Rookie Report

By Stephen J. Holodinsky

There is something to be said for the fact that the Toronto Maple Leafs don’t retire uniform numbers. Instead they honor them but keep them in circulation so that others may carry on the tradition of the Blue and White. When the Buds gave #27 to Darryl Sittler in his rookie year, he was more than aware that it was the number worn by Frank Mahovlich. Borje Salming’s #21 was worn by Bobby Baun before him. Gary Roberts asked Lanny McDonald’s permission before donning the latter’s #7 upon his signing. Now comes the latest chapter in passing the torch in the person of Matt Stajan, who wears his father’s favorite player’s jersey, that of Dave Keon, #14.

Stajan, by all normal standards, shouldn’t even be in the Leafs lineup. Rather he should be down with the farm team in St. John’s learning his craft and waiting a chance with the big club once many of its veterans retire at the end of their contracts this year. However, the Mississauga native, a lifelong fan of the Blue and White, impressed so much in training camp that when it came time to hand out the dressing room stalls, his name was on one of them.

So what has the 2002 second round pick done to impress the Buds brass? Hockey’s Future Leafs correspondent Doug Evinou describes Stajan as ‘a young guy who really seems to understand the game very well’. Intelligence is one quality that the young pivot has in abundance. Evinou goes on to state that ‘everything he learns he seems to absorb and implement into his game’. He never seems to get caught out of position defensively and as he has gotten his feet wet in the NHL is showing more initiative on offense. Evinou calls him ‘a terrific passer who anticipates the play well and gets the puck to the right person at the right time.’ As it stands right now, if the Leafs were to play him exclusively on the fourth line this season, he would be at least the equal to former Bud Alyn McCauley. That said, because the Leafs roster is as aged as Methuselah, there is always someone in the infirmary, and because of this Stajan has seen his share of action further up the rotation.

This isn’t to say that there are no weaknesses to the kid’s game. He could definitely use some help in the faceoff dot, and normally gets it from either Joe Nieuwendyk or Owen Nolan. In addition to that he needs to fill out his 6’1” frame a bit more from his present 180 pounds and he needs to work a bit more on his skating. All three of these are trainable weaknesses so in time they should become less and less of a concern.

Where will Stajan end up? Evinou predicts that one day he’ll be ‘a strong second or third line two-way player, capable of putting up 50-60 points.’ This columnist tends to agree.