TORONTO, DEC. 28 -- The once proud Toronto Maple Leafs last topped the .500 mark -- by one point -- in 1978-79 and only their presence in the awful Norris Division, where everybody was below .500 a year ago, maintains an illusion of respectability.

Toronto is still third in its division, but the two teams in front -- St. Louis and Detroit -- are only 15-15-5 and 15-16-4, respectively.

Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard, who enjoyed a lot of laughs at his critics' expense when Toronto lasted until the seventh game of the divisional finals in last year's playoffs, no longer is laughing.

Ballard has repeatedly supported embattled coach John Brophy, but the team's recent slump prompted Ballard to say that if the Maple Leafs fail to qualify for the playoffs, "He {Brophy} will still be my friend, but I'll miss him."

For his part, Brophy continues to maintain the tough image he has nurtured since his days as an Eastern Hockey League bad guy.

Of defenseman Chris Kotsopoulos, who needed groin surgery and blamed it on being asked to return too soon from an injury, Brophy said, "Mr. Kotsopoulos should have an operation on his tongue. He has got a body that has never done a day's work in its life."

After watching Chicago's Gary Nylund, a former Maple Leaf, talk to his old teammates and then rack up Toronto's Miroslav Frycer, Brophy said, obscenities deleted: "There's too much friendship between teams. Guys are patting each other on the back and holding each other up. I can't relate to it at all. It makes me sick to my stomach."

On the subject of the Maple Leafs' inability to win two in a row, Brophy said, deadpan, "I don't suppose we'll ever break Philly's record of 35 games without a loss."4,000 and Counting

When the New York Rangers played their 4,000th NHL game last week, an enterprising journalist noted that the team had played 3,348 since it last won the Stanley Cup in 1940 . . .

Michel Bergeron, the Rangers' coach, conceded Patrick Division playoff berths to the Flyers and Islanders, then added, "It will be a tough race between the four other teams." . . .

When he scored 37 goals as a rookie last season, center Jimmy Carson of Los Angeles, a Michigan native, was motivated by unpleasant thoughts of Jimmy Devellano, the Detroit general manager who bypassed Carson in the 1986 entry draft. Carson, who has 22 goals this year, has a new motivator, Bob Johnson, the man who cut Carson from the United States team for the Canada Cup . . .

Kent Nilsson is playing in Italy, where he scored 37 goals in his first 21 games for Bolzano Diva, which won 20 of those games. A member of Edmonton's Stanley Cup champions last spring, Nilsson laughs at Canadian critics of his laid-back life and hockey style. "It's great, I love it here," Nilsson said, citing a fat salary, a 38-game schedule that allows a lot of time with his family and a two-week Christmas break that he has used for a visit to his native Sweden.Can You Top That?

In 1980, Ken Morrow won an Olympic gold medal as a U.S. defenseman and a Stanley Cup ring with the Islanders. Chris Joseph, recently traded from Pittsburgh to Edmonton, could top that. Joseph played for the Canadian Olympic team when it upset the Soviet Union a week ago to become the first Western winner of the Izvestia Tournament. He has stayed in Moscow with the Canadian junior team, which beat Sweden and Czechoslovakia in its first two games of the World Tournament and meets the Soviets Friday. Upon his return, Joseph is likely to rejoin the Canadian Olympic team in Calgary, then play for the Oilers down the NHL stretch . . .

Madison Square Garden is generally considered to have the worst ice in the NHL, but Philadelphia's Mark Howe thinks Capital Centre is right down there. "The ice was just terrible," Howe said after the Flyers beat Washington Saturday. "There were a couple of breakaways, but the puck was bouncing all over and nobody could control it. When the ice is that bad, it's tough to play.". . .

Calgary's loss to Edmonton Saturday ended a 14-game unbeaten streak for the Flames' goalie, Mike Vernon.