The Leafs may have Stanley Cup visions, but they aren't willing to sacrifice long-term plans for short-terms gains.
Jake Gardiner summed it up best Wednesday when he was asked whether the Leafs’ players believe they need a trade to give them a boost for a playoff run.
“Well, I guess you could say that you can improve every team out there, but we feel confident if this is the team we go to the playoffs with,” Gardiner said Wednesday morning, before the team hosted Columbus. “Hopefully, we can stay consistent and make some noise.”
Gardiner acknowledged it is refreshing to near the Feb. 26 trade deadline as a team with high playoff expectations. They’re more focused on the post-season and team goals. If trades are brought up, the discussion is about additions to the team, not subtractions.
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The Leafs have made deep playoff run their goal all season. The goal a year ago was simply to make the playoffs, and maybe surprise the hockey world with an upset. Now they have championship visions. Toronto entered Wednesday’s game having won five of six games in February, including decisions over Tampa Bay and Nashville, teams considered to be Stanley Cup contenders.
Toronto, like every other team, is listening to the market and weighing options. But the plan remains to develop a champion through strong drafting and smart management. They will not sacrifice that.
“If you think anything we’re doing is affecting the way Lou sleeps, it’s not . . . unless we don’t play well without the puck,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said Wednesday, in a terrific ramble about the trade deadline.
“He’s just going to go about his job and, if there’s a deal there that can help us, we’re going to make the deal. I think some people think there’s a tree and you go out — ‘Oh yeah, I need a No. 1 centre’ — and you just grab him off the tree . . . It doesn’t work like that.”
With 24 games to play, the Leafs are trying to catch Boston and Tampa Bay, the two teams in front of them in the Atlantic Division. The Lightning have 79 points, the Bruins 78, with a couple of games in hand. The Leafs entered Wednesday with 73 points.
“We’re trying to get better every day, we’re pursuing teams in front of us,” Babcock said. “Complacency sets in for all people, but if you have enough grinders, it doesn’t set in as much.”
Babcock may have hinted at what the Leafs could be looking for at the trade deadline — a work ethic-type player who could bring playoff experience to a team on which many players have only last year’s first round on their resumés.
But the Leafs boast the most depth they’ve had on the wings and on the blue line in more than a decade. They are strong at centre as well, but someone who has the flexibility to play all forward positions, plus special teams, is always a luxury. If anything, the Leafs want to be able to roll four lines consistently through the playoffs.
They have received a couple of welcome surprises with the play of fourth-line forward Kasperi Kapanen and defenceman Travis Dermott, two Marlies call-ups who have excelled at the NHL level and lessened the need for a trade.
“It’s not the same as five or six years ago, when (Leafs players) were walking around on egg shells at the trade deadline,” Leafs centre Nazem Kadri said. “It’s nice knowing we can make a push to our end goal, which is the Stanley Cup final.
“Whatever management feels about tweaks . . . it won’t change how we feel about ourselves in here and what our focus is.”