Ru­mours test play­ers’ met­tle

‘Peo­ple for­get they’re hu­man be­ings’: Burke

National Post (Latest Edition) - - SPORTS - Michael Traikos mtraikos@ post­media. com twit­ter. com/ Michael_ Traikos

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.

MIKE CARL­SON / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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