At about this time last year, the Czech Republic’s Jiri Tlusty was wearing the colours of the Soo Greyhounds.
Swedish defenceman Anton Stralman, 21, was playing for Timra in the Swedish Elite League.
Things change. Saturday, the two combined for all four of Toronto’s goals as the Maple Leafs beat the Montreal Canadiens 4-2.
In a season in which the Maple Leafs missed the playoffs for the third straight year, much of the hope of a better future rests with Stralman, a rushing defenceman, and the 20-year-old Tlusty, a lefthanded-shooting winger.
Stralman has thee goals and nine points in 48 games.
Tlusty played 10 games for the Marlies before being called up. He scored two goals in his NHL debut against Pittsburgh, October 25th. Ten of Tlusty’s 16 points are goals. He is a minus nine in 56 games.
Mapleleafs.com's Mike Ulmer spoke with both rookies about the ups and downs of their eventful seasons.Ulmer:
What has been the toughest adjustment you made in your first NHL season?Tlusty:
That we are out of the playoffs. It’s a very tough time in the dressing room and in the whole organization. Everybody wanted to make the playoffs this year. We had a great team. I think we just had bad luck. Now we have to prepare in the summer and get ready for next season.Ulmer:
Will you play for the Czech Republic at the World Championships?Tlusty:
I was selected by the National Team but if the Maple Leafs want me to play for the Marlies, I will play for the Marlies all through the playoffs.
What were the biggest lessons you learned this year?Tlusty:
It’s not one or two things. I learned lots of things. If you practice with guys in the NHL, you learn every day. I learned how to play and what to do during a game. It was a great, great experience to learn those things from the guys and hopefully I will be here next year to use that experience.Ulmer:
What about the experience of playing in the Soo?Tlusty:
Junior hockey helped me a lot because I could not speak English and I was scared about everything, even being around the guys. Everywhere, in junior, when I played for Marlies, it was scary. I didn’t talk to anybody because I couldn’t. Now I try to speak English and I understand. It’s so much better, so much easier right now. I learned lots of things about the North American hockey style and I am still using lots of things I learned in Sault Ste. Marie.Ulmer:
What was the toughest stretch of the season?Tlusty:
I lost my confidence in January because I didn’t score for a long time. It was a hard time because I was on the fourth line. I was on the ice for something like five minutes and it’s tough to play that way. The last couple of weeks, I have been on the top two lines and it’s so much better. I feel so much more comfortable on the ice and hopefully I do some things well.Ulmer:
Anton Stralman. What’s the one thing you have worked on most this season?Stralman:
I would have to say, it’s following the play. I have always been the one skating with the puck offensively. I learned this year that when I move the puck, then I had to follow up. I needed to know when to join the rush.Ulmer:
How is that different from what you are used to?Stalman:
In Sweden, it’s a little sloppy. You pass the puck and you see what happens. Here, you pass the puck and you’ve got to go for it yourself.Ulmer:
How important is it to improve your shot?Stralman:
My shot isn’t hard at all but I found the hardest thing here is to get a shot through. That’s the thing I’ve been trying to work on. In Sweden, there’s no one blocking shots. It’s harder to get into lanes because the ice is bigger. The D can be 20 meters that way and he can’t block a shot from there. You get a little bit more time in Sweden. You can really get a good lane when you’re shooting. I haven’t worked to get my shot harder. I just work to get the puck the through. That’s been a hard thing to do.Ulmer:
Tell me about going to the minors to start the season?Stralman:
When I came here, I had high expectations of myself. I felt that I could play in the NHL from the beginning and I was disappointed when I played with the Marlies. I fought to get back here. It’s been a fun year.Ulmer:
You played with just about every defenceman on the club. Who helped you most?Stralman:
Hal Gill really taught me how to communicate. He bugged me every day to speak up out there. It was something I had to learn. I think I’m getting better at it.Ulmer:
Gill was a good teammate. What was it like to see your friend dealt at the trade deadline?Stralman:
It’s tough when it’s somebody you really like, someone who is fun to spend time with. All of a sudden, he’s gone. It’s hard but it’s how it works. You have to get it into your mind that things like that are going to happen. The team is going to look different every year, all through the year.
What did you make of the exhaustive media coverage that comes with playing in Toronto?Stralman:
I had heard about it. I talked to Alex Steen at the World Championships last fall and he filled me in on how the team is always in the spotlight, good or bad. I think it’s a good thing. I’d rather have the bad times here than play in a city where nobody cared, win or lose.