Rumours test players’ mettle
‘People forget they’re human beings’: Burke
Maybe Brian Burke was onto s omething. In 2012, t he Toronto Maple Leafs famously went from being a playoff bubble team to an 18- wheeler careening off a cliff after losing eight of nine games at the trade deadline. The spectacular collapse — Toronto won six of its final 20 games — caused the former Leafs GM to consider implementing a roster freeze a week before the actual deadline, because of “how distracting it is.”
“We just had this discussion upstairs and I’m wondering if I have to do that here, because Clarke MacArthur’s been traded 10 times, (Mikhail) Grabovski’s been traded 12 times, Luke Schenn’s been traded 50 times,” Burke said back then. “I think the trade deadline is hard on players, but I think it’s murder on players in Toronto.”
Burke, who is now the president of hockey operat i ons f or t he Calgar y Flames, never f oll owed through with his deadline freeze, in part because he couldn’t afford to tie his hands on the busiest day of the year. But at least one GM is taking his advice.
Last week, Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman released a statement promising Steven Stamkos would not be traded before the Feb. 29 deadline.
It was an interesting approach, considering that Stamkos is a pending unrestricted free agent. By taking him off the market, the team risks losing him for nothing at the end of the season.
But with the daily rumours and uncertainty affecting Stamkos’ play — he had scored two goals in his previous 12 games — Yzerman was more concerned with jeopardizing Tampa Bay’s chances of winning the Stanley Cup.
“I have said repeatedly that it is our hope to reach an agreement with Steven on a new contract at some point,” said Yzerman, “and with 27 games remaining in the season, our entire organization, Steven included, wants to focus on making the playoffs.”
Since then, Stamkos has responded with four goals in five games, with Tampa on a f our- game winning streak, only three points behind the Florida Panthers for top spot in the Atlantic Division.
“I did t he same t hing with Ruslan Salei,” Burke said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “I remember his last year with us in Anaheim ( 2006), we needed him if we were going to make any kind of noise in the playoffs ... I remember driving from the airport saying, ‘ Rusty, I’m not trading you. You’ ll get the big deal this summer and we’ll help you. We’ll tell teams what a great defenceman you are and everything else. But we’re not trading you. We need you to make the run.’ And we went to the conference final that year.”
“They’re human beings. People forget they’re human beings and it affects them in different ways.”
With the trade deadline less than a week away, some players have raised their game to another level knowing they are auditioning for a new team. Others simply aren’t themselves.
Calgary’s Jiri Hudler has 10 points in his past 11 games and Edmonton’s Teddy Purcell has no goals in his last 12.
Winnipeg’ s Andrew Ladd, who went without a goal in January, has scored seven times this month.
“I know probably a lot of people say that it’s not on their mind and people don’t believe it, but for me, it’s really not on my mind,” said New Jersey’s leading scorer, Lee Stempniak, who has one goal in his last 10 games.
“I look at it like I’m on a team that’s one point out of a playoff spot and we’ve got two huge games coming up. For me, the focus has been on winning some games and personally to contribute some offence.”
In Tampa, Stamkos is playing like someone who had a 200- pound weight lifted off his back. But in Carolina, Eric Staal is being crushed by the uncertainty of what the next few days have in store.
“I’d be lying to you if it hasn’t been on my mind or affecting me for a little bit now,” Staal, whose goal on Tuesday was his first in 17 games, told reporters. “It wasn’t for a good portion of the year, but to be honest the last couple of weeks have been difficult.”
Thankfully, it is almost over. By March 1, Staal can relax and go about his business as usual, whether in Carolina or another city.
Of course, it’s only a matter of time before the rumours start up again.
“It is hard to deal with trade rumours, even harder when the trade rumours are away from the deadline,” said Burke. “When they’re happening in December, that’s really hard for the player to deal with. He’s like ‘ what the hell’s going on?’
“At this time of year it’s kind of part of the job, like snow. You’re probably going to get snow and trade rumours.”
THE TRADE DEADLINE IS
HARD ON PLAYERS, BUT IT’S MURDER ON PLAYERS IN TORONTO.
After general manager Steve Yzerman told the hockey world that Steven Stamkos, right, would not be traded, the Lightning star emerged from a slump to score four goals in five games and help Tampa Bay win four in a row.