TORONTO – Right now Mats Sundin has more questions than answers.
Physically, does his body have enough left for the rigours of an 18th NHL season? Mentally, does he have it in him? Do the Toronto Maple Leafs even want him back? And what kind of hockey team will they even be should he return?
The one thing the Swedish captain was clear about Wednesday was that his 2007-08 season was finished because his torn groin hasn’t healed enough to let him skate effectively. All the other questions are fodder for the summer, once the heat of the moment has passed and a new perspective on things has begun to set in.
“Right now I haven’t decided about next year,” Sundin told a throng of reporters at the club’s practice facility. “I want to heal up my body, wait until this season is over and then I’m going to take a few weeks.
“I thought that really helped my last year, to get a little distance (from) the season to analyze how I felt myself and get a little better overview of how the season went. It really helped me prepare for this season, so I’m going to do the same thing next season and hopefully I’ll make a good decision.”
Sundin’s future is one of several critical issues the Maple Leafs must sort out in what’s shaping up to be a pivotal summer. The search for a new general manager continues and while interim GM Cliff Fletcher says the team’s senior management hopes to bring Sundin back – he comes an unrestricted free agent July 1 – who knows how his successor will feel about that.
Some suggest the Maple Leafs need a complete roster rebuilding, others a less painful retooling. Buzz words aside, it all starts with Sundin, who says his primary motivation these days is winning a Stanley Cup, something that doesn’t appear to be on the horizon for the woebegone club.
The Maple Leafs are out of the playoffs for a third straight year and they have little in the way of impact prospects that suggest better days ahead. If Sundin is determined to win the Cup he’d be better off trying to do it with another team, something he refused to do at the trade deadline when the Maple Leafs asked him to waive his no-trade clause and something he remains uninterested in doing right now.
“It’s one of the biggest reasons, if not the reason why I come and play every year and try to prepare at this stage of my career and my age, to have the chance to compete for a Stanley Cup,” said Sundin. “Saying that, I’ve really dreamt about being part of a great Stanley Cup run with the Toronto Maple Leafs and it’s tough to see myself doing that somewhere else.
“That’s how I felt at the deadline and that hasn’t changed.”
If Sundin has played his last game for the Maple Leafs, the lack of a Stanley Cup would be the only hole on his resume. In 1,305 career games, he has 555 goals and 766 assists and is the Maple Leafs franchise leader with 420 goals and 987 points.
Acquired in the draft-day blockbuster that sent Wendel Clark to the Quebec Nordiques in 1994, Sundin has served as the team’s captain since 1997-98 and led the team twice to the conference final, his deepest runs in the post-season.
“Whatever decision Mats makes is absolutely the right one,” said coach Paul Maurice, who jokingly predicted that Sundin would play until he’s 44. “Because if he says he wants to play another year or two or three or four then he’s going to be in great shape, he’s going to be a great player and it’s going to be absolutely the right thing for our team.
“And if he doesn’t want to play the game any more, then he has absolutely earned that right and what a phenomenal career.”
Some of his most memorable moments in a Maple Leafs uniform include his Game 1 overtime winner versus the Ottawa Senators in the opening round of the 2001 playoffs, a goal that propelled them to an improbable sweep, and his 500th goal Oct. 14, 2006 versus Calgary, a short-handed OT winner to complete a hat trick.
He also holds the NHL record with 15 regular season overtime winners.
“There’s a number of highlights,” said winger Darcy Tucker. “I remember the overtime goal he scored against Ottawa in Game 1 in that series and that was a huge highlight, his 500th goal was a huge highlight. Just his everyday leadership and the qualities he has as a person.”
Added young forward Matt Stajan: “He does so much. I think one of the highlights was the way he scored his 500th goal, a hat trick, overtime winner, to be a part of that was special. Just the way he scored it, typical Mats, down the wing, slapshot, top corner, that was a pretty big highlight.”
Yet his track record is repeatedly questioned by frustrated fans still waiting for the club to win its first Stanley Cup since 1967. That’s made Sundin a lightning rod for their disappointment, even though he has never had a championship-calibre supporting cast.
“I want to have a winning team here,” said Sundin. “As a player and as a Toronto Maple Leaf fan myself we all want to have a winner here and I feel everybody deserves to have a winner here, so obviously with the results of the last three years we haven’t been good enough as a team. Improvement is what everybody wants to see. …
“Two years without making the playoffs and now a third one, I think everybody is screaming for changes and the Toronto Maple Leaf hockey fans deserve to have a hockey team that is in the playoffs and should be one of the best organizations in the league every year.
“Nothing else should be acceptable.”