TORONTO – With the trade deadline looming, there’s a sense that any player on the Toronto Maple Leafs could be moved, but three players seem to be fairly secure: Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly and Nazem Kadri. That trio has been earmarked by head coach Mike Babcock for more responsibility moving forward. 
“I think they're key guys,” Babcock said after Wednesday's practice. “They have to be a lot better. My focus is on spending a lot of time with those guys, because they're a big part of the future and someone's got to lead.”
Former captain Dion Phaneuf was traded on Feb. 9. Only a few days earlier, on Feb. 6 in Ottawa, alternate captain Tyler Bozak was injured and has yet to return, with no timeline offered by the team. Matt Hunwick, the other opening-night alternate captain, has been out since Feb. 15 with a lower-body injury and is expected to miss Thursday's encounter with the Carolina Hurricanes. 
The two players initially chosen to fill the leadership roles – Roman Polak (traded) and Leo Komarov (suspended) – are out of the lineup. Komarov will return on Saturday in Montreal.
The three players who wore an 'A' on their chest in Tuesday's 3-2 loss to the Predators – P.A. Parenteau, Michael Grabner and Brad Boyes – are all on expiring contracts and may be traded soon. 
With all the roster turnover of late, the 25-year-old Gardiner and Rielly, who will turn 22 in early March, found themselves the most experienced defencemen in the Leafs lineup against Nashville. 
“I wouldn't have called that I would be the oldest d-man [on the team] five years into the league,” Gardiner quipped. 
Recent call-ups like Viktor Loov and Stuart Percy, who have a combined 13 games of NHL experience, are looking for direction and it's up to Rielly and Gardiner to help provide it. 
“You don't lead by talking,” Babcock said. “You lead by doing and that's how you train and how you lift and how you do your therapy and how you eat and how you act at night and how you play. So they have a responsibility, no question.”
Rielly, who played more than 26 minutes against the Flyers on Saturday and almost cracked that number again against Nashville on Thursday, insists he doesn't feel any added pressure. 
“No, I don't really feel the pressure,” Rielly said. “Maybe I just put it on myself, but in terms of the added on extra pressure, I don't feel it. I feel like the coaching staff has done a good job of keeping things in line and not getting too carried away with it.”
Gardiner said his message to his younger teammates is to embrace the fact the team is out of playoff contention. 
“There's not much pressure right now so, I think, just have fun with it, play confident and just enjoy it,” he said.  
During the last few Toronto seasons that have been marred by collapses and so much losing, veterans like Phaneuf, Joffrey Lupul, Stephane Robidas, Cody Franson, Phil Kessel and Bozak served as a shield of sorts for the younger players. Now, Rielly, Gardiner and Kadri are central figures in the dressing room. 
And it seems like there could be more tough seasons ahead. So is there any fear that the losing may wear on the group? 
“When you win, you come in here today and you don't have to worry about energizing yourself,” Babcock acknowledged. “When you don't win, you have to spend more time energizing yourself.”
But then Babcock paused and locked eyes with the reporter who asked the question.  
“But can you imagine having a bad day in the NHL?” Babcock shook his head. “Come on. People would pay to be in the NHL and you're getting paid to be here.”
The message is simple: play hard, play the system, carry yourself professionally and everything will work out. 
For his part, Rielly said he's managing the pain of losing okay so far. 
“There's definitely times after games when you can be frustrated with the way things are going, but that's just part of the game,” he said. “You got to learn to block that stuff out. You got to worry about playing the next game.”
Rielly has played 212 games in the NHL over the last three seasons with the Leafs, winning just 83 of those games. 
“We want to be one of those teams that can make the playoffs consistently and I think we're on the right path. But sometimes it can be a slow process and that's where the frustration comes from,” Rielly said. 
But losing doesn't have to be ugly. This year's edition of the Leafs has proven to be a likeable group and the atmosphere around the team is nowhere close to the nightmare of last season. 
In fact, there is a sense the Leafs may be young, exciting and fun next season even if that doesn't lead to many more wins. 
“The more young guys you have the more mistakes you're going to make,” Babcock said, “but the more enthusiasm you should have.”