TORONTO (CP) -- Kyle Wellwood will play a key role with the Toronto Maple Leafs this season.
He's one of those small and crafty forwards who are being unleashed as a result of the NHL's crackdown on obstruction, and new head coach Paul Maurice might even use him on the left side of the first line with Mats Sundin and Alexei Ponikarovsky.
|Kyle Wellwood might start the year on the wing on the first line. |
"I like that Alexei is big and strong and can control the puck in the offensive zone, and Mats needs somebody so that he's not the only guy battling down low,'' coach Paul Maurice explained when asked about the combination after practice Friday. "We're encouraging him to try and take the puck strong down the boards, hang onto it and drive it out to the front of the net with his size and strength.
"Kyle has the ability to think and to handle the puck a little bit like Mats and to move the puck around. There's no substitute for intelligence and he and Mats, in the time they've spent together, have started to work little plays off the boards.''
The possibility that Wellwood might be on the first line for the season opener Wednesday shows how far the 23-year-old forward has progressed in the organization's eyes.
Wellwood was merely another aspiring prospect one year ago and, on the day before the season began, he was sent to the AHL farm.
When Sundin suffered an eye injury in the first game, Wellwood was summoned from the Toronto Marlies, and he stuck like glue. He scored only 11 goals but displayed nifty playmaking abilities in amassing 34 assists. When camp opened this year, he had a lock on a job.
He'll be getting lots of ice time, too, because he'll be part of the top power-play unit.
"We've got a lot of young guys on the team and we're looking to make the next step to becoming regular-producing NHL players,'' says the modest, five-foot-10, 180-pounder.
He's from the Windsor region, where his mother works as a firefighter and his father is a building code inspector and bylaw enforcer.
Wellwood is single and lives on his own in Toronto.
"I've done that for the last four years so I'm pretty comfortable with it,'' he says of going it solo.
He wore 97 in the OHL in Belleville and Windsor, and he retained it during his two AHL seasons. He was handed 42 at Leafs camp last year and decided to keep it.
"I just grew to like it,'' he says.
His size worked against him in his 2001 NHL draft year. Big forwards who could cope with clutching and grabbing were all the rage in those days. Even though he'd won the OHL scoring title as a 17-year-old, he was still available in the fifth round when the Leafs took him 134th overall. It's looking like a steal now.
Two years in the minors was a necessity.
"My skating technique and style has always been excellent,'' he says. "My fitness level needed to improve and just growing into being a man helped.
"It took a while for me to gain the strength I needed (to make it to the NHL) and over time I've been able to get faster and faster. You build a foundation and eventually you see results.''
Leafs fans will expect a lot out of him this season, but he's not worried about that.
"I definitely don't pay attention with what is going on with other people,'' he says. "You just listen to what your teammates and management want from you and you try to do that.''
It'll be a battle to get back into the playoffs after missing last spring, but Wellwood says he perceives a trait in the revamped lineup that he likes.
"I think we're going to be young but very steady,'' he says. "You're not going to see a lot of ups and downs.
"I think you're going to see good efforts every night. The season is 82 games and there's always going to be injuries and things that happen. You get the wins when you can, and it's going to be a battle for sure.''
While Wellwood is in, Bates Battaglia remains on the bubble. Battling to return to the NHL after two years in the minors, he might land a fourth-line role.
"He's got to continue what he's doing, but he's on track to do it,'' says Maurice. "There still are hurdles: he's got to be comfortable on the right side, and he's got to be comfortable about coming off the bench.
"I liked his game last year (with the Marlies). There's a real skill in being able to sit six minutes and come off the bench and be effective. Some guys just can't play that role.''
Battaglia appears to be one who can play that role.