Pat Quinn probably didn't think of Bryan McCabe as the five-on-five defensive linchpin of the Maple Leafs before the latter tore his groin on Jan. 7.
Now the coach must ensure there's not too much pressure piled on McCabe when he returns from an injury hiatus, during which Toronto lost all eight games.
McCabe, whose value to the Leafs has been mostly in the points column and on special teams, was in full practice mode yesterday at Lakeshore Lions Arena, aiming to play tonight in Sunrise, Fla., against the Panthers or tomorrow in Tampa Bay.
"It seems like a lot of things went awry, coinciding with him dropping out," Quinn said. "Perhaps he's underrated. Everyone notices stats in this business and his offensive numbers (a team-best 49 points, 31 on the power play) are impressive.
"But I'm not so sure it's just five-on-five that has been our problem."
The Leafs' woes also can be traced to scoring droughts, lack of team speed, chemistry and confidence, spotty goaltending and a string of bad bounces.
One factor that could delay McCabe from facing the Panthers is the fear that playing back-to-back games after a three-week layoff is too risky. And with the Panthers' ice at the BankAtlantic Center gaining a reputation as one of the worst in the league -- Erik Cole of the Hurricanes has said the Panthers should be fined for it -- Quinn also is thinking of waiting until tomorrow to use McCabe.
But McCabe, who likely will be partnered with Staffan Kronwall at even-strength, is eager to play after final checkups with doctors last week and an MRI that showed the small tear has healed sufficiently.
"It doesn't help anyone if I come back too early, pull it again and be out another four or five weeks," McCabe said. "But all the signs are pointing in the right direction.
"There is a little stiffness, but there's no pain at all. I'm able to do all the drills and get back at it."
He insists he has no inflated value of his importance, based on the club's decline in his absence.
"I'm just one guy. Roller coaster rides come and go in a season. Obviously, we're in a little bit of a funk right now, but the same thing could have happened with me in the lineup. Who knows?"
Darcy Tucker, who leads the Leafs in goals with 19, is expected back tonight. He banged his right knee in the closing minutes of their 4-3 loss on Saturday to the Montreal Canadiens, limped to the dressing room before returning for a couple shifts. He didn't practise yesterday.
"It's sore and there's a little swelling, but hopefully it's not something that will keep me out," he said. "We'll ice it on the plane on the way down there, but I've tweaked it before. It's something we have to re-evaluate day to day."
Quinn took three rookie defencemen down south: Kronwall, Andy Wozniewski and Jay Harrison, moving veteran Aki Berg (ribs) to the injured reserve list to accommodate McCabe's return.
Defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo still is recovering from a concussion. Centre Eric Lindros (wrist) will accompany the team, but not play.