Leafs already in playoffs

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:56 AM ET

There are 18 games standing between the Maple Leafs and their future life as ex-Leafs -- just 40 more sleeps to get it right and change the course of history.

The NHL trade deadline is Feb. 26 and, for the likes of Darcy Tucker and Mats Sundin and Tomas Kaberle, it means another trip through daily rumours, fact, fiction and public -- if not personal -- turmoil.

Unless the Leafs have a major breakthrough and become more than playoff pretenders, everyone from Andrew Raycroft to Pavel Kubina will find themselves the topic of another team's desires.

Tucker will be 33 before the end of this season. Despite a down year, he probably has a couple of good playoffs left in him. That might make him appealing to another team but not as the central piece in any rebuilding project in Toronto.

Sundin would bring draft picks.

For Jason Blake, it might actually be a reprieve -- but who is going to pay $20 million US for a guy with eight goals?

Kaberle? If Anton Stralman is as good as everyone says he will be, Kaberle may be the team's most tradeable commodity.

And, so it goes.

"I'm not worrying about that. I'm worrying about my hockey team," Tucker said yesterday, as the team prepared to leave for tonight's game in Boston. "We have to worry about winning hockey games.

Sounds nice in theory. Not so easy in practice. Kubina, the biggest whipping boy in Toronto since Larry Murphy, has spent two years in the public's crosshairs.

"Some guys read the papers and watch the news. Some don't. It's up to you if it affects you. I try to just focus on the next game," Kubina said. "This is the capital city of hockey and there's always lots of talk. I learned that last year. I learned not to worry about what is being said. People are always talking."

Numerically, this group isn't that far from a playoff spot. The Leafs trail Boston by a mere six points. But realistically the ground to make up is a vast chasm. The Leafs are tied with Tampa at 17 wins -- fewest in the league -- have lost 11 of their past 14 and must vault six teams to qualify for the playoffs.

When they beat Carolina on Tuesday night, it was their first win in regulation time since Dec. 14.

"Obviously, amidst everything that was going on, it was a good win," Tucker said. "But we have to put together win after win after win here in order to put ourselves back in the playoff race and that's all we can concentrate on. The more we worry about other stuff, psyches and mental attitude, the more it detracts from what we're trying to accomplish -- get two points every game."

To reach 92 points -- the minimum expected to be necessary to make the playoffs -- the Leafs will have to win 25 of their remaining 36. In other words, Toronto's playoffs actually start tonight. A loss would leave Boston with an eight-point lead and two games in hand.

That's not what Blake had in mind when he signed on as a free agent. And now there is talk that management wouldn't mind dealing him.

Speculation is that the feeling is mutual -- although he wouldn't go there when asked if, at age 34, he could see himself sticking around for a rebuilding process.

"I have no say on that," Blake said. "I'm here to play hockey. Whatever happens on the management side happens."

But, unlike Sundin, he didn't say he wouldn't go. Perhaps there is more to what he didn't say then what he did say. On the other hand, maybe we're just too suspicious. But, it's a good bet he didn't come here to finish 27th.

"When I came here," he said, pausing, "we have the potential (to be a good playoff team) in this room. We've shown it in spurts, but just haven't had a consistency level. Obviously, we're not where we want to be but there's a lot of hockey to be played. We need to approach every game like its a playoff game. There's always hope."

And, sometimes, that's all there is, too.


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