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Youngsters Showing Their Worth in TO

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs

October 20, 2005

TORONTO (CP) - Call them the Peach Fuzz Kids.

Matt Stajan. Kyle Wellwood. Alex Steen.

The latest incarnation of the Kid Line for the Toronto Maple Leafs is having more success on the ice under the NHL spotlight than they are with growing facial hair.

"A couple of us got the baby faces going,'' said Stajan, faint blonde scruff poking out sporadically along his jaw line.

Added Wellwood after practice on Wednesday: "We're all young and in this type of league and environment in Toronto, we definitely look a little younger.''

It's been an awful long time since the Leafs iced a team with this many youngsters, at 22, Wellwood is the senior statesman among the group. Stajan and Steen are both 21.

Together, they've formed the latest Leafs Kid Line, a term first used in the 1930s to describe the legendary unit of Joe Primeau, Charlie Conacher and Harvey Jackson.

"(We like their) youth and enthusiasm,'' said head coach Pat Quinn.

The three all natural centres played part of last Saturday's 3-2 victory in Montreal together. At Wednesday's practice they were wearing matching green jerseys, meaning they'll likely be back together on Thursday against Carolina.

Quinn said that may change if Nik Antropov, who missed the last three days of practice with an upper and lower body injury, is healthy enough to suit up against the Hurricanes.

Even if that does happen, Steen and Stajan will almost certainly continue to see significant time as a penalty killing unit.

During recent failed runs at the Stanley Cup, critics have knocked the Leafs for being too old. Thanks to the new salary cap and stricter enforcement of the rules, the three young men each found a spot in Toronto's lineup early this season.

"The new rules definitely do help young guys coming in,'' Stajan said. "There's not as much clutch and grab.

"We're just taking advantage.''

Each of them is doing it through hard work. Stajan, who played for the Leafs as a 19-year-old two seasons ago, was the second player on the ice for practice Wednesday and the second last off it.

While most of his teammates were hitting the showers after an upbeat workout, Stajan was skating hard between the lines and practising his stick-handling.

That's exactly the type of work ethic Quinn is hoping to see.

"With all three of them we've got to work on their habits as far as practice is concerned,'' he said. "That's a skill you develop.''

Stajan and Steen have each shown strong two-way games so far, playing the kind of solid positional hockey that largely goes unnoticed by the average fan but impresses their veteran coach. The swift Wellwood has shown a knack for finding the net, scoring two goals and five points in five games.

Whether they stay together and stay with the big club depends on their ability to continue to improve. It will also hinge on how many healthy bodies Quinn has as he wants to make sure the young guns are getting ice time whether it be with the Maple Leafs or the AHL's Marlies.

"I really still believe the right answer is that they have to play,'' Quinn said of developing young talent. "You just don't get that game-like experience unless you're in there.

"Especially if they're young guys and do have the upside.''

With captain Mats Sundin out for a couple more weeks with a fractured orbital bone, the Kid Line has more time to make its case to Quinn.

Some of their veteran teammates have already taken notice.

"It's nice to see them every day,'' said Leafs tough guy Tie Domi. "There's a lot of excitement in their eyes.''

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