Wayne Primeau sat at his dressing room stall, beads of perspiration popping from his forehead and forming tiny rivers that ran down his cheeks, rivulets cascading like tiny rapids from his nose.
“I don’t think it’s from lack of effort. The work ethic is here. We just can’t afford to take off even one shift,” said Primeau, who acknowledged that four wins at the quarter pole in the NHL season isn’t what he thought he was signing up for when he joined the Maple Leafs in a trade last July.
Actually, his brief fling as a Leaf hasn’t been what he expected either personally or collectively.
Primeau spent some of his best years under coach Ron Wilson when the two were in San Jose enjoying 100-point seasons. Even then, Primeau wasn’t a big scorer but he was a big contributor.
In Toronto he has spent much of the early season on a fourth line, playing sparingly, or watching. Unlike San Jose, this team has no scoring touch, no luck and soon they will have no hope of a playoff spot.
“Not playing a lot of minutes can get difficult but it is what it is. I expected to play a little more. It’s one of those things where some other guys were given an opportunity,” he said, picking his words carefully, “and maybe they were showing more early on.”
If they were, it certainly wasn’t reflected in the standings or on the scoreboard where the Leafs have a mere 57 goals. When John Mitchell injured his leg Monday night, Primeau moved up to centre Lee Stempniak and Nikolai Kulemin.
“When you’re on the third line you get more minutes. You feel more involved in the game instead of sitting on the bench for five minutes between shifts. It’s definitely feels good to contribute,” Primeau, who scored his second goal in 15 games, said.
He got almost 11 minutes of ice time, the most since his fourth game of the season. But with Christian Hanson called up from the AHL’s Marlies, there’s no guarantee Primeau will remain on the third line.
“It’s an opportunity for Wayne,” Wilson said Tuesday before the team left for Wednesday’s game in Tampa. “But he’s not by any stretch of the imagination a goal scorer. He is a hard worker ... but he’s never scored double figures.”
Primeau managed nine goals and 29 points for the Sharks in 2003-04, his NHL high, so nobody is going to mistake him for his more offensively gifted and recently retired brother, Keith. But he believes this is a team that will find its scoring touch; that it is not without offensive polish.
“We have Jason (Blake) who scored 40 a couple years ago and (Phil Kessel) had 36 last year and Alexei Ponikarovsky has shown he can score. I just don’t think we’ve had a lot of luck. I mean, we have sixty-some shots and still lose. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that,” Primeau said.
And in 13 NHL seasons he has seen a lot, including some really bad teams. He played with a Penguins team in 2003 that finished with 65 points.
“I’ve been through losing before ... but it’s tougher when you’re in a hockey mecca like Toronto. The fans are upset,” Primeau said. “But there’s nobody more upset with how things are going then the guys in this dressing room. We’re professionals. We play the game to win. It’s hard to come to the rink when you only have (four wins).”
When a team consistently out-shoots the opposition, when it often holds a territorial edge but still loses, it points to one conclusion: It’s not talented enough. Hard work, while an admirable quality, gets a team, or a player, only so far. Which makes Primeau, perhaps, the epitome of this edition of the Leafs.
Both are full of grit, heart and determination.
But, none of it, on its own, is enough to completely satisfy.