|Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin and winger Darcy Tucker take a breather during yesterday's practice at Lakeshore Lions Arena. Both players have been mentioned as possible trade bait with the deadline just four days away. (Toronto Sun/Stan Behal)
Coach Pat Quinn is building up tomorrow night against the Montreal Canadiens as a 'Stanley Cup playoff game' that will test his players' mettle.
But the result could say more about John Ferguson's stature, as the Maple Leafs' general manager assesses his trade options at the final horn.
Buyers? Sellers? Window shoppers? Tire kickers?
The general manager will have no more games in which to grade his team before Thursday's National Hockey League dealing deadline at 3 p.m. EDT.
The Leafs could be as many as 11 points behind Montreal at that stage if the Habs beat the Flyers tonight and then the Leafs. Or Toronto might be as close as five points if Montreal loses back-to-back.
Ferguson was not at Lakeshore Lions Arena yesterday to watch practice, but the players already had the traditional deadline jitters, double-whammied with a five-game losing streak.
Possible unrestricted free agent defenceman Bryan McCabe, goaltender Ed Belfour, tireless and truculent Darcy Tucker and even captain Mats Sundin could be fair game to go if Ferguson reaches for the blasting caps.
The only player who has openly talked of being better off elsewhere is seldom-used forward Mariusz Czerkawski.
"Who knows what will happen?" said alternate captain McCabe, who continues to stay mum on the related topic of signing long-term with Toronto. "There's a buzz around every team at the deadline. It comes up every year with me. I'll be unrestricted, but that will sort itself out. I love it here and this would be my first choice."
Defenceman Ken Klee recalled one spring in Washington that Capitals' management came to "four or five" veterans near the end of a losing year and offered to move them. Most said yes, as long as it was to a contender, but Klee said such favourable considerations are rare.
"The guys can't control what management is trying to do," Klee said. "I want to stay here. We're a playoff team. We know people in Toronto are disappointed. We are, too. It's not other teams earning chances, it's us turning the puck over."
Quinn is feeling the heat, too, but an argument can be made that cashing him in for Paul Maurice at this stage would have little impact on a thin roster that on Saturday, at least, gave their best in a 4-2 loss to Ottawa.
"I've seen the same symptoms before, but never had something last quite this long," Quinn said. "But I like what I've seen (based on the Sens' game). We're going to get the results we want. Morale is strong. These guys are fighters."
With 22 games and 44 points still up for grabs, Tucker was not going to count his team out. If the Leafs got in this mess in less than a week after the Olympic break, it stands to reason they could use the big game against the Habs to start climbing out by a weekend home date versus Tampa Bay.
"We need to win our (division) games," Tucker said. "We play like we did (Saturday) on a consistent basis, we'll give ourselves a chance. That was one of our best since the middle of January, a playoff type game. I think Ottawa knew it, too.
"We were very physical."