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Stempniak could mark first of many changes for Maple Leafs

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The Canadian Press
11/25/2008 5:01:13 PM
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TORONTO - A new face appeared in the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room on Tuesday morning and that had a few of the team's regulars wondering if there might be more changes coming.

There was equipment in Lee Stempniak's new stall at Air Canada Centre and plenty of talk about the departure of Alex Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo, the two players dealt to St. Louis for him a day earlier.

Those guys each leave behind plenty of friends in the organization. Now that they're gone, there are a few other longtime Leafs who know they could be next.

"It crosses your mind," said Ian White, a Leafs sixth-round pick in 2002. "I don't think about it, I don't dwell on it. But it seems like it's the current trend.

"Who knows what's in store for the future?"

The future is especially uncertain with speculation about Brian Burke's imminent arrival reaching a fever pitch on Tuesday. There was a buzz at the ACC after multiple reports surfaced saying that Burke was on the verge on becoming Toronto's new general manager and president - perhaps as soon as the next couple days.

Meantime, the Leafs players were still digesting news of the trade.

Matt Stajan was as surprised as anyone when Colaiacovo phoned him Monday afternoon to share the news. He ended up returning to the arena to bid farewell to the departing players.

"It's tough to see guys go, especially close friends," said Stajan. "That's what management's trying to do. They felt there was a deal there that made our team better.

"We just come to the rink and play hockey. Hopefully our friendships stay the same."

On the flip side, there are new friendships to be made.

Stempniak had spent his entire career with the Blues, but was beaming on his first full day as a member of the Maple Leafs. He grew up about 90 minutes away in a suburb of Buffalo and is looking forward to life in a more passionate hockey market than the one he just left.

"This has been easier than I thought it would be," said Stempniak. "I spent four years in St. Louis and enjoyed my time there, (but) it quickly went to excitement to come here, a team that's going in the right direction and a great organization.

"Everything that comes with playing in Toronto - it's the capital of the hockey world and who wouldn't want to play here?"

The 25-year-old arrives at something of a crossroads in his career.

He led the Blues with 27 goals two seasons ago but only managed 13 last season. Stempniak has shown more signs of offence recently, putting up 12 points in his last eight games with the Blues and scoring the overtime winner against Anaheim last Friday.

"Over the last three or four weeks, he has been St. Louis' best player," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. "He's found his confidence."

Stempniak should end up getting an opportunity to play a lot of minutes in Toronto, but Wilson will start him on the third line with Jason Blake and Dominic Moore.

Eventually, he'll be expected to put the puck in the net.

It's something Jamal Mayers has seen Stempniak do plenty of times while both were playing together in St Louis. Those two worked out together over the summer and have been reunited here.

"He's a great skater, shoots the puck really well and competes," said Mayers.

There has been plenty of turnover in Toronto. Stempniak is one of 11 Leafs players that weren't with the team at this point last year and suited up against Atlanta on Tuesday night.

For the handful of guys who have witnessed all the changes, it can be a tough thing to go through.

"That's the hardest part of the game, saying goodbye to your friends," said Wilson. "But it's a new beginning for the two guys who left and obviously for Lee a new beginning as well. ..

"It's part of the business. Every team goes through this all the time. There's always turnover."

Even still, it's something White referred to as "the ugly side of our job."

His name was included in trade rumours earlier this season after being a healthy scratch for Toronto's first 11 games. Since then, he seems to have earned a more permanent place on the roster while alternating between forward and defence.

However, White knows better than to take anything for granted.

"Who knows where this ends?" he said. "This is probably just the beginning." 

Lee Stempniak (Photo: Mark Buckner/NHLI via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Mark Buckner/NHLI via Getty Images)
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