TORONTO - The trade buzz in this hockey-mad city shifted to a higher gear Friday after two of the Maple Leafs' big guns skipped practice, fuelling speculation that interim GM Cliff Fletcher might make a move before Tuesday's NHL trade deadline.
The team said captain Mats Sundin and defenceman Bryan McCabe did not participate because of flu-like symptoms.
Their absence still kickstarted a fresh wave of scuttlebutt as the club sits two points out of last place in the Eastern Conference and fans load the radio phone-in shows demanding change.
The possibility that Sundin, considered the face of the franchise for years, might be on the move brought out several reporters and TV cameras to the team's practice rink. It also meant his teammates had to answer yet another round of questions about what might happen ahead of Tuesday's 3 p.m. ET deadline.
"What did I do?" joked defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo as a faceful of microphones appeared after he sat at his stall.
The Maple Leafs skated for about an hour as they tried to keep the focus on Saturday's home game against the Atlanta Thrashers. But afterwards, it was Sundin's future that was the hot topic in the locker-room.
"I knew that it would be a big spin for all the media," said forward Matt Stajan. "But for us in the room, we know that the flu is going around and it's kind of funny how someone being sick or that a guy not taking the morning skate can cause so much buzz around this room after a practice.
"But that's Toronto and it's the best part about playing here. People care and they're always talking about it."
Both Sundin and McCabe have no-movement clauses in their contracts which helps them control their fate. Fletcher told The Canadian Press that he met with Sundin's agent J.P. Barry on Friday and also had a brief talk with McCabe before the defenceman went home sick. Barry, who arrived in Toronto on Thursday night, refused comment when reached Friday.
Sundin will be an unrestricted free agent July 1 while McCabe has three more years on his deal paying him US$6.15 million next season, $4.15 million in 2009-10 and $4.15 million in 2010-11.
Sundin has 61 points (24-37) in 62 games this season while McCabe has 14 points (4-10) in 34 games. Andrew Raycroft also skipped Friday's practice. A team spokesman said the goaltender was also suffering from flu-like symptoms.
Like the players, head coach Paul Maurice had a few Sundin questions thrown his way. He was asked if he thought the veteran Swede was in a no-win situation.
"I think he's in a great situation because every day he wakes up he's Mats Sundin," said Maurice. "That's a pretty good life."
When asked whether he could imagine the team without its big captain, Maurice added: "Hopefully we won't have to deal with that."
After the Atlanta game, the Maple Leafs will go on a four-game road trip and won't return to the Air Canada Centre until March 4 against New Jersey.
"I think the good thing surrounding this year's (trade deadline) day is that we're not going to be in Canada where you can see that coverage of it and not really put too much focus into it," Colaiacovo said. "You've just got to let those distractions stay outside the rink and not let it ruin our focus."
Canadian Press sports reporter Pierre LeBrun contributed to this report.