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Leafs grind out remainder of season with changes looming

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Mark Masters
4/10/2014 1:10:41 PM
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SUNRISE, FLORIDA  - There is a sense that nobody is safe with the Toronto Maple Leafs these days -  from management to the coaching staff to the players. An epic collapse - 10 losses in 12 games - in Canada's largest market is not going to simply fade away.

"When something is as fresh as this is right now you always think there's going to be a lot of change," defenceman Cody Franson said on Wednesday, "and sometimes when time goes by a little bit and you sit back and evaluate [with] cooler heads I guess and, you know, there might not be as many changes as you think."

"We've learned our lesson," said centre Nazem Kadri, "and you almost want next season to start right now."

Yes, it will be a long off-season in Toronto where the questions about the future are flying fast and furious right now, including in the dressing room.  

The Leafs pending unrestricted free agents, include: Mason Raymond, Nikolai Kulemin, Paul Ranger, Dave Bolland, Jay McClement and Troy Bodie while four players are headed toward restricted free agency: James Reimer, Jake Gardiner, Carter Ashton and Franson. Meanwhile, management may look to shake things up via the trade route with Kadri's name usually front and centre in the chatter.

So do the players see big moves on the horizon?

"Yeah, I mean, you would think so," said Gardiner, "but you never know what's going to happen. Management here expects a lot out of us and knows we can succeed, it's just, I don't know what it was this year."

REIMER ON THE WAY OUT

Reimer certainly seems destined to leave town after watching Jonathan Bernier steal away the No. 1 job this season. It has been reported by TSN Hockey Insider Darren Dreger that Reimer plans on respectfully asking for a trade once the season ends. 

Reimer let out a sigh of exasperation before breaking into a huge grin when questioned about that on Wednesday.

"Let's wait a couple of days before we talk about that," he pleaded. "Obviously, it's a fair question. Honestly, I know my agent's been thinking about things and stuff, but I haven't been thinking about it. I've just been trying to get this team to the playoffs."

The Leafs have two games left on the schedule: Thursday in Florida and Saturday in Ottawa. The players will likely clean out their lockers and have exit interviews on Monday.

"Right now, I let my agent worry about those things and I worry about stopping that little black thing," Reimer quipped showing that while he may have lost the starting gig he hasn't lost his sense of humour.

Reimer seems torn. He has so many good memories from his time in Toronto, but he believes he can be a starter and he wants that chance badly.

"Just the atmosphere," Reimer said when asked what he's enjoyed most about life as a Leaf. "It's arguably the best franchise, best organization in the world so to have the opportunity and privilege to play, I mean, to put on that sweater it's special, especially our run last year. Just the excitement and the buzz, that's why you play the game and it was a real honour."

That sentiment is echoed throughout the dressing room.

'THIS IS MY DREAM COME TRUE'

"It's been great," said Franson, who was late arriving at training camp due to a contract dispute and now is once again facing some uneasy negotiations. "Toronto was my favourite team growing up. This is my dream come true so I'm hopeful that I get to stay and that everything works out, but that is the business. At the end of the day, they're going to do what they feel is best for the team and hopefully I'm in that plan."

"I love it," said Kadri, a player who craves the spotlight. "I love Toronto. I love our fans and how passionate they are. I love playing at the ACC for our home games. I've cherished my time here and hopefully it continues."

"I'm happy to stay with one team for six years," said Kulemin, the longest-serving Leaf. ?"I like the team. I like the city, the fans, everything. We'll see."

The players seem to still be in a state of shock. On March 13, after an impressive win in Los Angeles, the Leafs appeared a safe bet to make the post-season. The rest, as they say, is history. Another collapse. The third in three years following the 18-wheeler driven off a cliff by Ron Wilson and last Spring's Game 7 meltdown in Beantown. Teams that don't learn from mistakes are doomed to repeat them so, yeah, changes seem inevitable. But the players are pleading for patience.

PLEADING FOR PATIENCE

"We are a young team and this is an experience we can definitely learn from," said Kadri. "It's definitely leaving a bitter taste in our mouth. It's only going to help us, because this is an experience we never want to go through again."

So why are the Leafs wilting when the season is on the line? Certainly, their slack defensive play seemed to be exposed down the stretch as the games and playoff races got tighter. But what about the theory that the pressure of playing in a hockey-mad market contributed to the demise?

Reimer, who was embroiled in a controversy after head coach Randy Carlyle deemed a recent performance as "just OK," admits the so-called white noise created by the team's bloated media corps does indeed have an impact. 

"Oh, 100 per cent yeah. It's something that you have to do," said Reimer, who almost always talks to reporters on game days, which is something many goalies will not do. "It's something you think about, but at the same time what you guys do creates such a hype around the game itself so there might be more pressure, because of it, but I think there's more excitement, because of it as well and playing hockey when there is that excitement, that atmosphere, that's what makes it fun.

"Some days it's tough, but at the same time the pros outweigh the cons."

For Reimer, the issue with the team this year is the same one that all non-playoff teams deal with whether they play in a Canadian market or sunny ice-averse Florida.

"As a guy and as a team you look in the mirror and you just have to accept that we weren't good enough," Reimer reasoned moments after the Leafs were officially eliminated on Tuesday night in Tampa. "A wise man once said that the playoffs don't let you in unless you're good enough. You don't sneak in unless you deserve it."



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