Monday, February 05, 2007
Toronto Maple Leafs-Belleville Connection-Matt Stajan
In his final season with the Belleville Bulls, Matt Stajan centred a line with Cody McCormick and Adam Paiement on the wings.
He had spent a week of training camp with the Toronto Maple Leafs, having been drafted by them in the second round. At the Leafs’ camp, Matts Sundin spent some time with Stajan, and encouraged him to be a little more selfish with the puck, and to have confidence to carry the play.
In the first game of his final OHL season, he put that advice to good use, netting a hat trick in the Bulls’ 4-1 win over the Peterborough Petes. He also set up the Bulls’ other goal.
Later that year, he had a similarly auspicious start. The Bulls had been eliminated in the seventh game of a gruelling playoff series with St. Mike’s, and Stajan was summoned to St. John’s to play for the Baby Leafs. No sooner had he arrived there, when he received a call from Pat Quinn to head back to Hogtown to play in the Leafs’ final game against the Senators. Matt centred a line with Gary Roberts and Owen Nolan, and potted the Leafs’ only goal in their loss to the Sens.
The following season, he earned his ticket to play for the parent Leafs, and recorded twenty-seven points in sixty-nine games. And then, Boom! The following season was the “Season Without Hockey”.
Stajan was designated to play in St. John’s in 2004, due to his contract status. He played 83 games on The Rock, notching twenty-three goals and adding forty-three assists.
He began the 2005-2006 season with the Toronto squad, and has been there ever since. He had twenty-seven points in eighty games, and was always used in penalty kill situations. This year, he has twenty-eight points in 53 games.
Jim Hulton coached Stajan for his entire Junior Hockey career in Belleville. I spoke with Hulton after Stajan had finished his OHL career, and he expressed optimism about Matt’s future at that time. “He always gave us a great sixty minutes. He was a tremendous forechecker who played hard every night. We knew that the Leafs had made a great decision when they drafted Matt in the second round.”
James Boyd now stands behind the St. Mike’s bench as an assistant coach. He played his OHL career in Belleville, and worked as an assistant with Hulton before heading to Toronto. When asked about Matt Stajan, Boyd used one of those mystical expressions coaches employ to describe his play: “He had all the stuff you can’t teach. He wasn’t a great skater, he didn’t have a great shot, but he was a great player.”
Boyd felt that Stajan was the best defensive player on the Bulls, and he knew that Matt would play professionally some day. “He instinctively knew where to go on the ice. He listened. He learned. He was one of those guys who grows on you as a coach.”
Stajan copped virtually every award the Bulls had to offer during his OHL career. He was the Top Scholastic Player twice, the best centre, the unsung hero, the best playoff performer, and in 2002-2003 the MVP. He did fail to capture any Goaltender awards!
In early November, two former Bulls were playing well for the Leafs---Kyle Wellwoood and Stajan. Unfortunately, Wellwood has been shelved with nagging injuries, likely to cost him the rest of the season. I spoke with Leafs’ GM John Ferguson in November about the former Bulls. “They are both really fine hockey players.” (He also wanted to know what former Dukes had made it to the NHL.)
As they head down the home stretch, the Leafs will rely heavily on Stajan, especially for his defensive play, and for his penalty killing. All eyes will also be on Andrew Raycroft, the former Duke who is the NHL’s “First Star” this week. They will be monitored carefully, under the microscopic vision of the Toronto media, and the entire Leafs’ nation.
Time will tell.