Stajan stalls under Wilson

Not only is Matt Stajan playing on the fourth line, he wasn't named as an alternate captain. (Sun...

Not only is Matt Stajan playing on the fourth line, he wasn't named as an alternate captain. (Sun Media/Greg Henkenhaf)

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:04 AM ET

With many veterans from last year's Maple Leafs gone and the current roster full of unproven youngsters, this is supposed to be the year Matt Stajan steps up and shows he is a front-line NHL player.

Or, at least, a front-line forward with a rebuilding club like the Leafs. But something is not quite right with Stajan.

Instead of moving up to one of the top two lines heading into tonight's regular-season opener in Detroit, Stajan has been relegated to an "energy" line, alongside career mucker Jamal Mayers and rookie John Mitchell.

Two newcomers have nabbed spots on the so-called scoring lines -- centre Mikhail Grabovski, between Niklas Hagman and Jiri Tlusty; and Nikolai Kulemin, beside veterans Dominic Moore and Alex Steen. The No. 1 line will be Nik Antropov between Jason Blake and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Coach Ron Wilson could blow all that up at a moment's notice, but those are the lines that should start tonight at Joe Louis Arena.

Perhaps even more troubling from Stajan's point of view is that Wilson announced yesterday he has appointed five alternate captains on a rotating basis. He wouldn't reveal who, but Stajan told Sun Media he is not one of them -- which, no matter what kind of spin he puts on it, is a slap in the face to the veteran forward, who has played 314 games with the Blue and White. At one point, when it became clear Mats Sundin wouldn't be coming back to Toronto any time soon, it was thought Stajan could be the next Leaf to wear the C on his jersey. Now he's not even being given an A.

"They chose their five guys and they're all great people, great leaders, and we're all going to look up to those guys," a low-key Stajan said yesterday. "Just because you don't have a letter on your sweater doesn't mean you shy away and hide in the background. You still have to present yourself and be a guy they can talk to. You play for the front of the jersey, not the back."

Stajan said all the right things when asked about his place on the depth chart and the fact that he would not be receiving an A this season. But his mood seemed downcast. For his part, Wilson said generally positive things about Stajan, but wasn't exactly falling over himself with enthusiasm. When asked if he was satisfied with Stajan's showing at camp and in the pre-season, the new head coach answered with a resounding: "Relatively ... yeah."

"But I still don't know where I'm going to fit him in," he said.

Wilson went on to say he expects Stajan to "play as hard as he can every night". When asked if that is the actual challenge he has put to Stajan, Wilson said: "I don't know him very well. I expect that from every one of our players -- that they compete as hard as they can every night and they never give up.

"Anybody who stagnates or doesn't try to improve himself, won't be here," Wilson said. "(But) don't attach that to Matt Stajan. That's a general observation, and our players understand that."

LIVING THE DREAM

Stajan acknowledged that playing on the third or fourth line means he probably won't get a ton of time on the power play, which isn't great news to the veteran centre.

"What are you going to do?" Stajan said. "I have the best job in the world. We're playing hockey for our livelihood and playing for my favourite team growing up.

"I've just got to go out there and work hard and try to do my best and help the team any way I'm asked," he said.

"A lot of the young guys have really been playing great right now, and the coaches see fit to play me where I'm playing, on an energy line with Jammer and Mitchell."


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