Michael Peca a force on and off the ice in his first year with Leafs

On the ice, he’s been the shutdown guy and penalty killer they hoped for. Off the ice, he’s taken a large leadership role on a younger Maple Leafs team. “It’s been exciting. I’ve enjoyed every moment,” Peca said Monday morning. “I’m having fun playing the game. I’m loving coming to the rink and as a player, that’s really what you want.”

As a newcomer, one might think a transition period was needed for Peca to instil himself as a leader.

But it happened nearly from Day 1.

“There was no transition period,” said Peca. “When I came in, in early September, and started skating with the guys, I felt very comfortable. I knew a lot of them already. Having talked with (head coach) Paul (Maurice) and (GM) John (Ferguson) in the summer time, I made them aware what I expected my role and my responsibilities to be. And I realized that there were some young guys in here that probably need to hear that voice.

“I don’t overdo it, but certainly we’re a team that needs some guys in the room to be a little bit vocal.”

Second-year winger Alex Steen sits between Peca and captain Mats Sundin in the Leafs’ dressing room at Air Canada Centre.

He’s got leadership oozing from each side of him.

“Sitting here between these two guys has been real special,” said Steen. “You feed off them all the time and you learn new things, especially off-ice things, how they carry themselves and how they get the team ready. And really distribute their experience among the younger guys.”

On the ice, Peca’s greatest influence has been on the penalty kill, where the Leafs have improved to seventh in the NHL after placing 24th last season.

At even strength he plays against the other team’s top players.

“He’s played in critical playoff games and always against the top players and really embraces that role,” Ferguson said Monday. “That’s an area of our team we wanted to address. We wanted to become harder to play against. And Michael definitely makes us harder to play again.”

Signed to a one-year deal worth US$2.5-million, Peca will once again be an unrestricted free agent July 1. But it appears both he and the Leafs want to keep a good thing going.

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“With the one-year deal, the earliest we can talk to that end (an extension) would be January (according the CBA),” Ferguson said. “But we like the way it’s going so far.”

Maurice has handed Peca the third-most ice time among his forwards behind only Sundin and winger Darcy Tucker.

“It makes running your bench quite a bit easier when you have a guy that wants a certain role and it’s not in front of the net on the power play,” Maurice said of Peca. “The penalty kill is an area that can be the difference for you over a long haul. I think it’s in the top 10 now and he’s a big part of that.

“He has great anticipatory skills. I still think there’s some offence that we’re not getting. Part of that is the role he’s in and how seriously he takes that. But he’s played important minutes for us.”

Peca had only two goals and five assists heading into Monday night’s game, but that’s hardly the reason why the Leafs signed him. They wanted a gritty centre whom opposing players would hate to play against.

“He’s just around the puck so much,” said Ferguson. “His stick is great, he knocks down more passes than probably anyone other than (Detroit’s Nicklas) Lidstrom.”

Off the ice, along with Sundin and Tucker, Peca is a popular target for the large throngs of Toronto media when it comes to getting the pulse of the team. Peca has taken the NHL’s largest media contingent in stride, even two months into his life as a Leaf still taking time to patiently answer each and every question.

On Monday, Peca spent at least 20 minutes doing interviews, answering some of the same questions as different waves of media made their way in front of him.

“I haven’t found it too difficult,” said the 32-year-old Toronto native. “The one thing in my case is that I’ve gotten to know a lot of you guys in the Toronto media over the years so it’s been pretty easy to deal with. I know the personalities and how to deal with them. I haven’t put myself in a position to not like it yet.”