Tensions rise for Leafs as deadline nears

TORONTO -- For a fleeting moment last summer, Cody Franson thought he had possibly been traded to the Montreal Canadiens until the rumored deal got kiboshed by Josh Gorges via his no-trade clause.

The near-trade experience will serve the Toronto Maple Leafs' defenseman well when the real thing very likely happens between now and the March 2 trade deadline.

"That was an interesting process, going through that one," Franson said with a smile Monday after practice when asked about the near trade. "That was as close to a rumor as I’ve gotten without having it actually happen. Having gone through that process has helped me out even more for this."

Franson is going to be dealt by the down-and-out Maple Leafs unless there’s a dramatic shift in contract talks, which neither side seems to believe will happen, as the gap in both terms and salary were sizeable when talks were held last week.

It makes almost no sense for the Leafs, hampered by a number of anchor-like, long-term contracts, to be handing out another six- or seven-year deal, even if Franson actually has been one of their better players and is just 27 years old.

But the Leafs just can’t do that, they need to add flexibility to the payroll as they begin making changes to this team over the next few months.

And for Franson, on the cusp of becoming a first-time unrestricted free agent, it’s crazy to take a three-year deal with the Leafs when there will be a contract twice that length offered on July 1.

All of which leads to a likely trade.

Franson chuckled when asked if he knew that he was named TSN's most likely Leaf to be moved ahead of March 2.

"Yes, so I’ve been told," Franson said. "It’s one of those things, no matter how hard you try to distance yourself, you hear those types of things. I’m hopeful that’s not the case. But I knew coming into this year there would be this kind of speculation going on if something wasn’t done contractually. It’s part of the business. It’s something you just have to be able to handle."

Franson has already generated sizeable interest from other teams and will continue to do so as a top-four, right-handed blueliner. Those guys are in huge demand.

Joining a contender can also help him boost his contract value for July 1 if he is solid in the playoffs for his new team.

The notion of making himself more marketable that way, however, is not what’s on his mind.

"You know what, I try not to look at it like that," Franson said. "I’m trying to play as best I can to help this team win. At the end of the day, this is where I want to be and I’m hopeful to be here. Toronto is a great place when you’re winning, and that’s where we’re trying to get to. It’s been a tough month for all of us in here, we’ve all felt the weight of the losses."

Toronto's season was sunk by an 11-game winless streak (0-10-1), which was snapped with Saturday’s win over the Edmonton Oilers. The Leafs players are all saying otherwise, only because they have to for public consumption. Deep down they know they’re cooked and that the only mystery left is how many bodies are moved out of the dressing room.

The pending unrestricted free agents on the team understand what’s likely coming.

"I’ve been through it before," said Leafs winger Daniel Winnik, traded twice before in his NHL career. "I woke up the morning of the trade deadline [in 2012] and saw I was, like, No. 4 on the trade-bait list. So I knew I was probably going."

Winnik, on a one-year deal paying $1.3 million, has been a solid contributor for Toronto and will be appealing not only for his solid two-way play, but also because of his cheap cap hit.

With the Leafs pretty much out of it, he understands why he might be moved.

"Completely," Winnik said. "Everyone knows if they’re on an expiring deal and they’re UFA, they’re a candidate to be traded even if the team likes him. I understand that aspect of us UFA guys getting moved."

Still, having his name mentioned in trade rumors is not ideal.

"I try not to [pay attention], but don’t get me wrong, it’s tough; it’s all over Twitter and stuff," Winnik said. "You obviously see some of the things, but you have to just ignore them and take them for what they are: They’re rumors."

Mike Santorelli, on a one-year, $1.5 million deal, is another pending unrestricted free agent generating interest. The Rangers and Canucks (where he played last year) were among several clubs who have him on their radar.

"What’s going to happen is what’s going to happen, I can’t control it," Santorelli said with a shrug on Monday.

The Leafs reached out to Santorelli’s agent last week, and it’s believed what was communicated from agent J.P. Barry is that they would re-sign if they got three years and about $3 million a year. That appears to be too rich for Toronto's blood at this point. Again, about the last thing the Leafs should be doing is furthering tying their hands with their payroll.

Santorelli played well last season in Vancouver before getting hurt and has been a spark plug for a disappointing Leafs team this season, a 200-foot guy who has versatility, which is why playoff-bound teams are interested in picking him up.

"Honestly, I think my game has taken a step forward since last year," Santorelli said. "Last season was a bounce-back year for me, and I think I've carried that over. That's the mindset, I just want to keep getting better."

He knows he's possibly going to end this season on another team, just like several of his teammates.

There’s a nervous tension in this Leafs dressing room as the trade deadline approaches. Everyone knows his time might come. They’ve given management no other hand to play but as sellers.

And here’s the thing, the roster could get even more of a face-lift in the offseason, never mind what happens between now and March 2.