'Tis not the season to be jolly for Tucker

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:20 AM ET

When it comes to this hockey season all Toronto Maple Leafs superpest Darcy Tucker needs is a mulligan.

It wasn't supposed to happen this way -- not after coming off a 24-goal season, the fourth time he has hit 20-plus in five seasons.

Not after signing a four-year contract that pays him $3 million US this winter.

FRUSTRATION

But, here it is with reindeer on the horizon and Tucker has three goals, seven points, a brace on his knee and instead of sugar plums dancing in his head, there is frustration.

Last night, against the Tampa Bay Lightning, he played on a line with Kyle Wellwood and Jason Blake. The combo had one of its best games since being put together a couple weeks ago but still Tucker's night ended with him breaking his stick on the bench after his final shift.

So, how to explain this season of discontent?

"I haven't ahh, done what I needed to do, obviously," Tucker said after yesterday's morning skate.

This is not one of Tucker's favourite topics.

When it's suggested that he hasn't played like the dynamo fans have grown accustomed to seeing, he growls that the duffus holding the tape recorder chastised him for being too aggressive and when he tones it down, he now is being questioned for not being aggressive enough.

A happy medium would be nice.

And, it was there last night. On his first shift he knocked Doug Janek into the end boards.

A couple minutes later he rocked the boards with Filip Kuba and he helped dig the puck loose behind the Tampa Bay net on what led to Toronto's first goal.

But the night's scoresheet will read that Blake had a goal, Wellwood a couple assists. Tucker? Nada. Sometimes life just isn't fair.

He believes the media is "ragging" on him. He admits he's not happy with his season but adds it would be nice if he got credit for getting his plus/minus back to zero.

On this day he was not in any mood to discuss what ails his performance, his stats sheet, or how much that is due to injury or circumstance.

"You look at the numbers from Darcy, Jason (Blake) and say, these guys can score more. Possibly," head coach Paul Maurice said. "They'll tell you they could; if they had a bit better feel in their hands; if things were going a bit better, they could ... but in order to score a lot you have to get a certain amount of opportunity."

Opportunity and injury have conspired against Tucker, whose ice time has dipped below 15 minutes a game -- the lowest in his NHL career.

It began before the first puck was dropped when the team acquired Blake, who also is known for his power-play prowess.

Last year Tucker ranked first on the team with 15 goals on the power play. In 23 games this year, he had one goal and one assist.

Last year he ranked second on the team in goals, first in game winners and fifth in points. Last night, Andy Wozniewski passed him in team scoring and he's also a point behind Ian White.

"The big problem was he wasn't in the lineup," said Maurice, of the seven games missed with a knee injury.

Another injury that kept Wellwood out 15 games hurt Tucker almost as much.

Last year the two went together like peanut butter and jelly.

This year? Not so much, although Wellwod said last night was another sign that it is coming together. Slowly. "It seems we've had a little more chemistry. I was thinking about three games into this line combo that it's going to work."

It couldn't come soon enough because as Maurice noted yesterday, this season has obviously been wearing on Tucker mentally.

"I'm sure it is," he said.

The coach said it explained why Tucker would "show up in a bad mood." Then, Maurice laughed, noting with a devilish grin, "but then how would we know?" The joking implication being that's how he often arrives.

"Actually, that's not true," Maurice said before a misunderstanding leads to a knock on his door today. "He's an easy-going person when it's not related to hockey."

When it is related to hockey Tucker can be sensitive about how his performance is perceived and it hasn't helped that going into last night the power play was bogged at 29th in the league.

But, Maurice takes some solace in that even without Tucker basking in the red light's glow, the Leafs have been outscored by only Detroit and Ottawa.

NOT AN ISSUE

"It would be a concern if we weren't (scoring) ... as a team," Maurice said. "That's true of Jason and any of our other forwards you may feel are under-performing because the goals aren't there. But we're still in the top four, five in the league in scoring so I'm not overly concerned."

And, as for that mulligan, if last night is an indication, maybe Santa will bring Tucker one in time for the new year.


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