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Matt Stajan thriving for Maple Leafs after receiving some tough love

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

TORONTO - No player better embodies the changing fortunes of the Toronto Maple Leafs than Matt Stajan.

Even though the season is just 10 games old, Stajan has already crammed in a year's worth of downs and ups. A fourth-liner and a healthy scratch early on, he's now playing on the Leafs No. 1 unit and is one of the team's leading scorers.

Quite a month, eh?

It's a sign that times truly have changed under new coach Ron Wilson. Toronto no longer seems to be the kind of place where veterans can expect to be given a prominent role based on their past accomplishments.

Under Wilson, everything must constantly be earned.

"He has a feel for every game," Stajan said after Friday's practice. "In the first period, he knows who's going and who's not. You can just tell he's not scared to play anybody. It doesn't matter how long you've been in the league, what you've done - it's what have you done for me today?

"I think it's good for our team because everybody's got to be ready every game and that's the way it should be in this league."

The implication, of course, is that the team hasn't always been ready in the recent past - an idea that a couple different Leaf players have expressed over the past month.

The culture change was put in motion by GM Cliff Fletcher with the personnel moves he made at last season's trade deadline and over the summer. It's been continued by Wilson, who signed a four-year contract and isn't expected to mould this team into a contender until late in his deal.

Without question, the lowest point of Stajan's season came when he was scratched on Oct. 13 after playing the previous 178 straight games. Just over a week after that, the 24-year-old was elevated to the top line with Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky and hasn't yet looked back.

That series of moves was pre-meditated by Wilson, who has already scratched seven different players this season.

"I've always done that - you bench a guy and then give him a big opportunity to bounce back," Wilson explained. "You don't stick him out and play him six minutes, you give people opportunities.

"You have to have a long-range view of your team. I'd like to think that any decisions we make are well thought out, not emotional or willy-nilly type decisions."

The plan has paid some dividends on a couple fronts. Heading into Saturday's game against the New York Rangers (CBC, 7 p.m. ET), the Maple Leafs boast a 4-3-3 record and Stajan is on a four-game point streak.

He had two goals and an assist on Wednesday as the Maple Leafs twice erased deficits before beating New Jersey 6-5 in a shootout. It was the sort of game last year's team would probably not have won.

That said, Wilson thinks it's too early to definitively say that this year's group is better.

"We've played 10 games and already people are mentioning the 'P' word," he said, referring to the playoffs. "I think it's way too premature for talk like that. We just want to focus on making ourselves better every day. There's a lot of numbers that we look at that indicate we are improving.

"A major hurdle for us is not to listen to any of this talk."

That's something Stajan says is discussed often between the players in the Leafs dressing room.

As a local boy who has spent his entire NHL career in Toronto, he has a unique insight into the way the team is perceived. Stajan believes the mood is excessively positive while the Leafs are on a winning streak and overly negative after a loss.

That kind of atmosphere can be difficult on the players.

"You've just got to keep a level head and come to the rink with the same attitude every day - to work hard, to help your team win," said Stajan. "Just let everything else kind of happen around you. Only control what you can control on the ice.

"I think by being here the last five, six years, I've been able to know that. It's a tough city to play in if you get too involved in that."

Above all, that might explain how he's been able to rebound so nicely after struggling early in the year.

The opportunity for earning ice time and changing roles is clearly available on this Leafs team. In fact, it's not even something that has to be directly communicated to be understood.

"Me and Ron haven't talked about that at all," said Stajan. "With every coach you have a different relationship. I know what he's thinking when he's sitting me out - that he wants more of me. When your minutes go down you know you've got to do more. When you're playing a lot of minutes, you know he has confidence in you, he's happy with you.

"It doesn't always have to be a heart to heart talk."



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