If Sundin era with Leafs is over, it's a sad day

STEVE SIMMONS

, Last Updated: 8:41 AM ET

TORONTO -- If this is the end for Mats Sundin as a Maple Leaf, after all the angst, the hand-wringing and the wide variety of analysis, then this is a Canada Day unworthy of celebration.

Sundin has meant that much to the many Leaf teams he has played on, at least one of which should have competed for the Stanley Cup, the past three that weren't even able to compete at all.

He has, through the good years and the bad ones, always performed. No matter what the circumstances. No matter who the coaches were. No matter dubious linemates came and went.

For 13 seasons -- ironic, don't you think? -- he was always there. Twelve times leading the club in scoring. Eleven times leading the Leafs in goals.

Nobody has ever done that before in Toronto. Nobody will ever do that again.

Guy Lafleur only led the Canadiens eight times in scoring. Phil Esposito only led the Bruins six times in scoring. The incomparable Gordie Howe dwarfs them all: He led the Red Wings in scoring 18 times.

And in the seasons in which he wasn't first in scoring, Sundin was twice second on the Leafs in goals, and only once second behind Alexander Mogilny for points.

This may not good feel today, assuming that Sundin won't return to the Leafs, assuming he will eventually make a decision on whether to return elsewhere for another season. There will be anger and if he goes somewhere else, there should be anger.

But even then, if you take a step back, and you do the math on the greatest trade Cliff Fletcher has ever made, the numbers and the accomplishments are indeed astonishing.

Sundin was a straight line. He rarely wavered. He never took a year off. He had only two kinds of seasons, good ones and great ones. He didn't just lead the Leafs in scoring in all but one of his 13 seasons in Toronto.

He lapped the field.

On average, he scored 18 points more than the team's second-leading scorer in the 12 seasons he came out on top. In various years, players such as Mike Johnson, Darcy Tucker, Steve Thomas and Bryan McCabe, finished second to him in points.

He was that far ahead, that much more dominant. He was Mr. Automatic.

Some never liked him because of his passport. Some never liked him because he seemed satisfied when there wasn't always reason to be. Some never liked him because he never once had a giant playoffs.

But you don't last this long, as team captain, as leading scorer, as highest-paid player, without playing the part of lightning rod. There is no one opinion of Sundin that sticks or is widely accepted. And as this past season unfolded, the more complicated his place in Toronto became.

He was captain of the team and captain of those who wouldn't waive their no-trade arrangements. Some interpreted that as selfless, other as selfish. There was never consensus with much of anything that involved Sundin. And for a man who wanted to avoid controversy, somehow it always seemed to find him.

DIFFICULT FROM START

Being traded for the wildly popular Wendel Clark made it difficult from the start. Over the years, Sundin eclipsed everything about Clark as a player except his popularity.

Then this past season, as the Leafs began to bottom out and the damage GM John Ferguson had done was apparent, Sundin found himself in a most uncomfortable circumstance.

Fletcher, who once traded for him, now wanted to trade him away. It would have been in the best interest of the Leafs future for Sundin to go. Sundin chose the opposite: And now, should he sign elsewhere, instead of reaping a scoring winger and three draft picks for his services, the Leafs will get nothing for him.

They couldn't keep him, couldn't trade him, and in free agency, can't replace him.

Typically, Sundin is saying nothing of his own situation, just as he never talked publicly about the coaches he detested playing for, about the linemates he was supplied with, about his dislike of certain Leaf owners.

The clock will strike 12 this afternoon and an auction on his services will begin. Whether he chooses to participate remains, like so much about Sundin, a mystery.


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