December 9, 2003 (St. John's, NFLD)
-- They're not even half-way through their first pro season, but early indications are the Toronto Maple Leafs struck gold with a trio of youngsters who won a world junior silver medal last winter.
While Matt Stajan continues to impress in Toronto after cracking the Leafs' roster less than a year removed from junior, Carlo Colaiacovo and Kyle Wellwood have been equally effective in the American Hockey League.
Through the first quarter of the St. John's Maple Leafs' season, Colaiacovo was the team's top defenceman, while Wellwood emerged as the St. John's scoring leader.
The three, along with St. John's defenceman Brendan Bell, whose progress has stalled at times so far, helped Canada to a second straight silver medal at the world juniors in Halifax.
It's easy to see why Colaiacovo represents the future of the Leafs' defence.
Though only 20, the Toronto product has shown tremendous poise while logging upwards of 30 minutes of ice time a game. St. John's coach Doug Shedden has not hesitated to use Colaiacovo on the first power play and penalty killings units.
| Carlo is playing some serious minutes in St. John's. |
Wellwood, listed at five-foot-10 and a generous 175 pounds, may have the physical makeup of a AAA midget player, but his smarts are that of a savvy veteran. The 20-year-old from Oldcastle, Ont., was averaging just under a point per game at the quarter mark, most of them assists thanks to some creative handiwork with the puck.
"They're making mistakes probably no more than anyone else on the ice," said veteran teammate Jeff Daw, an eight-year pro, "but what surprises me more than anything is the confidence they have out there.
"At times they play like they've got five or six years (of pro experience) under their belts. At the start of the year, you're kind of worried about so many first- and second-year pros, but man, they're really carrying their load."
Colaiacovo made the Big Leafs following a solid training camp last season and appeared in two NHL games before Toronto brass ultimately decided the youngster's development would be best served with a full season of junior.
He toiled for the Ontario Hockey League's Erie Otters, a year interrupted by the world juniors and a berth on the tournament all-star team.
| "Obviously I was disappointed at first because I had expectations this year." |
| - St. John's defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo |
Speculation over the summer and into the fall had the 17th overall pick in the 2001 draft winning the seventh opening on the Leafs' blueline. But Toronto signed Ken Klee and Russian rookie Maxim Kondratiev, since reassigned to St. John's, got an extended look through seven NHL games as the Leafs waited for Pilar to rebound from his viral infection.
But to Colaiacovo's credit, he didn't report to St. John's with his tail between his legs, strumming a woe-is-me tune.
"Obviously I was disappointed at first because I had expectations this year," he said. "One of my goals was to make the Leafs out of training camp like I did last year. But I know there are opportunities for me here and I've had a positive attitude towards everything. From Day 1, the coach sat me down and said, 'Listen, we expect a lot from you.' And I think I've handled that quite well.
"I'm here for a reason and that's to get better," he said. "That's the mentality I take each and every day. I'm playing a lot which is a great benefit to me and I want to help this team win."
Of the Fab Four from last year's Canadian junior team, Wellwood might be the least known (Bell was named the top junior defenceman in Canada last year) other than the fact he's the kid who played a full year in the OHL (2002-03) and failed to pick up a penalty.
But Wellwood, Toronto's fifth choice (134th overall) in 2001, finished with 100 points in only 57 games with the Windsor Spitfires last year and was selected the smartest player, best stickhandler and best playmaker in the Western Conference in an OHL coaches poll last season.
| Wellwood is playing bigger than his frame. |
Not only has Wellwood flourished, he's done so without getting crunched by big defencemen who salivate at the thoughts of smallish rookies dipsy-doodling over their blueline.
"But I'm pretty quick to get away from guys," he said, "especially the bigger guys. They have a tough time trying to pin me and knock me down. Part of my game is waiting to get hit and dishing the puck off."
"I had a little bit of concern for him with his size," Colaiacovo said of Wellwood, his roommate along with Bell and Kondratiev, "but he's really controlled the game out there. God bless the kid, he's really got a great set of hands, great vision and he knows where his goalscorers are. He seems to find them quite a bit."
But it wasn't always this easy for Wellwood this season. Training camp, he said, was an eye-opening learning experience and the exhibition games proved to be more than challenging.
"But as the season's come along," he said, "it seems like I've been getting a little better every game. I feel like I'm one of the better players out there now." Robin Short is the Sports Editor of the St. John's Telegram