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Trade deadline looms over Sabres; Leopold, Gaustad try to maintain their focus

Buffalo Sabres defenseman Jordan Leopold knows the drill. He's been sent packing at the trade deadline twice in his career, from Colorado to Calgary in 2009 and from Florida to Pittsburgh in 2010. It's tough on the player, even tougher on their families.

The final week countdown to the NHL's swap meet is on, as the deadline looms next Monday at 3 p.m. The Sabres, who host the New York Islanders tonight in First Niagara Center, are trying to play both sides. They can get within five points of the final playoff spot with a win tonight but are still in 14th place in the Eastern Conference and likely to be sellers to create some salary cap space.

The chatter is growing by the hour.

"It's changed a lot over the years as far as the access to blogs, rumors, Twitter, television tickers on the bottom of the page," said Leopold. "The whole thing has just evolved into a social media circus. You start reading all that stuff and start believing it, you never know.

"It's absolutely crazy at that this time of year. As a player, the best thing you can do is not read any of that stuff."

Sage advice from Leopold to Paul Gaustad, and the Sabres' center appears to have already taken it to heart.

As a veteran who is seventh in the league in faceoff percentage, can kill penalties and play against another team's top scoring line, Gaustad might rank as one of the better rental players on the market. Basically, his name is everywhere from major media outlets on both sides of the border to Johnny's Blog from the Basement.

The "Goooose" calls have been heard in downtown Buffalo for seven straight years. They could be in their final days.

"I'm not too focused on it. I don't really listen to guys on the radio or read your newspaper articles," Gaustad said matter-of-factly Monday. "So it's not too hard for me. It's focusing on our team. We've had some struggles and that's what's tough on us."

Gaustad's four-year, $9.2 million deal expires after this year. He makes $2.5 million this season and if he's acquired on deadline day, he would only cost a new team about $497,000.

His value is only going up. Gaustad has seven points in his last 10 games and has combined with Nathan Gerbe and Patrick Kaleta to stunt opponents' top lines, notably Evgeni Malkin's unit in Sunday's 6-2 win over Pittsburgh.

"He's a great teammate, a consistent teammate for us and we hope he stays." said Gerbe. "You can't control the rumors. We have to control how we play and Paul is doing a good job."

Gaustad said he spoke with General Manager Darcy Regier on Saturday but that the conversation was mostly about this year's team. But he didn't say it was entirely about it. Gaustad said Monday he'd like to stay with the Sabres, or at least consider re-signing with them as a free agent on July 1 if he's traded.

"I've always wanted to be a Sabre and win in Buffalo." he said. "I've come to grow up here and my adult life has been in Western New York. Winning here is one of my main goals."

Gaustad and Brad Boyes, also in the final year of his contract, could easily be rented out. Players like Leopold, with one year left on his deal at a reasonable $3 million, and Derek Roy (one year, $4 million) could be in play.

For his part, Gaustad said he's solely focused on Buffalo's playoff push and won't allow trade rumors to be a distraction. But is it really possible to avoid everything said everywhere this week?

"You're asking a guy with three kids and watching Mickey Mouse clubhouse all day long so it's pretty easy for me," cracked Leopold. "Hey, if you start worrying about it, it starts to affect how you live your day-to-day life and you don't need that."

The Sabres have three games left before the deadline. There's tonight's game against an Islanders team that was blanked Monday by Ottawa, 6-0, and sits one point ahead of Buffalo. And then there's this weekend's killer back-to-back, Friday's visit by Boston and Saturday's trip to Madison Square Garden to meet the New York Rangers.

The Sabres are 6-3-2 in their last 11 games. They still have 23 to go and teams in front of them, notably Toronto and Washington, have been struggling. That's keeping Buffalo in the race to the point that coach Lindy Ruff didn't want to entertain trade questions Monday.

"I think we can put a run together and I told the team that before Pittsburgh, 'I still believe in you,' " Ruff said. "When we've been healthy and been on the same page, we've been able to push ahead.

"One game you can be in 14th, then win a game and be in 10th or 11th." Ruff said. "It creates hope. You can look at baseball, you can look at football. There's teams that get in the playoffs the last day and that might have to be us."

The Sabres have plenty of teams to leap over. Their only chance is to keep winning.

"I kind of describe it like Frogger." Gaustad said of the old arcade game. "You know it's cliche but have you to focus on just winning that one and those two points and that works best."

email: mharrington@buffnews.com