All of that bonhomie projected by Paul Maurice these days cannot entirely be dismissed as whistling past the graveyard.
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ head coach has to be mostly sincere about his team’s chances of coping with all its injuries because he really has no choice. Maurice’s boss, general manager John Ferguson, is looking into trade possibilities now that the National Hockey League’s Christmas roster freeze was lifted last night, but he really cannot count on any help in that regard, at least not right away.
So Maurice will take his young, makeshift lineup, dotted with nine players from the Toronto Marlies farm team, and hope they can beat the Pittsburgh Penguins tomorrow night.
The Penguins just happen to have two of the best young players in the world in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
“I don’t think you can expect them all to be good at the same time,” Maurice said yesterday of the nine Marlies, all of whom he coached last season when he was in charge of the American Hockey League farm team. “But you can expect some of them to be good.”
That is a fairly realistic appraisal. Most of them ranged from all right to good on Tuesday, when the Leafs came back to beat the Minnesota Wild.
However, you cannot expect this every night, especially when the opposition gets better than the Wild, although the Leafs do have some respite, as the Penguins are 4-4-2 in their past 10 games and the Ottawa Senators, their opponents on Saturday, are 4-6. That, thin as it is, is about all the good news the Leafs received yesterday. On the injury front, there was only more bad news.
Forward Darcy Tucker did not practise yesterday. He was sent for X-rays, to which part of his body Maurice would not say, and they were negative. Maurice said he still expects Tucker to play against the Penguins.
Kyle Wellwood, though, will not. His hip flexor and groin injury is not responding to treatment quickly. The Leafs hoped he might play against either the Penguins or Senators, but that is out and so is any firm date on his return.
“He’s gone from day-to-day to something a little more than that,” Maurice said, although how much more he could not say.
That leaves an injury list with two wingers from the top line out, Wellwood and Alexei Ponikarovsky, and centre Michael Peca, forward Nik Antropov and defenceman Andy Wozniewski.
Peca, with a cast from hip to ankle on his right leg, made his first appearance before the media yesterday since he suffered multiple fractures to his tibia in Chicago on Dec. 22. He, like Maurice, was as optimistic as he could be, given the circumstances.
The prognosis is that Peca will be out for three months, but he said: “I don’t think it’s months, I think it’s weeks. I’ll play this year again.”
There was much kvetching by Maurice and the Leafs that the knee-on-knee hit between Peca and Blackhawks defenceman Jim Vandermeer was dirty, but Peca took the high road, sort of. “I thought there was nothing wrong with it,” he said of the hit, but in a tone that invited no further discussion.
In the meantime, Ferguson is left trying to find a solution with only $500,000 (all figures U.S.) to spend under the NHL’s $44-million salary cap.
Naturally, his fellow GMs are rushing to offer all sorts of assistance. But unless you are dim enough to think Petr Nedved or Jan Bulis is the solution to losing Peca, your best penalty killer, best defensive forward and best faceoff man, then the offers of aid are just the usual anchors tossed to teams that need a lifeline.
Ferguson has some assets to trade — the group of young defencemen such as Ian White, Brendan Bell, Carlo Colaiacovo and Wozniewski — and he has an idea of whom he would like to get. What remains is to see whether the price is fair.
But Ferguson and his aides have decreed there will be no quick fixes. Any trade that is made will have to help the Leafs in future seasons as well. In a salary cap world, it is folly in the extreme to trade a rare commodity such as a young, mobile defenceman for a veteran who may only last the season.
Such a trade would happen only if Ferguson can find a fellow GM who is willing to talk sensibly and not try pawning off his own elderly, expensive mistakes. At this point, such a trading partner is not in sight.
And that is why Maurice is whistling, um, putting on a happy face.