Belak Clears His Spot

By Stephen J. Holodinsky

‘Bulldozer’ Belak Clears His Spot

He was the butt of many anagram jokes when picked up on waivers last year but it’s halfway through the 2001-2002 season and Wade Belak is not only still with the Toronto Maple Leafs, he’s taking a regular shift on the fourth line. To be sure, he was advertised as being able to play both forward and defense when GM/Coach Pat Quinn brought him in last spring, but it was widely assumed that he would be the eventual replacement for Cory Cross.

However, a strange thing happened on the way to the rink. Gary Valk ran into a linesman and separated his shoulder thus creating a hole in the lineup at forward. Quinn called on the former Flame to fill the void and so far, he’s done an admirable job. He hustles every shift, he’s impossible to move from in front of the net, the more he cycles with the puck down low, the better he gets at it, and he’s even starting to make plays with the puck.

That said, the thing that is going to keep him skating a regular shift this year and beyond is going to be his hitting and his ability to stick up for his teammates. His hitting ability was never in question. In limited icetime in only 32 games he already has 51 of those. His pugilistic skills though, needed some honing on his arrival from western Canada. Always a willing warrior, his footwork too often found him at the bottom of the pile when the linesmen jumped in to break up the bout.

Tie Domi worked with the youngster on keeping his balance during such occasions and #2 has improved to such an extent that he overtook his mentor in fighting majors against the Thrashers a couple days ago. Why is this important? Because at the end of the year Domi’s contract is up and the early word has him wanting a significant raise on his present stipend. Many already agree that this is too much to pay a player who will garner you at most 25 points a season and is not a plus player, regardless of how well liked he is in the dressing room and the community. Belak, on the other hand, costs less than half of his mentor’s present salary and isn’t in line for any big paydays. Should he keep progressing at the same pace he is now, the Bulldozer just might end up with a permanent parking spot in the Leafs forward rotation.