TORONTO – The seal has been broken.
So, who’s next?
With the Ottawa Senators dealing Dion Phaneuf to the Los Angeles Kings for Marian Gaborik (plus a depth forward swap of Nate Thompson for Nick Shore) Tuesday night, NHL fans breathlessly wait to see what their team will do with just 12 days of trading left.
Rumours are a-flying, La-Z-Boy GMs are giving CapFriendly.com’s web traffic bump, and pro scouts are crowding arena press boxes.
But just because the silly season is upon us doesn’t mean the soaring Toronto Maple Leafs will do something silly.
“The standings don’t affect our plan,” head coach Mike Babcock asserted Wednesday morning.
“Our plan is to build a product here that we can be proud of, to give ourselves a chance to knock on the door every year — so when you arrive at training camp every year, you know you’re in the playoffs. We’re not at that stage yet. That’s the focus of our plan.”
Then came a kicker: “Now, do we want to win today? One hundred per cent.”
Babcock’s own contract extends five seasons beyond that of 75-year-old Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello. As far as NHL coaches go, he has as much of a voice in roster decisions made by the club’s brain trust as anybody.
Babcock revealed last week that he has submitted a wish list to Lamoriello and has often spoken publicly about his desire to increase the Leafs’ depth at centre and defence.
He’s guided the young Leafs to the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, and with the team humming along at full health and winning eight of its past nine games, outsiders wonder if there is a growing temptation to add a top-tier rental and make a run for the Stanley Cup this spring.
“If you think anything we’re doing is affecting the way Lou sleeps, it’s not,” Babcock said. “He’s just going to go about his job. And if there’s a deal there that’s going to help us, we’re going to make the deal.
“I don’t put pressure on anybody,” the coach added. “Pressure’s a privilege. Don’t ever kid yourself. If you don’t have a chance, there’s no pressure.”
Defenceman Jake Gardiner, who has personally regained the top form he exhibited down the stretch last season, said Wednesday that the Leafs are running on all cylinders as they welcome the Columbus Blue Jackets, who arrive tired after defeating the New York Islanders 4-1 Tuesday.
The Leafs, whose playoff berth is all but certain, spent a portion of Tuesday playing pickup basketball at Ryerson University and chirped each other through the media about their air balls on the court.
Babcock says trade-deadline anxiety hasn’t seeped into the dressing room, despite a looming roster crunch when a healthy-looking Nikita Soshnikov comes off IR and with eight Leafs regulars on expiring contracts.
Asked if any player feels nervous, Zach Hyman smiled: “Not that I know of.”
Nazem Kadri agrees.
“It’s certainly not the same mood as five, six years ago when everyone was walking on eggshells,” Kadri said. “It’s a much better feeling to be involved with, knowing we can make a push to achieving our end result and our end goal, which is being in the Stanley Cup Final.
“Whether or not management wants to tweak or make changes, add or subtract, whatever they do, that’s not going to change the way we feel in this dressing room.”
Babcock warned against the inherent risk of falling too hard for either the don’t-mess-with-chemistry theory or the let’s-go-for-it approach. How did that work out for Washington (Kevin Shattenkirk) and Minnesota (Martin Hanzal), who were the big spenders last February?
“Some years where we kept the chemistry all together, we tried harder than you can believe [to make a trade], but we didn’t get anything done. And some years where we made a trade and it didn’t work, we wished we couldn’t get it done. How do you know what’s going to work? You don’t,” Babcock said.
“You get your management team together, you’ve done all your work to watch all these players, you evaluate your team, but you don’t know 100 per cent it’s going to work, and you don’t know if you can make the deal.”