The Toronto Maple Leafs know how to play through injuries and refuse to use that as an excuse during the rigours of the National Hockey League's regular season and playoffs.
But the same can't be said for how they've played whenever trade rumours reach a fever pitch.
Two seasons ago when Eric Lindros was the torrid topic, the Leafs swooned heading towards the trading deadline, going 5-6-3 in January, 4-5-3 in February and 6-7-1 in March. They only sealed a playoff spot on their 81st game of the regular season, and with 90 points, finished with their lowest total in Pat Quinn?s tenure as head coach of the Leafs.
Operating in relatively placid waters, the Leafs, under Quinn, reached 97 points in 1998-99, and club-record 100-point campaigns in 1999-2000 and 2001-02.
This season, the Leafs' rocky start (6-10-2-0 through November 16) looked like ancient history for a while. That was due in large part to Ed Belfour's brilliance. The Leafs looked comfortable, standing at 25-17-4-1 through January 18 when Nik Antropov's overtime-goal at Montreal propelled them to a third consecutive win.
Suddenly, the Leafs had some breathing room, rising to fifth in the Eastern Conference and very much setting their sights on the upper echelon. Then - boom! Along came the Alexei Kovalev rumours last week and the Leafs returned to shades of 2000-01. That is to say, they looked preoccupied in falling meekly, 3-1 to the Philadelphia Flyers, 4-0 to the Buffalo Sabres and 3-0 to the Colorado Avalanche.
| Pat Quinn would like to see his team settle down and just play hockey. |
Hey, I got to pick the three stars in the Avalanche game and I had a tough time making Roy the third star of the game considering he had such an easy time registering the shutout. A game that should have been a classic turned into a dud in terms of entertainment value. Paced by buzz-saw Peter Forsberg, the Avs smothered the Leafs and made them look downright bad.
So what of it, Pat Quinn - Does the incredible amount of trade rumours affect his club's play?
"There were a lot of names thrown about out there," Quinn said shaking his head in disbelief over how this market was over-saturated last week. "It does put them on edge. You saw a lot of no-brain hockey out there (against Colorado)."
With two games to play before the all-star break, the Leafs can't afford to keep stumbling. There's a pack of clubs nipping at their heels now, including the Pittsburgh Penguins. To put things in perspective, the Penguins need Kovalev right now.
His hat trick against the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday kept them in contention for a playoff spot. Does it make sense for the Penguins to unload one of their superstars with the potential for playoff gates? Not likely. The Eastern Conference race is too tight to anticipate major wheeling and dealing at this stage.
"We can be on the outside looking in, in a matter of four or five games," said Alyn McCauley. "So stop the bleeding now. We can?t let points slip away."
But, like Quinn, McCauley believes the rampant trade rumours were about as welcome as the Norwalk virus.
"I do think that it bothers guys," McCauley said. "The only reason I knew about it (the Kovalev rumour) was because in Buffalo some guys were asking Nik Antropov about it and Nikkie was like, 'oh, I guess I'm going to Pittsburgh now.'"
"I don't read the papers because I don?t want to be distracted. Trades are a part of the business. If you are traded, then so be it. But I don't think you can worry about it or it affects your play. Besides, you might not be traded."
The NHL trade deadline is 3 p.m. (Eastern Time) on March 11. Think of all the rumours that will be written about and transmitted over the airwaves between now and then. And imagine how the pressure will intensify in Toronto.
A bit of advice for the Leafs: Grow a thick skin (a very, very thick one at that) and learn to deal with the trade rumours. It won't be easy but failure to do so could prove costly, just think back to 2000-01. That was, after all, too close for comfort. Look back at other John Iaboni columns: