Stajan filling the void in Toronto

By Doug Evinou

On the day when thirty-three young Canadian hockey players were invited to the selection camp for Canada’s entry at the 2004 World Junior Championship, Maple Leaf Matt Stajan had the opportunity to reminisce about his own experience playing for the same team only one year ago.

“It brings back a lot of memories”, Stajan told Hockey’s Future on Monday. “It was a really great time last year and there’s no better feeling then to represent your country.”

Stajan was considered a long shot to make Canada’s roster going into the selection camp last year, but impressed the coaching staff with his hard work and knowledge of the game. The 19-year-old forward’s role on the team grew as the tournament went on, and he ended up taking a regular shift on the team’s checking line alongside St. Louis Blues prospect Jay McClement and Washington Capitals prospect Boyd Gordon.

Despite a strong team effort, Canada narrowly missed winning the gold medal at last year’s tournament. Canada lost to Russia in a tight one-goal decision in the final game. Stajan hopes that this edition of the squad will be able to turn the trick for Canadian hockey fans this time around.

“I’ve got some friends going to that camp and know that they want to be there more then anything,” Stajan said. “All the guys who are going there know that it’s real tough to make that team. Hopefully they’ll bring home gold for our country.”

While Stajan won’t be representing his country this holiday season, he will be wearing a Maple Leaf on his chest as a full-time member of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club. The young forward has earned a regular spot in the team’s line-up by playing smart two-way hockey, and giving the Leafs the same effort that he provided Team Canada last Christmas. Stajan’s strong recent play alongside line-mates Owen Nolan and Harold Druken has helped spark the Maple Leafs to a season high five game win streak, and first place in the NHL’s competitive North East division.

“Our team is on a roll right now, and me and my linemates have found some chemistry between us,” Stajan said. “I feel more confident out there and we’re just trying to continue to play the way we have. Over the last few weeks we’ve definitely clicked, and hopefully we can continue to score goals for our hockey club.”

Lining up with an experienced veteran player like Owen Nolan has been invaluable to the young Mississauga, Ontario native who was playing junior hockey only seven short months ago. Stajan, a second round pick of the Maple Leafs in the 2002 NHL draft, says that playing alongside Nolan, who was a former first overall pick of the Quebec Nordiques in 1990, has really eased his transition to the pro game.

“(Nolan) has been a great help. He’s one of the best players in the game. He has helped me out on the bench and in practice. (On the ice), I just try to give him the puck and find the open space, because I know he’ll find me.”

Stajan scored a key goal in Toronto’s 2-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night for his second marker of the season. He has also registered six assists, for a total of eight points in the first 23 games of the season. The offensive contributions have been nice, but even more impressive have been the reliable defensive efforts that Stajan has provided the team game in and game out, as evidenced by his stellar plus-minus rating of +8.

“I’ve always focused in on the defensive aspects of the game,” Stajan explains. “It’s one of the biggest parts of the game, and my coaches in junior(Jim Hulton and James Boyd) really helped me develop a lot of confidence in that part of my play.”

Stajan thinks that the experience of playing three seasons in the cavernous Yardmen Arena for the OHL’s Belleville Bulls had a key role in his learning the defensive aspects of the game.

“I was always playing against the top guys in junior,” Stajan, who was an impressive +41 for the Bulls last season, said. “Because of the large ice in Belleville, the offensive players had more room to maneuver and make plays, so I had to pay extra attention in my own end.”

Stajan’s defensive play in the NHL has been so impressive that Maple Leafs head coach Pat Quinn has started utilizing the young forward as a penalty killer; a role that Stajan clearly relishes.

“I really enjoy playing on the penalty kill,” Stajan explains. “It’s a little different in the NHL then in junior; you’ve got to work twice as hard when you’re out there. You’ve got to be able to keep things simple and play smart because a single mistake at this level can cost your team dearly, so you’ve got to stay focused at all times.”

With the recent spate of injuries to Maple Leafs regulars such as Alex Mogilny, Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts, the youthful pivot has also found himself spending some time on the club’s power play unit.

“I’m getting my chances now with some injuries on our team, and am just trying to fill in the best I can to produce for our hockey team,” Stajan says. “To get a chance (to play on the power play) at the NHL level is pretty awesome.”

While the young forward has had an impressive debut for an NHL rookie so far, he knows there are a few areas where he can still improve his game.

“Strength is something I’ve got to work on, but I’m still young and I’ll still grow,” explains Stajan, who is slightly undersized by NHL standards at 6’1″ and 185 lbs. “I’m doing everything I can to become stronger and every day I just try going to the rink being enthusiastic and willing to work hard, and hopefully that will help my game out in every way.”

One advantage of playing on a veteran team such as the Leafs is that youngsters like Stajan have a wealth of experience and knowledge to draw from. Players like Nieuwendyk and Nolan, as well as assistant coach Keith Acton have been particularly helpful to the rookie in practice and during games.

“Acton has been real good helping me out on my faceoffs which I’ve been struggling with a bit here in the early going, but every day after practice we do some face-off work and Joe Nieuwendyk has been helping me; one of the best faceoff guys to play the game, so they’ve all been a really great help,” explained Stajan, who has a 37.2% success rate in the faceoff circle so far. “All I can do is work hard and learn from them and I’ll become a better player.”

Stajan is intent on continuing to work hard this season, soak up all the knowledge he can from his veteran teammates, and to cement his place in the future plans of the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.

“I’m just trying to do my best to fill in and help the team win, and hopefully that’ll keep me up here for the rest of the season, and in Toronto for a very long time.”