Scrappy Winger Down
It's been widely reported as a tragic development, a terrible, terrible loss for the Maple Leafs to have to bear in the early part of the 2007-08 season.
Winger Darcy Tucker won't play for the immediate future, and until his sore knee calms down a bit, it's not at all clear when he will play again.
But isn't the impact of this loss being just a litte exaggerated?
If we were talking about the Tucker who tore out of the gate last season with 19 goals in his first 34 games, ultimately forcing the club to sign him to a new contract through the quality of his play, that would be one thing.
But that Tucker hasn't been seen for a while. Whether it's been an accumulation of injuries or other factors, the Alberta native wasn't an impact player for the Leafs down the stretch last season when they were desperately trying to win what now substitutes for a championship in Toronto, namely the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.
And he sure hasn't been an impact player this season, with one goal in nine games while showing very little of the noteworthy toughness, jump and fire that made him a fan favorite.
In all, Tucker has three goals in his last 22 games as a Leaf, and in 20 of those games he hasn't scored at all. After he signed a new four-year, $12 million extension late last February, he managed five goals in his final 17 games. In the final seven games of the season he failed to score as the Leafs were beaten out for a playoff spot by the Islanders. In the critical final three games, he managed only three shots on goal.
Today, this is a player who ranks 117th in NHL scoring. To be fair, Tucker brings more than just points and numbers to the table, but to be accurate, those added qualities haven't been on full display this season.
His penalty totals, meanwhile, seem to reflect a changing style of play. In his first 683 regular season games as an NHL, he registered 1,115 PIMs and came to be regarded as, pound-for-pound, one of the scrappiest characters in the game.
Interestingly, in nine games this season, he has picked up only eight penalty minutes, and in six of those games he wasn't penalized at all. In 20 of his last 28 games, he hasn't reported to the penalty box.
You can't really criticize him for these penalty stats given that many - including this writer - slammed him for being out-of-control Sideshow Bob in earlier years.
But it is evidence of a change in style of play, or perhaps, a maturation.
This season, it's possible Tucker has been banged up. Maybe he hasn't had a chance to play on the top lines enough. Whatever the reasons, to now project his deletion from a lineup as catastrophic is misleading. At best, he's been the team's seventh or eighth best forward, and good teams are able to replace those types of athletes when injuries strike.
It doesn't compare at all, for example, with the news tonight's opponent, Atlanta, has had to absorb in recent days. Starting goalie Kari Lehtonen is expected to be out six weeks with a groin strain, an enormous injury for the Thrashers to overcome.
Like the Bryan McCabe situation, meanwhile, the Tucker situation makes you wonder about the opportunity missed when the Leafs chose to retain him last winter instead of moving him before the trade deadline.
To be sure, since Tucker had been injured for January and February, his value might have been reduced. But look at the deals made right around the time the Leafs chose to ink him to a new deal.
Montreal traded stay-at-home defenceman Craig Rivet to San Jose for young blueliner Josh Gorges and a first round pick. Philly dealt defenceman Alexei Zhitnik to Atlanta for promising defenceman Braydon Coburn.
Most interestingly, St. Louis dealt forward Keith Tkachuk to the Thrashers for first and third round picks at the '07 draft, a second round next summer and winger Glen Metropolit.
Then the Blues turned around and re-signed Tkachuk as an unrestricted free agent. Not a bad use of resources for a team that wasn't going to make the playoffs anyway but has rebounded with a strong start to this season.
Its all hindsight now, but could the Leafs have worked a similar leave-but-come-back-later deal with Tucker, particularly with his frequently professed affection for the city?
Now, as with McCabe in the winter of '06, you must wonder whether Tucker will ever be worth as much as he might have been on the trade market last March. Injuries are mounting - he hasn't played a full NHL season in six years - and its unclear whether he'll ever be able to again consistently play the rambunctious, hardhitting style that made his offensive contributions icing on the cake, rather than the other way around.