Mark Bell doesn't know whether to laugh or cry when he hears the general manager and the head coach of the Maple Leafs lament the fact that the club needs toughness and scoring.
When Bell is on his game -- and he is on his game right now -- toughness and scoring are what he is all about.
But Bell isn't holding his breath waiting for the Leafs to call him up from the Marlies even though, despite a slow start to the season, he now is third in scoring on the Marlies, and third overall in goals, with nine.
"There was an adjustment period coming down to the AHL," Bell said yesterday from San Antonio, where the Marlies met the Rampage last night -- the seventh stop on a brutal nine-game road swing. "But the last month and a half my game has come around to the point where I think I'm out there with a lot of the best players in this league."
Since the start of the season, Jiri Tlusty has been called up to the Leafs. Nikolai Kulemin has been called up. Kris Newbury has been called up. None has made any impact with the big team. Bell, meanwhile, is firmly entrenched in the minors and convinced that he'll be there until the end of the season.
"I know my days are numbered as a Leaf," Bell said with more sadness than bitterness. "I really don't expect to get called up."
The native of St. Paul's, Ont., understands that Tlusty, Kulemin and Newbury are considered prospects, and the Leafs want to see what they can do at the NHL level. At 28, and with a history of off-ice problems, specifically a drunk driving and hit-and-run conviction, Bell is not.
Still, Bell believes he can help the Leafs, and both Brian Burke and Ron Wilson have insisted that, though this organization is rebuilding, they want to win now -- that they owe it to the fans not to throw in the towel this season.
And yet Bell remains stuck down on the farm.
The knock against the former Chicago Blackhawk and San Jose Shark is that his skating in the new, faster NHL is not up to snuff. But Bell believes that he can still perform at a high level in the NHL.
"I'm healthy and my body feels as good as it has in a long time," he said. "I'd love to get the call up. But at the same time, it just seems it wasn't in the cards this year for me to play with the Leafs. So let the younger guys get called up. It doesn't bother me."
The one thing that does bother Bell -- who has scored 20 goals or more twice in the NHL, a feat only two current Leafs have accomplished -- is that he was put on waivers and assigned to the Marlies out of training camp, without a word from Wilson, who was his coach in San Jose during the 2006-07 season.
"I hoped that he would have said something, but I'm not surprised that he didn't," said Bell, who missed the first 15 games of the Leafs season last year while serving an NHL suspension for his off-ice conviction, and then 31 more after breaking his orbital bone in a fight with Ryan Malone of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"With Ron, some days it's all fun and joking around and other days he won't say anything to you."
Bell, a member of Canada's 2000 world junior team, was acquired by the Leafs, along with goaltender Vesa Toskala, prior to the 2007-08 season, for a first-, second- and fourth-round draft pick.
It was thought his size and goal-scoring ability would be a boon for the Leafs. But as a result of his suspension and injury, Bell managed only four goals in 35 games. And when Wilson was hired in the off-season, he sort of knew the writing was on the wall, as he had a down year under Wilson in San Jose. So all Bell can do now is play hard and hope that after his contract expires at the end of the year, some other NHL teams will be interested.
"If I keep playing the way I am now, I'll get there," he said.
But all is not doom and gloom. Bell actually is having the time of his hockey life with the Marlies.
"That has been probably the best part of playing down here," he said. "I've gotten back to enjoying hockey. I've been smiling more this year than ever before."