Kilger's physical play makes him a hit

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:29 AM ET

It has been a long, winding journey for Chad Kilger, a trip that has required some thick skin, a healthy outlook and a sturdy set of luggage.

It also produced more questions than answers.

Maybe the solution was right there in front of him all the time. Instead of trying to go around opponents, just lower your shoulder and, you know, go right through them.

Back in 1995, Kilger, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound son of former NHL official Bob Kilger, was Anaheim's first round pick -- fourth overall -- in the amateur draft. That was no fluke, either. In his graduating year, Kilger had 95 points in 65 games for Kingston of the OHL. With his size, speed and scoring touch, he was considered a cinch.

Then, in his first five seasons as a pro, Kilger was traded four times (from Anaheim to Winnipeg, to Chicago, to Edmonton and then to Montreal), averaging just 20 points a year. Three more years in Montreal and there he was on the waiver wire in in March 2004 when Toronto general manager John Ferguson reeled him in.

GREAT FIT

"This has been a great fit," Kilger said yesterday. "From the first, I've had lots of opportunity. Pat (Quinn) gave me lots of chances to play and get my confidence and develop the game I need to play in order to stay here.

"I know now, after 11 years, what I need to do. The team should know, and I should know, what they're going to get out of me each and every night."

With four goals and five assists in 26 games, Kilger still isn't the scoring machine he was expected to be, but he has become one of Paul Maurice's most effective storm troopers, delivering big hits all over the ice.

He leads the Leafs in hits with 53, a dozen more than Alex Ponikarovsky and 14 more than Darcy Tucker. And that suits Maurice just fine.

"What a really interesting career story he is," Maurice said. "He comes in as a high-draft, offensive guy. The advantage Chad has is he's a bright man. What he has done is realize there's a spot for him in this league and he knows if he can get on the body, he can get more ice time."

Kilger never was shy about contact but as a young player, most of it was incidental to his main objective: Scoring. For whatever reason, that didn't translate into a dazzling pro career.

"In junior, I finished my checks but it wasn't as big for me because I was scoring and doing a lot of other things," he said.

"But the game evolves for all of us according to situations we get put into and who you play with and what organization you're with. A lot of it is doing what you have to do to survive."

After a shabby team effort at home against Boston last Saturday, the team's focus on Tuesday in the rematch was to come out with energy. On its first shift, the line of Kilger, John Pohl and Alexander Steen set a belligerent tone that breathed life -- if not goals -- into the Leafs team, delivering a half-dozen solid hits in a matter of 40 seconds, four of them by Kilger.

"It has been something we've identified as a real important part of his game," Maurice said. "He does play a different game now. There are a lot of guys who end up playing a substantially different game than they did as juniors."

So, what happened to Kilger and the special promise his career had all those years ago?

"Unless you were there and part of it, you can't know," Maurice said. "Sometimes what happens -- and I'm not saying this is what happened to Chad -- is that a player comes in with a certain set of expectations of himself, by the organization, and by his support group made up of his family, agent, friends.

"Then, over time, the coach and the organization get a different view but the support group keeps telling him, 'You're not that player. Just wait. They don't see it.' Then all of a sudden, he's not living up to expectations."

That's moot in Kilger's case now. Every time he delivers another thunderous check, many, many expectations are realized. And the luggage collects some more dust.


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