Stalberg's still on a learning curve

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:22 PM ET

Viktor Stalberg began the year as the Maple Leafs’ shining light, their top pre-season scorer, representing a hint of better times ahead for the team.

But after seven months and going into the final game of the season Saturday in Montreal, Stalberg and a lot of the kids on the youngest roster in the NHL have had their eyes forced open.

Stalberg had one assist in his first eight games, found himself back with the Toronto Marlies, came back up to score twice in three games, got hurt, was blanked in seven games, was demoted, returned for the good times of the post-Olympic rush, which morphed into losing five of the past six.

“Teams are coming out a lot more hungrier than we are,” Stalberg conceded after the Leafs were dumped 5-1 by the New York Rangers on Wednesday.

“You’re going to get eaten alive by teams in this league if you don’t bring it every night.”

It’s part of the NHL’s steep learning curve, one that was partially disguised for the Leafs in March when they used the momentum of trades and the freedom the coaching staff gave them to win some close games. But Stalberg and players such as Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson and Luca Caputi have grown to see how much more they’re going to have to grow on and off the ice to be regulars in 2010-11.

Stalberg came from a relatively lax NCAA schedule with Vermont to playing intense hockey that began with the Leafs’ rookie tournament in September.

“No question I’m feeling the effects of a long year,” Stalberg said. “I’ve lost a lot of weight and I have to figure out how to do it differently next year to maintain that strength and energy in a full 82-game schedule.”

Stalberg has speed, but at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds at the start of the year, he will have to get more bang for his buck. Toronto’s lack of presence in front of the net on power plays is a prime example. Stalberg did try and battle with the big men of the league, right up to Wednesday.

“I have to find ways to contribute if I’m not scoring,” he said. “I finished more checks than I have in the past couple of games. I think I get a lot more goals that way, too.”

Both the Rangers and the Flyers impeded the Leafs’ speed this week, neutralizing one of the club’s biggest assets.

“We have a lot of young guys who can (wheel), but they have a lot of veteran defencemen who know what the game’s about,” Stalberg said. “We’re making a lot of rookie mistakes out there, turning the puck over. The whole team was doing it (against the Rangers) but as young guys, we can’t do that if we want to stay in this league.”

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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