Trade talk dogs Antropov

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:36 AM ET

DENVER -- With each flubbed scoring opportunity, with each missed open net, with each fanned shot, the frustration grows inside Nik Antropov.

And so do the number of questions swirling inside his head.

Will he be dealt by the March 4 trade deadline? If so, where? Is his time with the Maple Leafs, the only NHL team he has laced up for, slowly ticking down?

"The trade stuff probably is in the back of my mind," Antropov admitted yesterday. "But it is not in my control. That is up to Brian Burke."

The prospect of the big forward being traded remains up in the air. But this much is certain: His value on the open market will continue to plummet if he can't find the back of the net soon.

Referred to as the team's "only top-six forward" by then-Maple Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher back in September, Antropov got off to a nice start, scoring 13 times in the team's first 32 games. That won't win you the Rocket Richard Trophy by any means, but it still had him on a respectable 30-goal pace for the season.

Then the dry spell hit. And how.

Antropov has not scored in the past 16 games. The Leafs, in that span, are 4-12.

Coincidence? We think not.

All the while, he wonders where his future lies.

For his part, Burke can not guarantee that Antropov will still be a Leaf by the end of the season. But that is not his main concern.

Seeing one of the team's top forwards struggling when the team needs him the most, well, that is the most troubling aspect of the entire situation for the Leaf president.

"I'm not making any promises to Nik (regarding a potential trade)," Burke said last night from Toronto. "But my priority is not to improve his trade value. My priority is to get him playing better so he can help the Toronto Maple Leafs win some games right now."

Antropov will have the opportunity to help his team break out of its four-game losing funk when the Leafs meet the Colorado Avalanche at the Pepsi Center tonight. Perhaps the prospect of facing Avs goalie Andrew Raycroft, a guy he went up against in practice on so many occasions the previous two seasons, might be just the medicine he needs to solve his goal-scoring woes.

"At least I am getting chances," he said. "If I wasn't getting the chances, then I would be really worried."

Antropov showed signs of busting out of his offensive coma by peppering Minnesota Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom with eight shots Tuesday. Unfortunately none of them went in. The Wild easily won the game 6-1.

Burke was quite perturbed with that result, as he should be. As coach Ron Wilson pointed out, there were too many players "cheating," meaning they were shirking their defensive responsibilities.

If effort continues to lag, count on a shakeup coming sooner than later.

DISTURBING SIGNS

"Since I've been here, I've praised the work ethic, at least for the most part," Burke said. "But we've had a couple of bad games, and there are some (disturbing) signs.

"Either this group has to play better or we have to change the group."

For the time being, the only "change" is being made by Wilson, who juggled his line combinations at practice yesterday. As part of the reshuffling process, Antropov found himself playing the wing alongside a couple of inconsistent, albeit speedy rookies, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin.

This would be a good season to trade Antropov. The new regime needs to clean house and start fresh and, at one time, Antropov was one of their most moveable assets.

But with each game he fails to score, his value on the open market continues to erode.


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