VANCOUVER, B.C. – The long wait is over as Mats Sundin has chosen the West Coast over the Big Apple.
Sundin’s decision to join the Vancouver Canucks adds scoring punch to a club already defensively strong and improves the NHL team’s chances of being a Stanley Cup challenger.
Sundin waited five months before deciding Thursday to accept the Canucks’ offer of US$10 million for one year. Pro-rated for the rest of the season, he’ll earn around $5 million.
The New York Rangers wanted to sign the former Toronto Maple Leaf captain but couldn’t make room for him under the $56.7-million salary cap.
“I am truly excited to be joining the Canucks,” Sundin said in a statement. “Once I made the decision to return to play a few weeks ago, the Vancouver opportunity was simply the best overall fit.”
Vancouver first pitched a two-year, $20-million contract at Sundin on July 1. His hesitancy to accept the cash made many believe he’d rather be on Broadway than Robson Street.
But Mike Gillis, Vancouver’s general manager, said Sundin’s first priority always was joining a team with a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.
“From day one it was totally about the team,” Gillis told a news conference. “Money was always secondary. When it came down to the final decision, the resolution of how we are going to do this, it was about the team.
“We were really selling him on a style of play that I believe in and that I think will be successful here. He likes the idea of joining a team that is committed to that style of play. That was really the selling point for us.”
Even with all-star goaltender Roberto Luongo sidelined with a groin injury, the Canucks have managed to remain tied with the Calgary Flames for first place in the Northwest Division. The teams have identical 18-11-3 record for 39 points.
Sundin, 37, brings experience and scoring ability. The six-foot-five, 231-pound forward has notched 30 or more goals five times in the last six years. In 17 seasons with Quebec and Toronto, he collected 555 goals and 766 assists.
The native of Bromma, Sweden, also understands the pressure of playing hockey in a Canadian market.
“I think you’ll see a big, strong centre who skates really well and averaged a point a game,” said Gillis. “He has been the captain of a team in a market that is really challenging and he’s handled it impeccably.
“I think the quality we try and get from every player in terms of character and integrity are absolutely there.”
Sundin is expected to play on a line Pavol Demitra and Kyle Wellwood. That leaves the Canucks with a strong second unit featuring Swedish twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin with Jannik Hansen, Taylor Pyatt or Steve Bernier.
When he’s healthy, Luongo is considered one of the best goaltenders in the NHL. His injury is listed as week-to-week.
Daniel Sedin currently leads the team with 14 goals. The Canucks also have size and grit in players like Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows and Darcy Hordichuk.
Teams playing the Canucks will likely put their best defensive pairing on the ice against Sundin’s line. That could give the Sedins more room to play the cycling game they like.
In a hockey crazed city like Vancouver adding this summer’s most sought after free agent could have some people already planning a parade route.
Gillis was more cautious.
“I don’t think I would be comfortable calling any team a contender, other than San Jose and Detroit,” said the first-year G.M. “What we want to do is get in the playoffs and win round by round.
“For me, it’s the process of how the team plays and the integrity it plays with. I know we will get results if we play that way.”
Critics might wonder if history could repeat itself. In 1997 Vancouver signed an aging Mark Messier to a three-year deal worth $20 million. The experiment failed and the Canucks never reached the playoffs with Messier.
In Sundin, Vancouver has a player who wants to be part of the solution, not be looked at as the problem.
“He is really enthusiastic about the team,” said Gillis. “He was more focused on making sure he would fit in seamlessly here and not being a disruption. That was his major concern.
“He likes the way the team plays, he likes the city of Vancouver. He liked the contract terms.”
It’s believed Sundin will receive about $4 million in a signing bonus and about $1 million in salary.
That leaves Vancouver with about US$3 million in salary cap room, meaning the team can still add a player or players as the trading deadline approaches.
Sundin, a nine-time all-star, scored 32 goals last year with Toronto but considered retirement following the end of the season. He’s 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 Toronto.
“Last year I thought he was a dominate player,” said Gillis. “He hasn’t had a serious knee injury or shoulder injury or one of those things that might inhibit him.”
Sundin is expected to arrive in Vancouver on Dec. 27. His agent, J.P. Barry, said his client has been skating with a professional team in Sweden, but it still could take him two weeks to be ready to play in the NHL.
Gillis said Sundin won’t be rushed.
“We are going to treat this like we would treat any player coming back from an injury or absent for any particular reason,” he said. ” He’ll tell us when he’s ready to play and once he does he’ll play.”