RALEIGH, N.C. (Feb. 1) -- The notion is simply absurd. Yet, it's prevalent in just about every Internet site devoted to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The idea that Mats Sundin should consent to be traded for the future well-being of the hockey club. That he'd somehow be looked upon as selfish if he refused to waive the no-movement protection in his contract. This ranks with the irrationality of the many Leaf fans convinced the team was improved heading into the current season. Or those who are suddenly drooling over the possibility of Swedish product Fabian Brunnstrom wearing blue and white, even though 99 out of 100 hockey fans in North American had never heard of the guy until Pierre LeBrun mentioned his name two weeks ago on Hockey Night In Canada. It's the craving that sparks penetrating analysis in e-mails and chat-rooms when Paul Maurice puts lead-footed Andy Wozniewski on the wing with Sundin during practice. Whatever passes for reality in Leaf Land -- and I'm not certain that anyone has the answer -- takes a continuous beating from the insatiable multitudes.
How can any person that has followed the Leafs even in a casual way suggest that Mats Sundin owes something to the franchise? That's almost like saying the dynastic New England Patriots owe their fans a Super Bowl title this weekend. Or, the Detroit Red Wings owe their supporters a decent young player or two. Perhaps Wayne Gretzky should consider giving something back to the game. After all, the bum hasn't set a scoring record in more than a decade. The fact that Sundin has so routinely risen above the ineptitude of the Maple Leafs appears to have spoiled some people. Or, at least skewed their perception. Under no circumstance should he feel compelled to be used as a pawn by the Leafs in yet another attempt by the club to gain respectibility.
Sundin, in my mind, is completely absolved of any connection to the soon-to-be 41-year Stanley Cup drought. His level of grandeur -- on and off the ice -- is one the organization has never come close to matching. If he elects to make himself available for trade, he should do so with only one concern: his own contentment and happiness.
And, there is no person in the hockey world who understands it better than Cliff Fletcher. The Silver Fox is perfectly equipped to handle this delicate circumstance in a balanced way. Fletcher knows, as well as anyone, just how desperately the Leafs could utilize the quality of assets Sundin would fetch. Despite publicly suggesting the club will do "what's best for Mats," Cliff is aware that he stands on the precipice of a new era for the Maple Leafs. One that simply cannot include Mats Sundin. That said, Fletcher is also handling a commodity that has earned a great amount of deference. A player with whom he shares a special place in the history of the club. As much as Fletcher is remembered for bringing Sundin to Toronto, he'll be evaluated even more intensely for the way he manages the big Swede's departure. It's a move he has to orchestrate with precision, and it's not one that can possibly be done in the absence of emotion. A 20-second conversation on the subject with either Sundin or Fletcher makes that abundantly clear.
So, here's where I believe the two parties stand. Given his druthers, there is no question Sundin would like to remain in Toronto. The genuine nature of that yearning -- repeated, ad infinitum, to anyone who's been listening -- requires limited analysis. He'll go into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot with a Maple Leafs logo stamped all over him. And, he'll do it proudly. For my money, there is no posturing involved here. Mats has often said that he'll take the remainder of his NHL career one year at a time, and I wouldn't be shocked if he retired after the current season. I'm not expecting that, but it ranks as a possibility. Therefore, I do not believe he is angling for a multi-year contract -- either an extension with the Maple Leafs, or a new deal elsewhere.
In their meeting here in North Carolina on Wednesday, Sundin did not tell Fletcher he would unconditionally protect his no-trade privilege. What he almost surely said to the veteran GM was something like this:
"If there's a deal that can make both of us happy -- and it involves a city and a circumstance I wouldn't mind being part of -- run it past me. But, don't embarrass me. Make sure it's an arrangement that is logical and respectable. One that doesn't raise eyebrows, or cast aspersions on either of us. And, let's keep all of this on the Q-T. I don't want to answer for speculation that appears to be leaking from those within the hockey club."
These are conditions that Fletcher can easily live with; conditions he would almost certainly insist on, himself. Despite the pending return of Peter Forsberg to the NHL, and the marketability of other top skaters at the trade deadline, Sundin will take a back-seat to no one. On one of the worst Maple Leaf teams of the past 15 years, he has performed with the posture and enthusiasm of a player on a Stanley Cup contender. His unselfishness, and his desire to win games that are rapidly growing in irrelevance, proves how solidly he respects his teammates, and how incredibly valuable he'd be on a team that has a real chance to accomplish something.
In this equation, many people surmise that Mats would agree to waive his no-trade clause if he were somehow assured of returning to Toronto as a free agent this summer. That scenario lacks substance on two fronts. First, it is possible the Leafs will have a new president and/or GM before next season, and there is no guarantee that person will want to include Sundin in his plans. So, it would be disingenuous for Fletcher to make such a promise, or to commit Sundin to his successor. Second, and this is one that few observers seem willing to consider, Mats might go somehere else and actually find he enjoys it. That being part of a winning environment and a team committed to excellence will quickly find a place in his heart. Identifying with such a circumstance is almost impossible after spending a decade-and-a-half with the Maple Leafs. But, you have to believe it's a state of affairs Mats has considered.
As for the Leafs, they have to make every attempt to cleanly break from their long-time captain. It was my suggestion that John Ferguson do so last summer, and I stand by it. Rarely in the history of the franchise has an elite player been so utterly wasted. Sundin's very best effort this season has had virtually no impact on a stale club with a loser's mentality. Both the team and the player should have realized what they were getting into last July. And, both would be insane to consider a further alliance. The Leafs must move on to their next challenge; to forming a fresh identity. And, so, too, should Mats.
So, yes, the big Swede could well be traded before the Feb. 26 deadline. But, it won't occur with any haste or eagerness from the player or his GM. It's a deal that will happen in the grip of emotional reluctance on both sides. But, it's one that is absolutey necessary.
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