick (plus another next year) meant the Bruins could go to the front of the list in the draft lottery.
He knew the fallout that would come with that threat.
But Burke also expected more of his team this season and surely hoped that watching the Bruins pick first or second wouldn’t be part of opening day of the 2010 entry draft in Los Angeles.
There’s nothing he can do about it now, but those playing for future employment sure can.
Heading into Monday night’s play, the Leafs were four points behind Tampa, Carolina and the Islanders and five behind the Florida Panthers, who will be the enemy Tuesday night at the Air Canada Centre.
With 10 games remaining, the Leafs could move from 15th in the conference to 11th which would severely limit the possibility of Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli snagging Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin, the top-two projected picks in the draft. The more teams they pass, the less the odds favour Boston hitting the draft day jackpot.
Kessel said the players are focussed on what’s ahead of them on a nightly basis, but as the principal incoming commodity in the trade that exported those picks, anything to help make life easier for Burke is a bonus.
“Obviously Burkie believed in me and I want to do anything I can do to help this hockey team and make him look good for believing in me,” Kessel said. “Hopefully we keep going, get some more wins and just keep building.
“But the draft is the draft. It doesn’t mean the guy (who goes first) is going to be the next Sidney Crosby. We’re not focussing on anything like that.”
Kessel has clearly thrived in the youthful new environment and knows well enough what groundwork can be laid while playing out the string. He went through it in his rookie season with the Bruins and watched the team bounce back to one of the NHL’s best the following year.
“My first year in the league, we were down at the bottom and it was a similar thing when you try to work hard and win as many games as you can,” Kessel said. “It can only help you (next season).”
With the Leafs, the surge can continue Tuesday against the Panthers, one of the teams within range. Given the way they have adapted to the spoiler’s role, none of the 10 remaining opponents are likely to create fear in this bunch.
And with a big rally in the homestretch of an otherwise lost season, the Kessel deal will look better by the win.
“We read a lot about (the draft picks) and to be honest with you, we’re not playing for that,” defenceman Dion Phaneuf said. “As a group and a team, we want to keep getting better and that’s the only goal we have.
“We want to finish off the season as best we can. Our goal is to move up and if we do, that’s where the cards will fall.”