VANCOUVER, B.C. – Mats Sundin was talking more like a player than a passenger when he left practice for the Vancouver Canucks’ charter flight to Wednesday’s game in Edmonton.
But whether he makes his first NHL appearance as a Canuck will depend on how he feels on game day.
“If nothing changes (Wednesday) morning, there should be a good chance I’ll play,” Sundin said Tuesday, still sweating heavily after his second full workout. “If not then, obviously Friday (at home against St. Louis).”
The former Toronto Maple Leafs centre, who has 20 goals and 44 points in 41 career games against the Oilers, wants to take baby steps and coach Alain Vigneault has talked to him about limited minutes.
“You look forward to getting back playing the game but at the same time I want to make sure I’m ready physically, that I can stay in the lineup and not come back too quick and get hurt,” Sundin said.
After skating with players recovering from injuries, Sundin has spent his first two full practices on the second power-play unit with former Toronto teammate Kyle Wellwood and left-winger Mason Raymond.
Wellwood, criticized for poor conditioning at the beginning of the season, is having a career year with 14 goals, including eight on the power play and three game-winners.
“He’s off to a great start this year … you’ve got to get in games but in two practices, I’ve enjoyed the wingers I’ve been out there with,” Sundin said of his linemates.
His return to the NHL ends a journey that began last winter when the Leafs asked him to waive the no-trade clause in his contract at the trade deadline.
Sundin refused, saying he’s not someone’s rental player and left as a free agent at the end of the season.
New Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis began the Canucks’ courtship of Sundin on July 1, the opening day of the free agent signing period, by offering a US$20 million, two-year deal.
Sundin wavered for months, first on whether he wanted to play again in the NHL and second on which team he would join.
It came down to the New York Rangers, who had little salary cap room, and the Canucks, who had about US$6 million more.
Sundin eventually signed a one-year deal for a pro-rated US$8.26 million. He will earn about US$5 million this season and has been on the Canucks’ payroll since Dec. 18, the day he signed.
“He’s going to give a big boost to us in all areas,” said Wellwood who saw power-play action with Sundin last season in Toronto.
“He’s great on face-offs, he’s getting on the power play and he’s always been a plus player and he brings a lot of size too.”
The six-foot-five, 231-pound Sundin, who will be 38 on Feb. 13, trained for a while in Los Angeles, then returned to Sweden and worked out with a club team before arriving here Dec. 29.
Raymond said Sundin will take some of the scoring load off the first line of Pavol Demitra and twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin.
“Scoring … that’s his biggest thing, so for us it takes a bit of pressure off the twins’ line.”
Alex Burrows, whose job is to shut down the opposition’s top players, said Sundin will boost the Canucks, struggling since star goalie Roberto Luongo injured his groin 21 games ago, in three areas.
“Just skating with him the last couple of days you can tell he’s a really big body that can skate, shoot the puck and he sees the ice very well,” Burrows said. “Just those three things makes our team bigger, stronger.”
Sundin’s arrival did little to disrupt dressing room chemistry other than to send rookie Jannik Hansen to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey league.
“He hasn’t spent a lot of time with us but from what I’m sensing, just looking at his body language and the rest of the team, he seems to be fitting in really nice,” said Vigneault.
NOTES: Sundin has played 1,305 NHL games in 13 seasons with Toronto and four with Quebec Nordiques who drafted him first overall in 1989 … He has 555 goals, 776 assists for 1,321 points … In 83 playoff games, has 35 goals and 74 points … He has won three world titles with Sweden and captained the Swedes to the 2006 Olympic gold medal.