Wellwood cherishes role

BILL LANKHOF -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:07 AM ET

This is the year Kyle Wellwood has been waiting for his entire life.

It is the time he dreamed of during bumptious bus rides between hockey barns from Windsor to St. John's on a hundred dank, frigid, January nights.

It is what he thought might come when he dipsy-doodled his way into the imagination of a saviour-starved Leafs' Nation. His rookie season of 11 goals and 45 points gave fans hope that he was a harbinger of happier times. Last year, there actually were moments when he could make people remember a young Doug Gilmour, elusive, creative -- a guy who could get out of more tight fixes than Houdini.

On bad nights, on a bad team, he was often it's brightest light. Still, in the greater world of the NHL he knows that light was perceived as a mere pin-prick.

This season, he knows, will become his defining moment as a professional.

"You're going into the third year and they've grown me into a position where I have to stand up and establish myself as a career NHLer. It's easy to fall by the wayside if you don't make the jump. This year the plan is to make that jump," Wellwood said yesterday, as the team underwent medicals on the opening day of training camp at Ricoh Coliseum.

There is a certain honeymoon period for pro athletes. It is a time when expectations are tempered, where mistakes are condoned, where shortcomings are tolerated. Wellwood's NHL honeymoon is over, and he knows it.

"Anytime you're in the third year and they didn't sign another big centre. They got Mats (Sundin) and then it's almost me down the middle. I've got a shot to become one of the top six. That's how you break in as an established NHL player. This year, that's what I need to do."

Not just for himself but, said Sundin, it is necessary for the team's success. Coach Paul Maurice and general manager John Ferguson have told anyone with a microphone or a notebook that it's time for the young players to grow up. "The younger guys need to look at the old guys and say: 'If you play bad we're going to take your spot,'" Sundin said. "These are third and fourth-year guys. They've had time to develop and they need to step up for us to be successful."

Wellwood is not modest in his outlook. Positively Gilmouresque actually.

"A point a game is a benchmark I'd like to finish around. That, and playing 80 games is probably the most important for me," Wellwood said, yesterday.

"I'd definitely like to be around there."

Heady numbers, considering no Toronto player has averaged a point a game since Sundin had 83 in the 1998-99 season. Gilmour, in 1993-94, was the last Maple Leaf to score more than 100 points in a season. But, Wellwood's favourite player was Alex Mogilny. They are not unlike in style and approach, offensive wizards who have never yet met a goaltender they couldn't make disappear. Such offensive zealotry is one reason many offensive players are not particularly defensive minded , Wellwood said: "They think that they can outscore the other guy; so (they think defence) doesn't matter that much. It's that attitude of 'You might get two; but I know I can get three.'"

It's in the belief that Wellwood can be something close to Mogilny in creativity and improvisation that the Leafs have him pencilled in behind Sundin as their second-line centre. After that, no matter how you juggle the names, the lines come out looking donut-shaped -- an affirmation that much of the offence has to flow through Sundin and Wellwood.

"There's definitely more pressure. But a lot of good things come with that too because you know the team wants you to be one of their main guys. When you're young," Wellwood said, "teams don't expect too much. They want you just to kind of fill a place and do whatever they want you to do. When they expect you to be one of the best players ... like a veteran ... it's a good feeling knowing you're going to get a chance. Every night it means focusing on being one of the best players; to be a leader and win games. It's not just a matter of worrying about yourself and saying, 'Well I did my part.' "

Spoken like a true veteran. Now, all he has to do is play like one.


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