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rangers 5, leafs 4

The New York Rangers celebrate a goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs during NHL action at the Air Canada Centre Feb 10, 2014 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.Abelimages/Getty Images

The Toronto Maple Leafs may be trying to make noise by hiring a music guru to spice up the playlist at the Air Canada Centre but on the ice the song remains the same.

That would be any tune that employs a certain word in the title – I'm A Loser (The Beatles), Loser (Beck) or Lonesome Loser (Little River Band) for starters. The familiar refrain was there again Tuesday night, as the Leafs followed up Saturday's big win over the NHL's 29-place Edmonton Oilers by going through the motions in a 5-4 loss to the New York Rangers.

There might even have been a chorus of You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling from Phil Kessel to interim Leafs coach Peter Horachek, as the forward found himself nailed to the bench, something a lot of observers would say was about time. Kessel was on the ice for 12 minutes and 57 seconds, well down from his usual standard, as he was moved down to the fourth line with Trevor Smith and David Booth in the third period. However, he was on the ice playing his usual role as a spectator in the defensive zone when Mats Zuccarello scored the winning goal for the Rangers at 14:04 of the third period. That brought Kessel to a smooth minus-4 on the evening.

The Leafs' fourth-line winger Richard Panik, by comparison, played 14:34. He was promoted to Kessel's spot on the first line beside Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk in the third period.

Long forgotten was Leaf goaltender James Reimer's attempt to stoke a fire under his teammates after last Friday's embarrassing loss to the New Jersey Devils. He demanded the Leafs "smarten up and really play the way we can and with passion and like men." Well, maybe not James.

As Horachek put it so nicely after the game, the Leafs' "give-a-[expletive] meter has to be higher." The coach said there was some effort in the third period but for the most part "it was lethargic, no effort."

But Horachek was less forthcoming about Kessel's demotion to the fourth line. He put it down to trying to get Kessel away from the Ranger defence pair of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, who were assigned to the Leafs' first line.

What Kessel thought about this was not known. Someone must have told him McDonagh and Girardi were among the media types in the Leaf dressing room after the game. He didn't show up there, either.

Three days after that sacking of the Oilers, the usual lack of back-checking, fore-checking, any kind of checking returned against the Rangers, not to mention a lack of offence, heart and anything else needed to win a hockey game.

But another day was ticked off the calendar toward the NHL's trading deadline on March 2. This is when Leafs president Brendan Shanahan and general manager David Nonis are expected to unload a good portion of this band of slackers for prospects and draft picks.

That is why the Leaf dressing room has the air of the waiting room at a seedy train station. Everyone is standing around waiting to go somewhere better. At the very least, defenceman Cody Franson and forwards Daniel Winnick and Mike Santorelli can expect to be playing elsewhere next month.

Those three are considered the best offerings among the Leafs' pending unrestricted free agents. Winger David Booth will also be a free agent but he is a penny stock by comparison.

If the current rate of play keeps up, though, those prospects and picks the Leafs are hoping to grab are going to come from the bottom of the barrel. Franson, an alleged hot commodity because he is a right-shooting defenceman who can move the puck, did not give any of the 13 or so NHL scouts in attendance any heart palpitations thanks to a series of defensive blunders.

The really big moves, such as trading captain Dion Phaneuf and maybe even Kessel will have to wait until June when teams are more inclined to play with their salary caps and tear up their rosters.

This now is really the only topic of interest around the Maple Leafs: who should stay and who should go. After all, the core of this team showed it is not capable or willing to be a winner, the annual flop coming much earlier in the season this time. This allows Shanahan and Nonis that much more time to study their roster and consider their options.

The only untouchable on the team is second-year defenceman Morgan Rielly. He is still managing to develop despite the toxic atmosphere around him, his two goals Tuesday showing the enormous up-side to him while his defensive mistakes on a couple of Ranger goals showing he is still 20 years old and still has much to learn.

The challenge for Nonis and Shanahan is to succeed where their predecessors failed in changing the culture within the team. Letting talented youngsters stew in a losing atmosphere has stunted more than a few NHL careers.

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