Small Forward Rising Up
by Matthew Frost
(TORONTO) -- When the Tampa Bay Lightning's Martin St. Louis followed up his Stanley Cup championship with a Hart Trophy, to go along with his selection to the NHL's First All-Star team, much was made of the return of the smaller forward. And you didn't have to look too far to find similar stories around the league with Daniel Briere in Buffalo, Steve Sullivan in Nashville and Mike Comrie in Phoenix.
In Toronto fans, fans need to look no further than to St. John's Maple Leafs forward Kyle Wellwood, listed in the Leafs media guide at 5'10', as a player who may also eventually fall into that category. Wellwood burst onto to the AHL scene last season, leading all rookies 55 points on 20 goals and 35 assists.
But for Leafs GM John Ferguson, smaller players who reach the levels achieved by players like St. Louis must still earn the opportunity to compete for a job in the NHL, a message that was communicated to Wellwood last summer.
"Smaller players who have success in the National Hockey League must be must be quicker but also must be very strong," said Ferguson.
"We asked Kyle to make a commitment to his physical training and to go beyond where he had been before. To improve in areas of his game that would allow him to compete for a job at the NHL level at some point."
"To his credit, he took that message to heart."
Wellwood spent much of the summer working daily with Leafs strength and conditioning coach Matt Nichol and the results, so far, have been there. Through the first 17 games of the season, Wellwood had put up 22 points on 12 goals and 14 assists after 20 games.
St. John's Maple Leafs head coach Doug Shedden, who has been playing Wellwood on a line with David Ling and Harold Druken, says his leading scorer has also benefited from the newer AHL obstruction rules.
"In our league, the rule changes have helped bring the small person back," said Shedden. "The officials are really clamping down on that extra tug through the neutral zone. The game is more and more about skill and he has loads."
The native of Windsor, Ontario, was named the AHL's Player of the Week on November 1 after a nine-point week which included a team record five goal performance against the Cleveland Barons on October 30. That game started a streak in which the Baby Leafs won eight of nine games as Wellwood put up 16 points.
Ferguson says he's seen improvement in Wellwood's game, he also notes that teams need patience with players when their progress stalls.
"Those (of St. Louis and others) are all great stories," said Ferguson. "But there's a lesson in there too. Many of those players were on their third teams. We want to find out if Wellwood can play for our club, not find out that he can play for someone else's (in the future)."
Wellwood and the St. John's Maple Leafs face the Binghamton Senators Wednesday and Friday at Air Canada Centre.