TORONTO - It says a lot about Kyle Wellwood's season from hell with the Toronto Maple Leafs that even with injuries to two top forwards it is a 19-year-old rookie who got the assignment to fill the void on the top line while he began Tuesday night's 3-2 loss to St. Louis on the fourth line.
"It's been a struggle all year," Wellwood said after Tuesday's pre-game skate at Air Canada Centre. "It's been an uphill battle all season and I'm still trying to get to the point where I'm able to produce for the team."
With shoulder injuries to Alexei Ponikarovsky and Alex Steen, it was Jiri Tlusty - who turns 20 in March - who got the nod to play alongside Mats Sundin and Nik Antropov for Tuesday night's game against the St. Louis Blues. The 24-year-old Wellwood began the game with tough guy Wade Belak and AHL call-up Kris Newbury before being moved up to the third line with Chad Kilger and Dominic Moore midway through Tuesday night's game.
It's still a step up from the last Thursday in Washington, where Wellwood was a healthy scratch for the third time this season. He was also left aside Jan.1 against Tampa Bay and Jan. 3 at Pittsburgh.
Wellwood, who went pointless again Tuesday to give him only 12 points (5-7) in 34 games, has come to grips with being a healthy scratch.
"When you're struggling and you're a skilled player, you're going to expect them to put in guys who check better than you," he said. "I'm not the best checker out there. I need to put up points and if I'm not doing that, there's just not going to be too much ice time for me."
Head coach Paul Maurice didn't sugar coat the disappointment, although he attributed some of it to the sports hernia surgery Wellwood had in September. Still, this was a player Maurice had projected as a major offensive contributor and a power-play mainstay.
"It's been a disappointing year for him and for what we had pencilled him in for originally, starting with his injury straight through to his performance," said Maurice. "I think it's very very difficult for a player to miss that much time, especially training camp, and come in and be as good as we expected him to be."
Wellwood said the surgery, the second in the same area within a year, has been a significant factor to his slow start. He missed the first 15 games of the season recovering.
"Yeah, looking back, having the surgery right at the start of the year on your groin, as much rehab as you can do ... you just try to fight your way in the lineup and do your best," said Wellwood. "There were times where I felt great and there were times where I was just hoping practice to be only a half hour. It's been tough."
Both the Leafs and Wellwood hope the final third of the season can be used to rediscover his form of last year when he registered 42 points (12-30) in 48 points and displayed the kind of first-line offensive flair that also made him a star in junior.
"Oh yeah, that's the first goal, to get back where I was playing, where I was at my best," said Wellwood. "I think I started this season OK. I wasn't the best, but I had a couple of good games in the first 10 where I thought I was getting back to normal. It's been a slide since then and it's definitely been hard to get back to where it should be. ...
"So definitely for the rest of the season, we want to make the playoffs but also personally, I just want to get to the point where I was last year where I felt great and I was able to contribute for the team."