VANCOUVER, B.C. – Free-agent Mats Sundin is expected to say Thursday whether he’ll play for the New York Rangers or Vancouver Canucks for the remainder of the NHL season.
Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis met with J. P. Barry, Sundin’s agent, on Tuesday and said the star centre is close to making up his mind.
“He’s going to make a decision Thursday about the final destination,” Gillis told reporters. “We re-iterated our position in all of this and formalized our offer moving forward. We feel good about our team and where we sit and what we have to offer.
“We will see how it plays out.”
Working in the Canucks’ favour is they have plenty of room left under the US$56.7-million salary cap to sign Sundin.
Vancouver has offered him US$10 million a year, which pro-rated for the rest of the season would be around US$5 million. He reportedly earned US$5.5 with Toronto last season.
The Rangers are limited in how much salary-cap room they have and would have to make some deals to sign the former Toronto Maple Leaf captain. Reports are New York would have to free up US$2.8 million to sign Sundin for the second half of the season.
Gillis would not say if the Canucks have tweaked their offer.
“I’m not going to talk about the terms of our presentation,” he said.
Still, the first-year general manager and former player agent is confident in the offer he’s made.
“I’m optimistic we have done everything we can possibly do to create a situation that we think is the correct one,” said Gillis. “I can’t speak for anyone else and I’m not going to give a gut feeling about this.
“The reality is we’ve done everything we can possibly do to attract a high-level player to come here. He likes our team, he likes our style of play. He likes the makeup of our team from the goaltender out.”
Gillis rejected suggestions Sundin may already have made up his mind to play for the Rangers. He also denied a groin injury that has kept all-star goaltender Roberto Luongo out of action would influence Sundin.
“We wouldn’t be going through this process if a decision had been made,” Gillis said. “Every time I have spoken to Mats, he has conducted himself with the utmost integrity.
“I find it difficult to believe that after going through this process that we wouldn’t get a clear indication at the outset as to what he planned.”
Heading into Tuesday night the Canucks were first in the Northwest Division with a 17-11-3 record for 37 points. The Rangers were first in the Atlantic Division with a 20-11-2 record for 42 points.
Several factors beside money may influence Sundin.
If he wants to play for a team with a chance at winning a Stanley Cup championship it would be easier advancing through the Eastern Conference. For the Canucks to reach the final in the Western Conference they would have to get by the defending-champion Detroit Red Wings and league-leading San Jose Sharks.
Travel could be another issue. The Canucks have finished their two longest road trips of the year but still will log many air miles before the season is over. The Rangers rarely leave the Eastern time zone.
Sundin, 37, would bring experience and a scoring touch to who ever he signs with. The six-foot-five, 231-pound forward has spent 17 seasons in the NHL with Quebec and Toronto, having registered 555 goals and 766 assists over his career.
The nine-time all-star had 32 goals last season with Toronto. He’s also the Maple Leafs’ all-time leading scorer with 987 points (420 goals, 567 assists) and served as the club’s captain in 10 of his 13 seasons in blue and white.
New York is in desperate need of offensive help. The Rangers have scored just 88 goals this season, the same number they’ve given up. They’re 10th overall in goals scored but have played more games (33) than any other NHL team.
The NHL’s Christmas roster freeze goes into affect Friday, meaning Sundin could not play for his new team until at least Boxing Day.
If he were to sign in Vancouver he could play on a line with Pavol Demitra and former Leaf Kyle Wellwood.
Wellwood said Sundin would have no problem fitting into the Canuck locker room.
“He’s a great teammate,” said Wellwood. “He’s a consistent 30-goal scorer. He’s a monster defensively at the end of the game.
“There’s a lot of things he can do for our team.”
Luongo, the Canucks’ captain, was taking a wait-and-see approach.
“There is no point in getting excited if in the end he’s not coming here,” he said. “We’ll see what happens in the next few days.”
Coach Alain Vigneault said his focus was on Wednesday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers.
“We are focusing on the players that are here and focusing on the next game,” said Vigneault. “That’s where our attention is.”