January is a rare time for hockey teams to be talking about must-win games.
But if the Toronto Maple Leafs want to salvage this season, they need to take all four points from the Washington Capitals.
This task may be easier said than done; the Capitals have been one of the hotter teams in the NHL lately and have an impressive 16-7-4 since making a coaching change. They have some of the best, young talent in the game with the likes of Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and defensive scoring leader Mike Green.
Oh, and perhaps you've heard of him, they also have this guy named Alex Ovechkin.
The Leafs are looking to capture some of the success that the Capitals, like the Atlanta Thrashers, have had since making changes to its coaching or managerial staff. While neither team is in a playoff position at this point in the season, both have played much better hockey since shaking things up.
The Leafs need to come out with that type of energy if they have any hope at getting back into a contending position before the February trade deadline. A pair of wins in the next two days could propel the team as high as 11th place, and well within reach of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
In his introductory press conference yesterday, new interim general manager Cliff Fletcher stated that within the next two weeks, he and the rest of the staff will have some idea of where the team stands and what position they will take into the trade deadline.
Stringing together a few wins (for example, three of the next four, or four of the next six) may put them in the "buyer" category at the deadline, allowing them to pick up an asset or two to give them a push.
Keep in mind that the return of top defenseman Bryan McCabe from a broken hand in roughly two weeks will likely give the team a boost. By the same token, if the Leafs continue to struggle as they have in January, its three-game winning streak excluded, they will be one of the top sellers at the deadline.
With so many teams still in contention, being one of the few teams looking to unload veteran talent may bode well for the Leafs. The increased number of contending teams will likely be trying to outbid each other for the one or two players, which could give them an edge in the playoffs. This will increase the value of a Leafs player whom might be traded, and allow Toronto to pick up some valuable prospects, draft picks or young roster players that can help the team in seasons to come.
Cliff Fletcher is the right man for this job. He has been known to make trades when necessary, and big ones at that. No Leafs fan can forget the 10-player swap that brought Doug Gilmour to town, or the blockbuster for current captain Mats Sundin.
Fletcher has proven to be a shrewd negotiator, and that will certainly help an organization in need of someone to help 're-stock the cupboard'. While fans may be sad to see them go, not many would be able to complain if Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Pavel Kubina, Andrew Raycroft and Jason Blake were traded away to acquire the young firepower needed to excel in today's NHL.
So it all comes back to the upcoming, consecutive games against the Washington Capitals. They are a beatable opponent, and the Leafs need to come out strong, ready to prove that they took notice of the discontent from the people up top, and that losing hockey games will not be tolerated.
If they can string some wins together, they can save the season, and their reputations. If they continue to free-fall, they won't be playing together for much longer.
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