Brett Lebda arrived with the Toronto Maple Leafs this summer a week into free agency, signing a two-year deal in the hopes of playing a much bigger role with a rebuilding team than he had with the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings.
So far, however, all Lebda has become is the Leafs' forgotten man on the blueline. The 28-year-old has been a healthy scratch for three consecutive games since being benched after his giveaway led to a goal early in a win last week over the Nashville Predators.
After 10 games as a Leaf, Lebda is a team-worst minus-9 and has fallen behind two youngsters with more than 300 fewer games NHL experience.
Instead of a new beginning, his start in Toronto has been a bit of a nightmare.
"It's frustrating," Lebda said. "Just this whole start of the year has been like that. Getting hurt in training camp, missing the first two, three weeks and trying to get back in game shape without those exhibition games.
"Now I'm in a hole and hopefully I get a chance here to climb out of it."
Lebda landed in Toronto partly because of his strong ties with Leafs management. He spent four years playing at Notre Dame under Leafs vice-president of hockey operations Dave Poulin, whose decade-long coaching tenure at the prestigious school ended in 2005.
At the time he was signed, Lebda was joining a Leafs defence core that appeared to need another veteran body.
General manager Brian Burke was in the midst of shopping Tomas Kaberle around the league before a window in his no-trade clause closed in mid-August. When the offers ultimately weren't to Burke's liking, however, he didn't pull the trigger on a deal.
That left Lebda, who makes more than most depth defencemen at $1.5-million (U.S.), behind at least five other blueliners to start the season, with Carl Gunnarsson and rookie Keith Aulie his main competitors for the last spot on a third defence pairing coach Ron Wilson has hardly used this season.
Aulie, in particular, will be given every opportunity to succeed given he was part of the blockbuster Dion Phaneuf trade that will help define Burke's tenure in Toronto. Viewed by many as a more long-range prospect at the time, the 21-year-old has beefed up to 6 foot 6 and 225 pounds and hasn't looked out of place in limited minutes in his first five NHL games.
"My role is pretty defined," Aulie said. "I've just got to go out there and make my first pass, be hard to play against and basically keep the puck out of my net. I think it's been going pretty well so far."
Lebda, meanwhile, said it feels like the puck is headed into his net whenever he steps on the ice.
"I thought I was playing pretty well, but I've just been on the ice for too many goals against," he said. "Whether they're my fault or not, it's still something that needs to be cut down."
Lebda has been through this before, starting the 2008-09 season with no points and a minus-9 in the first 11 games on a Red Wings team that was coming off a Stanley Cup title.
He finished that season with 16 points and a plus-9 and played in all 23 playoff games as Detroit made a second consecutive run to the final.
With Phaneuf's return from injury just two or three weeks away, however, Lebda is running out of time to take on the sort of role he was looking for in Toronto.
"It'll turn around," Lebda said. "You've just got to keep working hard, not worry about it. And when you get your chance, take advantage of it. Our goal is to make the playoffs, whether that's with me in the lineup or not."