Young guys playing for next year

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:59 AM ET

If you watched the Maple Leafs beat Tampa 5-1 last night, you may well be thinking that things aren't as bad as you've been reading.

After all, the Lightning won the Stanley Cup the last time the owners and players could agree to award it.

And yes, the Lightning is knee deep in a battle for position in the Eastern Conference. The Lightning weren't taking the night off.

So maybe the Leafs, just six points behind the Lightning for a playoff spot, aren't in such a bad way.

Well, yes and no.

Jason Allison, a two-goal scorer last night, won't be back unless he scores 50 goals in the club's final 20 games and that, you know, is unlikely.

The real story line last night was the decision of coach Pat Quinn to use Mikael Tellqvist in goal rather than throwing Ed Belfour back in the cage after a credible performance in Long Island on Friday.

The most important element of the night against Tampa was a game-winning goal from Matt Stajan and a one-timer by Nik Antropov late in the game.

Despite what the standings might say, and despite the hopeful talk emanating from the Leafs dressing room that every game is a playoff game, these games are little more than a dress rehearsal for next year.

Wait till next year. Must be the first time anyone around here has heard that one.

Stajan, an afterthought this season, is 22, last time he looked. He is a handy player, not a first- or second-liner, but a kid who can kill penalties and play on your third line. The number of players like him, homegrowns which you can keep, will go a long way toward determining success in the brave new world of the salary cap.

His goal last night was his ninth of the year and fourth scored shorthanded.

"I guess there have been some stretches where I haven't been producing offensively, but I've had some parts where I've gained some confidence." he said last night. "Hopefully, I can get on a roll now.

Tellqvist is 26. Forty-year-old Ed Belfour seems certain to be bought out at season's end.

Tellqvist had played just once over the past six weeks because of the Olympic break and coach Pat Quinn's insistence on piling more work on Belfour to help him regain his game. For Tellqvist, last night was a necessary building block.

The trick to developing, he said, is to not spend too much time mulling it over.

"I try not to think about it too much. It's out of my hands. I try to play as well as I can and play my game. I still feel I have a lot of things to develop to become a number one guy."

It is noticed, even by the old guys, how important the new guys are.

"I thought Alex and Matt Stajan had great games," said Leafs captain Mike Sundin.

"It's important. I think that has been a big change this year. I haven't been around a team with the Maple Leafs where we've had so many young players come in. Now with the cap and everything, it's a process and I think they're all playing better."

Likewise, Antropov, given more chances than any player in recent years, showed something.

"When he gets his game going, he does something to get himself out of the lineup and he's back to square one," Quinn said.

"He was playing well before his last setback. I like how he's playing. He's competitive (when) he's around the puck."

And he's the future -- he still is just 26.

The good news is the young guys are getting better. The bad news, is the Leafs are going to need a whole lot more of them.


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