As the Maple Leafs skated off the ice at the Air Canada Centre on Monday after a solid but eventually fruitless effort against the San Jose Sharks, it was not lost on a few of them that it might have been their penultimate home game together.
“It’s in the back of everyone’s mind, no matter who you are,” centre Wayne Primeau said. “It’s tough, not only for the player, but for their family, too.
“There are free agents who could find new homes before the deadline. But it’s out of our control.”
Just a game in St. Louis on Friday night against Alex Steen, Carlo Colaiacovo, Brad Boyes and the rest of the Blues is keeping the Leafs from the Olympic break. The club’s senior vice-president of hockey operations, David Nonis, told the Toronto Sun’s Mike Zeisberger on Tuesday that he does not foresee the Leafs making any moves prior to the NHL trade freeze that goes into effect on Friday at midnight.
The Leafs’ only other game before the NHL trade deadline at 3 p.m. on March 3 is the previous night at the ACC versus the Carolina Hurricanes. It’s close to a foregone conclusion that forward Alexei Ponikarovsky, who is bound to be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, will be traded.
Ponikarovsky might fetch a second-round pick, but it’s probably too much to expect a young, warm body in return.
Defenceman Garnet Exelby also could go, as could forward Lee Stempniak. Toronto is last in the Eastern Conference with 49 points.
Funny thing, though. The two big trades that general manager Brian Burke made 10 days ago revitalized the team on the ice, with two shutout wins and two one-goal losses in the four games since, and also has resulted in a much happier group in the dressing room.
Two weeks ago, Exelby made it be known that he would not be opposed to a trade. Now, he could be second-guessing that a bit.
“It has been a lot of fun coming around here lately,” Exelby said. “Sometimes it takes a big shakeup to really get a team going that has been struggling. I like the feeling in here.
“You get the crusty veteran attitude, but we have a lot of youth and exuberance.”
The Olympic break won’t do much for the modest momentum the Leafs have built, either.
Defenceman Dion Phaneuf tried to look at the positive side of the break, which will allow bumps and bruises to heal.
“We’re going to use it to our advantage to get some rest and come back with lots of energy down the stretch drive,” Phaneuf said. “We have been working hard as a group and want to carry that over.”
Exelby didn’t leave much open to interpretation when asked about the impending break.
“The timing could have been better for us,” Exelby said. “To sit for two weeks after we have put four or five games together like we have, it is not the ideal situation.”