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Maple Leafs' Santorelli prized rental near deadline

by Arpon Basu

MONTREAL -- Mike Santorelli will play the 314th regular-season game of his NHL career Saturday, but he is still waiting to play his first game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Santorelli will probably get that chance this spring, and it is all but assured that it won’t be with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Santorelli, Daniel Winnik, Cody Franson and perhaps a few others are likely playing their final games of the season for the Maple Leafs. They are three of the most prized rental players available leading up to the NHL Trade Deadline on March 2.

Though it was awkward to discuss the likelihood of playing for another team while standing in the Maple Leafs dressing room at Bell Centre on Saturday, the possibility of making the playoffs for the first time clearly has Santorelli excited as he heads toward unrestricted free agency this summer.

“Absolutely,” Santorelli said. “Everyone wants playoff performers. So if I can get my game up to that level and be in that situation and do well, I think that’s what every player would want to do.”

Santorelli has 11 goals and 29 points in 56 games this season, his best numbers since putting up 20 goals and 41 points with the Florida Panthers in 2010-11.

Whenever anyone talks about the Maple Leafs and their plans at the deadline, Santorelli’s name is mentioned. That has been a frequent occurrence of late, and it’s only going to be more so as the calendar pushes toward March 2.

“Yeah, you hear it. It’s the nature of the game, I guess,” he said. “It’s starting to get down to the wire here, so it’s definitely in the back of your mind. But all that matters is right now and all that matters is tonight.”

Though Santorelli’s point total is not high, he has produced on a remarkably consistent basis for a so-called bottom-six forward. The longest he’s gone this season without a point was six games.

“I think he’s done a really good job all the way through this year, not knowing where he was going to be at the beginning of the year, whether he was a centerman or a winger,” Maple Leafs coach Peter Horachek said. “He works hard at his game, he’s always trying to get better. There’s areas at times where he needs to be stronger, but he’s been pretty consistent most of the year.”

Rumors fly around the Maple Leafs at the best of times, but being in the middle of one of their worst seasons in years has only intensified that environment. The next two weeks will be a challenge for the Maple Leafs to keep their focus on the ice and not on what may or may not happen in the trade market.

“It comes up all the time, there’s no way to get around it," Horachek said. "There’s always talk, you guys [the media] always bring it up, we have to bring it up at times in talking about the trade deadline and different things. We continue to talk to them about what they can control and what they have to do on a day to day basis."

Horachek suggested that one way of maintaining focus is that if you are a player that other teams are interested in, you still need to perform on the ice in order for that interest to be maintained.

“Even if they get traded or something happens, you don’t have full control of that,” Horachek said. “But you do have control of what you do. So if you’re going to get down about it, it’s not in your best interests.”

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