Tuesday, August 30, 2005

 

Your Berger Fix

BY HOWARD BERGER

The Fan-590 Radio, Toronto

There are two elements of scoring goals in hockey that are unrelated, but equally significant. The first adage clearly suggests that no person can be taught to score. You either have natural, God-given ability to put the puck in the net, or you don’t. The second element is more of a crap-shoot. It suggests that goal scoring is the same as riding a bicycle. In order words, if a player once scored at a prolific pace, he should be able to re-discover the touch after playing a secondary role.

Fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs are likely to find out how accurate that is in the coming season. A decade ago, winger Darcy Tucker emerged from Junior hockey as one of the top gunners on a three-time Memorial Cup champion. While skating alongside fellow NHLers-to-be Shane Doan and Jarome Iginla on the Western Hockey League Kamloops Blazers (Junior champs in ’92, ’93 and ’95) Tucker had seasons of 31 goals/89 points, 52 goals/140 points and 64 goals/143 points. He led all Junior scorers in the 1995 playoffs with 16 goals in 21 games. Mostly because of his size (5-foot-10, 170 pounds), Darcy was Montreal’s eighth choice (151st overall) in the 1993 NHL draft. But, he continued his offensive prowess in his first year of pro (1995-96), compiling 29 goals and 93 points in 74 games with Fredericton of the AHL. Only when he graduated to the Canadiens the following season, did his numbers plummet.

Tucker isn’t one to live in the past, so he won’t whine about the coaches who tried to change his game almost 10 years ago. Nor does he pay much heed to the fact that many proficient scorers at levels below the NHL cannot maintain their numbers in the big league. Fairly or not, the stigma of being a second-to-third line, checking-type pest has remained with Tucker through his years in Tampa Bay and Toronto. Four times in his NHL career, he’s broken the 20-goal barrier – 24 being his career high – but he has never been used in the same leading offensive role that allowed him to flourish in Kamloops. All of that may change this season, and Tucker, therefore, looms as one of the most important players for the Maple Leafs.

Having lost proven wingers Gary Roberts, Joe Nieuwendyk, Alexander Mogilny and Owen Nolan, Leafs’ coach Pat Quinn could well utilize Tucker on a scoring line, possibly alongside the team’s best player, Mats Sundin. It would be a welcomed change for the Castor, Alberta native, who turned 30 years of age this past March. Is it possible that Tucker still has the innate scoring skills from his years in Kamloops? And that he’s been “held back” in a checking/agitating role during his NHL career? What an incalculable boost it would be to the Maple Leafs if that were to ring true.

And, don’t bet against it. Darcy has his detractors, but I don’t remember a single game in which he didn’t show up ready to compete – usually against opponents quite bigger than him. He is still (and may always be) despised in Long Island, N.Y. for the borderline hip-check that knocked Mike Peca out of a bruising Leafs-Islanders playoff series in 2002. But, Tucker said this week he’s more than willing to reform his game, and do whatever is required of him to score more goals. When I wondered if he believes he can reach and, perhaps, surpass the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career, he answered with an unqualified “yes.” Darcy has certainly never lacked for confidence… always evident in his style of play.

Tucker missed a thwack of games near the end of the 2003-04 season, and he underwent surgery to correct a lower-abdominal muscle tear. The lost NHL campaign was a blessing in disguise, allowing Darcy to fully recover, and he now says he feels better than ever. Should he remain healthy – and if Quinn stays patient with him on a scoring unit – I firmly believe Tucker can pot 35 goals. That may sound like a stretch to those who have watched his antics the past few years, but if goal-scoring is somewhat like riding a bike, Tucker might just be able to hop back on and cruise once again.



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