BUFFALO (Mar. 21) -- If Mats Sundin's torn groin muscle allows him to play again this season -- and it's doubtful he'd be able to perform at more than 50 percent capacity -- take a hard look at perhaps the most dignified athlete to ever grace the city of Toronto. There's a very good chance it will be your last glimpse of the venerable No. 13.
Every strain of reason and practicality suggests that Sundin is taking his final lap in blue and white. Unless he has a complete shift in sentiment and chooses to play elsewhere in the NHL, Sundin will follow true to his word and retire as a member of the Maple Leafs this summer. There is no plausible motive for him to return. After giving his soul to the franchise for a decade-and-a-half, Sundin has finally come up against a brick wall. At no time in his tenure with the Maple Leafs have I seen him so thoroughly spent -- physically and emotionally. The cumulative effect of missing the playoffs for a third consecutive year has pushed him to the edge. The untimely injury he sustained last week in Philadelphia may be the final straw.
This isn't to suggest that Sundin won't think long and hard about returning. Walking away from the game is never easy for those who play it best (he will not, however, pull a Scott Niedermayer and re-join the club in mid-stream). Nor is there reason to believe the next GM of the Leafs will disregard the possibility of re-signing the future hall of famer. In the end, however, Sundin will understand the futility of coming back. The Maple Leafs may be a vastly different team next season, but they aren't likely to improve by any measure.
Should Cliff Fletcher follow through on his pre-trade-deadline aspiration to abolish the core of the roster -- and, don't forget, eliminating players with contract restrictions is no simple matter -- the return will be minimal. Among the foursome of Pavel Kubina, Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle and Darcy Tucker, only Kubina can be moved this summer (for a period of seven weeks) without consent. The others will either return to the hockey club, or be subject to buyout and waiver restrictions.
The group of young players the Leafs hope to move forward with (Jiri Tlusty, Anton Stralman, Jeremy Williams, Justin Pogge) will still be maturing next season, and there is little reason to expect radical improvement from the most populated segment of the roster -- players of middling caliber (Matt Stajan, Alex Steen, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Kyle Wellwood, Ian White). Jason Blake's contract is an albatross. Nik Antropov and Carlo Colaiacovo are valuable parts, but too fragile to be counted upon. Only Vesa Toskala represents a truly worthwhile commodity, by virtue of his talent, and his reasonable stipend.
So, what is there for Mats Sundin to come back to? On several occasions, he's referred to the growing challenge of preparing his body and mind for the long NHL season. He isn't certain he'll be able to do so again this summer. The gibberish about winning a Stanley Cup in Toronto long ago subsided. Though he is unfailingly polite, Sundin is doing his best to avoid the media these days, for there is nothing encouraging or enlightening to discuss. He was pushed to the limit by a club that is substantially devoid of front-line personnel, and his body, ultimately, could not hold out. Given his advanced hockey age -- and the potential for similar dependency next season -- big Mats will only continue to break down.
These are all reasons -- not to mention the financial well-being he has secured for several generations of Sundins, and his affinity for the home-life in Sweden -- to move on now, and be remembered for greatness. Mats would depart after the splendor of a 77-point season; not like so many before him, whose stars have faded while grasping to hang on. He'd be assured of a first-ballot hall of fame election in 2011.*
Expect the big Swede to step away gracefully -- while he still can. Savour his remaining moments, if they come.
*Eligibility for the HHOF comes three years after retirement, not five, as I originally stated.
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