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AHL Talent Close To NHL

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs

by Robin Short

Some of hockey's best young stars have been wilting under the spotlight in the American Hockey League.

While Binghamton Senators Jason Spezza is among the league's scoring leaders through the first month, others like Matt Stajan of the St. John's Maple Leafs are a work in progress as they adjust from the NHL to riding the AHL's busses.

Ottawa Senators GM John Muckler, who assigned Spezza, Josh Langfeld and Anton Volchenkov in Binghamton during the lockout, suggests it may be a case of the youngsters taking the AHL for granted after a year in the NHL.

For Stajan, it's wanting to live up to the advanced hype.

"I put a lot of pressure on myself to dominate," said Stajan, who made the Toronto Maple Leafs as an 19 -year-old last season and finished the year with 14 goals and 27 points in 69 games.

"But it doesn't work that way down here. It's a tough league in which to produce. You're playing against guys who are very close to making the NHL, against men and not 16- and 17-year-old juniors. These guys are pro too."

Because of the lockout, many of the game's best young players are playing throughout the AHL. Some, like Spezza and Boston's Patrice Bergeron (18 points through 14 games) and Carolina's Eric Staal (17 points through 12 games), have flourished in the early going.

Others haven't been as fortunate.

Stajan had but three goals through 16 games and was minus three.

Nashville's Jordin Tootoo had only two goals and an assist through 11 games with the defending Calder Cup champion Milwaukee Admirals and defenceman Jay Bouwmeester of the Florida Panthers, who helped Canada win a gold medal at the World Cup in September, had three goals in 16 games and was minus-four for the San Antonio Rampage.

"I'm just trying to go out and play and not worry about putting up big numbers," said Stajan. "I mean, I want to be the go-to guy, but I'm not going to try and get five points every game."

For many of the kids, getting used to the grind that comes with the AHL has been an adjustment in itself.

There are no charter flights in this circuit.

"The road trips are definitely tough on the body," said Stajan. "They take some getting used to."

Stajan travelled with the Leafs through Western Canada and Southern Ontario on a 12-day, seven game road trip in November. Still, that's nothing to the 22-day, 12-game trip that awaits the Leafs in January.

"You're treated pretty good in the NHL, but down here you're sitting on the bus for six and seven hours, driving through the night for an afternoon game the next day. That can be hard," he said.

Stajan and Spezza go head to head Dec. 1 and 3 in Toronto when the Leafs and Sens hook up for a pair of games at the Air Canada Centre.

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