Wilson sings praises of tiny Tim

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:20 AM ET

OTTAWA -- There was a chance that the Maple Leafs were going to send forward Tim Stapleton back to the Marlies following his NHL debut against the New York Islanders on Thursday.

But the 26-year-old rookie played well enough in Toronto's 5-4 shootout win on the Island (he scored the shootout winner) that he will dress for the Leafs at least once more, possibly tonight at Scotiabank Place against the Ottawa Senators.

At first glance, you might think that the players weren't happy to see the La Grange, Ill., native join the big team from the Marlies. After all, the Leafs embarrassed him by not following him on the ice for the pre-game warmup at Nassau Coliseum on Thursday (one of the oldest gags in the book). And then yesterday, following practice, someone nailed him in the chest with a hard tape ball. But the former University of Minnesota-Duluth star could have been nailed in the head, and he still would have been smiling, as he finally is getting his chance to play in the NHL following two seasons in the Finnish Elite League and most of this season with the Marlies, where he led the team with 54 points in 51 games.

After signing with the Leafs after two seasons with Jokerit, Stapleton was getting a little worried that he wasn't going to get his crack with the big club. After all, when you're barely 5-foot-9, 160 pounds and playing pro hockey, you often get overlooked.

"There's no doubt you have to be special, you have to make an impact, when you're that size," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said.

"It's the same for all the little guys who have done the job in the league. Martin St. Louis has been moved because everybody doubted his size. Marc Savard, same thing. And Blakey (Jason Blake) the same. Those guys have to probably do a little bit extra to make more of an impression.

"I've always deal with the size factor," Stapleton concurred. "I've always been kind of getting the short end of the stick. But it got to the point where I don't worry about it."

Stapleton, who is very gifted offensively, hopes that by improving his defence, he eventually can stick with the Leafs. Wilson said, some day, that's possible.

"At training camp, we saw that he needed time to acclimate himself to the (North American) pro game. But the last month and a half with the Marlies, he's played great hockey," Wilson said.

"We wanted to reward him with maybe one game (with the Leafs), if not a couple. And he's warranted staying."

STEVE.BUFFERY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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