TORONTO (CP) - Matt Stajan feels he's come a long way since he was last seen skating with the Toronto Maple Leafs as a 19-year-old rookie few ever thought would crack the team in 2003-04.
For starters, the talented forward won't be living at home with mom and dad in Mississauga, Ont., this season. He's bought a condo in downtown Toronto and will live alone. ''But maybe a few times a week I'll head home for a few home-cooked meals,'' he said Thursday at Leafs camp. ''It's always good to have that there. My mom and dad don' t ever mind when I come home.'' The new condo is actually still under construction but he'll rent a place downtown in the meantime. He got used to life away from home last year in St. John's when the NHL lockout forced him to play AHL hockey on The Rock. ''I felt like I developed as a player and moreso I grew off the ice,'' he said. ''I learned how to handle myself away from the rink on my own.
''Getting a chance to live out there on my own, that was important,'' he added. He was commuting from mom and dad's place two Septembers ago when Stajan surprised many and made the team out of camp. He ended up with 14 goals and 13 assists in 69 games with a plus-7 rating - pretty impressive for a youngster with limited ice time on a veteran-laden team. ''It was a dream season for me two years ago, everything seemed to get better and better,'' said Stajan, now 21. ''And then the lockout came and that was a bit of a downer.'' The money certainly wasn't the same. He gets $805,600 US to play in the NHL this season and $75,000 if he's in the AHL. On the flip side, he got the kind of ice time in St. John's he could only dream of in Toronto. ''I got to develop a lot,'' said Stajan, who had 66 points (23-43) in 80 regular-season games. ''I experienced a lot of different situations. I played power play, penalty kill, the last few minutes of the period - I wouldn't have had that opportunity in Toronto. ''So I was fortunate to have that last year while everybody else was sitting at home.''
Head coach Pat Quinn saw two versions of Matt Stajan last year in the AHL and certainly hopes the second one shows up this fall. ''He struggled somewhat in the early part of the season but finished strong, especially in the playoffs,'' Quinn said Thursday. ''We didn't have a lot of strong players in the playoffs but he was one of them.'' Stajan is determined to bring that game with him this season. ''I want to contribute even more than I did two years ago,'' he said. And that's what the Leafs are counting on. ''It's a big year for Matt,'' Leafs GM John Ferguson said Thursday. ''I've liked his good effort level so far in camp, good energy, good speed. He's a guy we're counting on to come in and not only make the club but contribute and take the next step in his career.''
Where Stajan plays on the Leafs this season isn't exactly clear. The team loaded up at centre with the additions of Jason Allison and Eric Lindros, joining captain Mats Sundin in a formidable threesome down the middle. Stajan can play both wing and centre, as he did in 2003-04. ''I'll play pretty much anywhere,'' Stajan said. ''If it's fourth-line centre, that's fine. If it's winger on any of the lines, I'll do that too. I'm happy to have played both positions growing up in my career and hopefully it'll help me in the long run.''