A Sign of Hope: One Leaf Forward Who Could Finally Prove He Belongs

Jon NeelyAnalyst IOctober 8, 2009

TORONTO - MARCH 25:  Matt Stajan #14 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates to the bench during the game against the Boston Bruins during the game at Air Canada Centre on March 25, 2008 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

Unlike any fans in the NHL, those of the Toronto Maple Leafs have found themselves hoping for a lot of things since the last Stanley Cup victory in 1967.

Hope is a word that is used at the beginning of every season, the signing of a new player, and especially at the draft, when a young prospect dons the blue and white, and is suddenly thrown into the spotlight of a hopeful city.

The Leafs drafted Matt Stajan in the 2002 Draft, in the second round, with immediate high hopes for the young forward. While in the OHL with the Bellville Bulls, Stajan scored 179 points in just 125 games in his final two seasons there, scoring over 30 goals in both campaigns.

He started his NHL career in the 2003-2004 season and, impressively, has only missed eight games through the last five seasons. He has been a useful defensive forward and chipped in offensively every so often, but largely, in the opinion of much of Leaf Nation, Matt Stajan has been a major disappointment since joining the team six years ago.

Never one to be a threat on the ice and usually going mostly unnoticed throughout the majority of games, he seemingly has just floated through each season, somehow welcomed back to the team with open arms each training camp, making the team without a problem every year.

Mainly criticized for his lack of strength with the puck, speed, and stick-handling, Stajan's career has hardly been one to brag about and the media rarely find time for him.

Many fans simply gave up on him long ago.

Heck, in the EA Sports NHL games the announcers have mispronounced his name since he came into the league, pronouncing it Stay-Yan.

Coming into the 2009-'10 season, many thought that with GM Brian Burke in town and coach Ron Wilson behind the bench, neither afraid to get rid of anyone, that this would be the last straw for Stajan as a member of the Leafs, and that he would finally be sent packing after yet another lackluster season.

Well, something seems to have changed for the 25-year-old, and Stajan might finally have what it takes to prove his critics wrong, and by the looks of it, plans on playing a major role on a team that desperately needs it.

Through three games this year Stajan has three goals which is impressive, yes, but even more so for him because his career high in goals is 16. Not only does he look poised to have a career year in goals and points, but he seems more physical, stronger with the puck, and much more vocal on the bench with the rest of his teammates.

His stick handling and confidence with the puck has been much better, and so far he has been able to find an open spot and trust his teammates to get him the puck.

In the past, he has blended in with the crowd, lost behind the bigger-name, higher-paid forwards on the bench, but not this year. So far he has stood out as one of the best forwards on the team, which might not be saying much so far for the winless Leafs, but a good sign nonetheless.

Whether it's the fact that the Leafs have become a much younger team since Stajan's first few years, where he was always one of the youngest players, or him simply getting the message that he needs to perform to save his job, he now finds himself as one of the more experienced guys on the team. Through the first week of the season, he has embraced his role, and shone in the process.

Not only has he been the best forward on the team so far, but when the newest Leaf, and certified sniper, Phil Kessel, is cleared to play, they might just find themselves on a line together. Not only will Stajan be playing with a lethal goal scorer, but he'll find himself challenged like never before to keep up or look stupid.

It's too early to call whether this really will be the breakout year for Stajan that Leaf fans have been waiting for since 2003, but there is one thing they can be sure about; with Stajan setting the bar this high, it might be his teammates who find themselves looking to catch up.

A breakout season in the waiting no more, this could be the year that his critics not only have a reason to stop, but have little trouble finding a reason to embrace him.

Like always, Leaf fans can only hope.