BUFFALO -- Jeff O'Neill didn't think he was coming home to play for the Maple Leafs and become one of the club's biggest cheerleaders in the most crucial part of the season.
But that's the role O'Neill finds himself in, as he was a healthy scratch last night for the third consecutive game and fifth time in 2005-06.
The underachieving winger, though, has no interest in rocking the boat.
"We're in the stretch of the year where there is no time for this to be any type of distraction," the 30-year-old said. "Obviously, I want to be out there. It's frustrating I am not playing, but the lineup that went out the last couple of games (prior to last night) played well."
Deep down, O'Neill must realize it has not been hard for coach Pat Quinn to keep him out of action. Players such as Wade Belak and Clarke Wilm have been in and out of the lineup for the majority of the season, but O'Neill is the lone regular to be benched for a stretch.
After he was scratched for games Feb. 4 and Feb. 7, O'Neill had no points in seven games, leading to his next sideline stay, which began last Saturday against Tampa Bay.
In 58 games, O'Neill has 15 goals and 15 assists. He has only four even-strength goals, and when he has dressed, has averaged 12 minutes, 55 seconds of ice time a game. That's eighth among Leafs forwards.
Perhaps most damning is the minus-19 that O'Neill lugs around. Of 837 NHL players, only seven had a worse mark.
When O'Neill's rights were dealt to the Leafs last summer from the Carolina Hurricanes for a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2006 draft, he hoped the trade that brought him closer to family would help him deal better with the death of his older brother Donny, who had been killed days before in an auto accident.
But O'Neill acknowledged in January that coping has not been easier.
O'Neill, who signed a two-year, $3-million US pact with Toronto last summer, was asked yesterday whether he looks at this year as a write-off so far. He did not say no.
"The last two (years) have not been fun, first with the lockout and then with all of the other stuff," O'Neill said. "Hopefully in my life, sooner or later, things will clear up and get back to normal.
'But it definitely has been tough."