Play for now, not for draft day

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:59 AM ET

With a good four days coming up to listen to the hockey world gush about junior sensations John Tavares of Canada and Sweden's Victor Hedman, some decided to spoil the party.

Maple Leafs goalie Curtis Joseph started it on New Year's Eve, mentioning the "P" word, a curse among an irrational portion of the team's fans who think losing is the best means to an end of the team's long-term misery.

TEDIOUS LOSS

Forward Nik Hagman took it a step further talking about last night's game against the Buffalo Sabres being important to keep the Leafs "in the hunt" and "staying in the playoff picture."

Many more efforts like the tedious 4-1 loss at the Air Canada Centre and such talk will quiet in a hurry.

Coach Ron Wilson said that both teams played as though they might have had a New Year's hangover. And if you were sitting in the stands with one, your head didn't feel any better afterward.

Most nights though, the Leafs have played like they could at least be fringe playoff contenders for a while. And really as a fan, should you expect anything different?

Even with the sense that the team could make headway in its current four-game homestand -- which now stands at 1-1 and has the Ottawa Senators on deck tomorrow -- there is a certain idiocy to looking too closely at the standings now.

But here's where the logic of those wanting the Leafs to move to the front of the line in the bidding for Tavares and Hedman, the pair that have scouts salivating at the world junior championship in Ottawa, begins to break down.

For starters the Leafs are professional athletes, bred to play to win regardless of talent, teammates or prospects for the future. What do you want them to do, tank the odd game for the sake of draft day?

Next, if the Leafs finish near the basement at season's end, there's no guarantee that the lottery balls would bounce their way and give them the first or second pick overall anyway.

Of more significance, however, those currently on the roster, who are bright enough to recognize what is at play here, surely understand that no more than a half-dozen of them likely are to be around in whatever season the team becomes a legitimate playoff contender.

Enough of them have seen the consequences of a bad shift or three that can get them pasted to Wilson's bench for a period or longer. Those who have responded have been rewarded with opportunities both for the present and possibly for the future.

And if four or five of those younger players become solid NHL veterans in two or three years, the effort will have paid off.

Of course, with precious little depth both with the main club and the AHL's Marlies, should president and general manager Brian Burke do the expected and tear apart the roster, a downward slide through the standings could take care of itself.

If Burke is able to unload talented veterans for prospects and picks, Wilson will have an adventure filling out his lineup each night.

It also can be argued that the first half of the season is the best time for the current Leafs to shine. The better they play, the more value veterans on the roster will be as the March 4 trade deadline nears.

Fans were warned not to think seriously about the playoffs this spring, but in a different season last night's game might have seemed more urgent. For now, the entertainment value has to come in different ways.

"It is a rebuilding team, no question," Joseph said after an effort that showed some of the accompanying growing pains.

LOTS OF EXCITEMENT

"There is a lot of excitement that comes with that too. You get to see guys blossom and become NHL players."

Those players may not encourage the drooling that is being done over the top juniors, but Joseph is right -- some of the Leafs' future is here already. Fortunately, there are enough nights not as dreadful as last night to enjoy them.


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