Kyle Wellwood was walking around the Ricoh Coliseum yesterday on his way to fitness testing. He was wearing shorts and had a notebook in his hand. He looked for the world like a kid going to high school.
The only thing is, for the Toronto Maple Leafs, school is out.
When general manager John Ferguson talks about the raised expectations for this season, not just the playoffs but something well beyond, he names the players he is depending on by rote; Wellwood, 24, Matt Stajan, 23, Alex Steen 23 and 24-year-old Carlo Colaiacovo.
Wellwood showed real progress last year. An abdominal injury limited him to 48 games and 42 points, but he started slowly, with only two goals in his first 22 games.
Steen struggled mightily as a sophomore and went goalless in 26 straight games in the early season. He salvaged his season with solid defensive play throughout and the final ledger showed 15 goals to boot.
Colaiacovo was a solid plus-5 with eight goals but he played only 48 games due to injury.
Steen, an affable, likeable kid, describes his two years in the league as a blur that gave way to painful realizations about what it takes to be a consistent pro.
“Last year I learned a lot more than I did my first year. The first year, it seems you can’t really grasp everything, everything goes really quick. Last year it sort of sunk in. I had the opportunity to learn a lot from last year, what I need to do and what not to do. I have high expectations for this year.”
Steen admits the scoring slump eroded his confidence.
“You can’t get too down on yourself. I have a tendency to get too down on myself when somethings not going my way, but there’s only one way to get through and that’s to battle and keep positive. That’s what I learned last year.”
Wellwood admits that the point-a-game standard is a worthy one. Of more importance, he said, is the process of becoming a better player.
“You realize how much works it takes to go from a mediocre player where you just hope not to hurt the team to really helping the team and take the load of other guys,” he said.
Colaiacovo, who showed everything from a willingness to take a chance in the offensive zone to a zeal for highlight reel open-ice bodychecks, reckons that with a few years under their belts, it’s time for all the greenhorns to show up.
“I think I watched the perfect example, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks winning the Stanley Cup last year. The core of young guys that stepped up when they really needed it helped them take the next step. I believe we are ready to take that next step. The young guys had a very good learning experience last year. We’ve got a lot of hunger. We believe we can do something special.”
In case they forget, there will be veterans to remind them.
“I think they have to (step up),” said Darcy Tucker. “I don’t think it’s a question of whether they can or whether they’re willing to. They have to. We’re going to push everybody to be better, right through our lineup. The guys who are in the second or third years of their career, it’s time for them to take the next step in making us a better hockey team.”