Matt Stajan is typical of the kind of player the Leafs have been drafting recently; strong two-way players with intelligence and character in abundance. Much like fellow Leafs’ prospects Brad Boyes and Alexander Steen, Stajan’s greatest attributes are often cited as coachability and work ethic.
Stajan’s attitude is paying off at the OHL level, where he now assumes a leadership role on a young, up-and-coming Belleville Bulls squad, and as the lynchpin of the Bulls’s ‘Executive Line’, the high-scoring trio of Stajan, Adam Paiement and Cody McCormick (Stajan has 10 goals and 6 assists in 9 games). Stajan’s Bulls have bought into coach Jim Hulton’s defense-first system, and are reaping the rewards. The Bulls have allowed only 24 goals in 9 games, and are tied for first in the OHL’s East Division. Stajan said buying into a team-wide defensive system with an emphasis on quick transitions is paying off.
“We know we have to play a defensive system,” he said. “Playing responsibly defensively creates offence. If we take care of our own end, we’ll get chances at the other end.”
HockeysFuture recently had a chance to talk to Matt about the hectic five months since the Leafs selected him in the 2002 Entry Draft.
Name: Matt Stajan
Weight: 188 lbs
Hometown: Mississauga, Ontario
Acquired: 2nd Round, 57th Overall, 2002 Entry Draft
HockeysFuture: Hi Matt, welcome to Hockeysfuture.com. To start out, could you describe what kind of player you are?
Matt Stajan: I have been described as a solid two-way player who has good hockey sense. I think of myself as a playmaker, who plays with drive and determination.
HF: You made significant strides in your second year in the OHL, tripling your offensive output and being named Most Under-Rated Player in the Eastern conference. You were also a finalist for the best defensive forward in the 2002 OHL Coaches Poll. How did you accomplish such an impressive improvement?
MS: I credit most of my success last year to a gain in confidence. I owe a lot to my coach Jim Hulton for believing in me and helping mold me into the player I am today with his advice and support. Also, getting to play with skilled players like Nate Robinson and Mike Renzi helped a lot. We had amazing chemistry as a line, which was evident by our success last year.
HF: All of your success last year resulted in you being rated as the #18 skater in North America by the CSB for the Entry Draft. What were your expectations going into the draft? Did you have any inkling that Toronto had interest in you?
MS: Going into the draft, I didn’t really know what to expect. I was hoping to go as early as possible, but my agent said I could go anywhere from late first round to the sixth round.
As for the Leafs, I had no clue that they had any interest in me. They were one of the teams that did not interview me before the draft. So when they called my name it was a surprise to both me and my family.
HF: At the entry draft and in the Blue and White game in Hamilton, it was evident that you have a lot of people supporting you and cheering you on. How important have your family and friends been in your hockey career?
MS: I feel that I am lucky to have such an amazing family and group of friends. They have all supported me since day one, especially my parents and my sister. It means a lot to me knowing that they’ll always be there no matter what.
HF: After the draft, the Maple Leafs held an orientation camp for their younger players. Can you describe that experience? How did that experience direct your training over the rest of the summer?
MS: It was a fun week! I got to meet and spend time with other Leaf prospects. The week gave me a glimpse of what it’s like to play for such a great organization. It also gave me a lot of insight on what I need to improve on and what to expect for training camp.
HF: Did you have any goals you wanted to accomplish during your first NHL training camp experience?
MS: I wanted to make a good first impression and show the coaches and management that I want to be a Leaf one day. It was a tremendous experience, and I thought I handled myself well.
HF: Did you pick up any useful hints throughout the camp from some of the veterans in Toronto’s line-up?
MS: Yes, all the players were great and so helpful. They gave me good advice; and playing on a team with big names like Mats Sundin and Bryan McCabe, you learn a lot.
HF: When you got sent back to junior, did the Leafs management make suggestions on ways in which they wanted your game to improve? What do you think you will need to do in order to prepare yourself to play in the NHL?
MS: The Leafs management basically told me to just keep working hard and do what I do best out on the ice. They said they drafted me for a reason and to just keep playing my game.
One thing I feel I have to improve on is my strength. At the NHL level, everyone is so strong, and that’s what I need to focus on most.
HF: Now that you’re back in Belleville, your focus changes back to more team-oriented goals. The Bulls have lost a lot of offense in the off-season (Spezza, Robinson, Renzi) and are in a suddenly tight Eastern Conference with the Generals, Petes and 67’s all looking tough. Now that you’re a third year guy and you’ve got the ‘A’ on your shirt, how is your role going to change this year and what are you goals for the season.
MS: Although we lost some great players this year we still have a lot of guys that are capable of stepping up to the challenge. I expect a lot from myself and my linemates Adam Paiement and Cody McCormick to produce and be leaders as the veterans on the team this year. I do my best to lead by example, both in practice and games, knowing that the younger guys look up to us.
HF: After spending some of the off-season with guys like Kyle Wellwood, Carlo Colaiacovo and Brendan Bell, will you get a little extra charge out of playing those guys this year in the OHL?
MS: Ya, it’s always fun to play against guys you know, especially the three guys you mentioned. Carlo has been a long time friend and former minor hockey teammate. Welly is a former Bulls teammate and a great guy on and off the ice. And of course Bell, our teams have been rivals in the OHL which always makes it more exciting.
HF: It looks like a few spots might be opening up on Canada’s World Junior team (with PM Bouchard, Rick Nash and Jason Spezza all looking to stick in the NHL). Is this a goal you’d like to realize; have you had any contact with the coaching staff of that team?
MS: Making the World Junior team is definitely a goal that I would like to achieve. I haven’t had any contact with the coaching staff, but I’m going to work as hard as I can to get noticed and make that dream come true.
HockeysFuture: Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. Good luck the rest of the way. It’s great to see you and the Bulls get off to such a good start. I’m sure a lot of Leafs’ fans will be following your season with interest.
Matt Stajan: Thank you