TORONTO - The minor-league Toronto Marlies used to boast the slogan that "Every game is a try-out." Right now it's reality for the Maple Leafs.
With less than two weeks until the trade deadline, the Leafs are under the microscope as their rebuild goes into full swing. A large contingent from the Montreal Canadiens' front office was in attendance at Air Canada Centre Tuesday night to survey potential trade candidates in the Leafs' 3-2 loss to the Florida Panthers.
Recent trade acquisition Olli Jokinen was making his Toronto debut and on display with three other pending unrestricted free agents: defenceman Korbinian Holzer and forwards Daniel Winnik and David Booth. Jokinen didn't record a point but got to play at his natural centre position on the third line.
"He's motivated to play, he's motivated to get back into the middle and play centre," interim coach Peter Horachek said. "He wants to prove that he's still capable of playing. I thought he was really good, especially early."
The game's other Jokinen, Jussi (no relation), scored for the Panthers (25-19-12), who also got goals from Nick Bjugstad and 2008 Leafs draft pick Jimmy Hayes. Florida's major 2014 trade-deadline acquisition, Roberto Luongo, continued his strong season with 27 saves.
“It was our goal at the first of the year to be in the race, and we are in the race," Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. "When we're playing good hockey we have a chance to beat anybody. ... We're getting great goaltending, and we're finding a way to win."
Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel scored for the Leafs (23-30-5), who blamed a lack of discipline for the loss.
"The bottom line is we were in the box too many times tonight, four times in the second, and they got two (power-play) goals," said goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who stopped 14 of the 17 shots he faced. "That's the bottom line and probably too many turnovers."
The Panthers moved to within two points of the idle Boston Bruins for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
“We know what the standings are all about, but we're trying not to look at it too much," Luongo said. "There's a lot of road ahead of us and we don't want to think about the big picture now."
The big picture isn't pretty for the Leafs, who lost for the 16th time in the past 20 games. They remained fifth from the bottom of the NHL, a spot that would give them an 8.5 per cent chance of drafting Connor McDavid first overall.
Before worrying about the draft, the Leafs are expected to be busy in trade discussions leading up to the March 2 deadline. They already sent defenceman Cody Franson and forward Mike Santorelli to Nashville Sunday for Jokinen, prospect Brendan Leipsic and a first-round pick.
The first deal won't be the last, and Toronto has a handful of players who could draw interest beyond those with expiring contracts, including Bozak. So it makes plenty of sense that Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin and a handful of other executives were watching closely.
Jokinen is trying to ignore trade speculation and focus on the task at hand.
"My job is to bring my best every day here," the 36-year-old veteran said. "I'm here now, so I don't think that I'm going to be somewhere else. That's a wrong, wrong mind-set to have to anyone. You can't look that way."
Notes — David Clarkson left the game late after taking a slash to the back of his right leg from former teammate Dave Bolland. Horachek didn't have an update on Clarkson's status. ... A pre-game moment of silence was held for 35-year-old former NHL defenceman Steve Montador, who died Sunday in his home in Mississauga, Ont. ...Toronto returned C Sam Carrick to the AHL's Marlies post-game. He was a healthy scratch against Florida. ... Panthers forward Sean Bergenheim was a healthy scratch for the third straight game as GM Dale Tallon is trying to trade him.
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