Mueller awed by NHL debut

Toronto — The Globe and Mail

(DAVE CHIDLEY)

As far as NHL debuts go, Marcel Mueller admitted things could have been better.

His team lost, after all, dropping the game 2-1 in a shootout to the Calgary Flames, but he admitted he was awed by the experience, suiting up for the Toronto Maple Leafs for the first time since coming over as an undrafted (and relatively unheralded) free agent from Germany.

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Mueller played just shy of 13 minutes in the game, spending most of it on a line with Darryl Boyce and Colby Armstrong and never looking out of place. He had two shots on goal - both decent chances to score - but was held of the scoresheet in a game that was low on highlights before Matt Stajan opened the scoring 53 minutes in.

"I just played my game," Mueller said. "The first [chance]was a good pass by Armstrong and if I score that one, it would have been a different game for us."

The pace of the NHL, meanwhile, caught him by surprise.

"It was way faster than the AHL," he said.

Leafs coach Ron Wilson didn't offer much of a breakdown of Mueller's play after the game, saying he felt the flight from the west coast, where the Marlies are playing the Abbotsford Heat, left him without as much energy as he would have liked.

"I think a few times he was a little tentative," Wilson said. "But he had to fly cross-country last night so it really wasn't fair for him either."

Given the Leafs injury situation, it's unlikely this will be a prolonged stay in the NHL, although Boyce and Joey Crabb have surprised by earning extended auditions due to their play. Both Kris Versteeg and Fredrik Sjostrom are nursing only minor injuries, with Mike Brown set to return next Saturday against the Washington Capitals after serving a three-game suspension.

Mueller has been part of GM Brian Burke's strategy to add U.S. college and European free agents, something that remains a work in progress for every addition made to date.

Mueller's size - at 6 foot 3 and 220 pounds - is what caught Burke's eye more than anything. He struggled mightily through his first NHL training camp and to start the year in the AHL, however, with no points in his first nine games and only three assists after 17.

He said Marlies coach Dallas Eakins has helped him considerably, including when he made him a healthy scratch in early November.

Since early December, Mueller has 14 points in his last 15 games, enough to earn the callup with the Leafs missing four forwards against the Flames.

"He helps a lot," Mueller said of Eakins. "He was talking a lot to me and he kicked my ass too when I was playing bad."

Mueller admitted he has felt a long way from home playing this season in Toronto, most of it with the Leafs' farm club in the AHL.

"It's a big difference, between Europe and North America," Mueller said. "Like the culture is different, the lifestyle and stuff like that. But I'm getting used to it and I like it."

On Saturday, Wilson started Mueller's line for the opening faceoff, something the 22-year-old called "unbelievable."

"It's an honour to play for the Maple Leafs," Mueller said. "The organization has so much history. It was an unbelievable moment."

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