Last gasp for Leaf glory

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:10 AM ET

With his long-flowing blond mane, Bjorn Borg-wannabe Mats Sundin was appropriately viewed as the Golden Boy of the long-suffering Toronto franchise when he was named Maple Leafs captain 10 years ago.

A full decade and zero Stanley Cup final appearances later, his trademark locks are gone.

And soon, so will his dream of bringing a championship to The Big Smoke.

Or, as Leaf bashers across the nation call it, The Big Choke.

At age 36, the slick Swede admits his window of opportunity to capture a championship quickly is closing. "I know I'm at the end of my career," Sundin said. "(But) it's not depressing, it's motivating. I feel I'm as good a player as I was five years ago. It's a good motivational tool to know my big goal is still to be part of a championship team in Toronto. We haven't achieved that and that's something that's going to motivate me for this season."

After that, well, all bets are off.

During the off-season, beleaguered Leafs general manager John Ferguson dangled a two-year offer in front of the pending unrestricted free agent, not a bad deal for a player who could start seeing 40 way off in the distance.

But it was Sundin who rejected the proposal, opting for a one-year $5.5-million US pact in order to keep his options open at the end of the season.

Does that mean he is contemplating retirement?Or will he bolt for greener pastures should the Leafs suck in 2007-08? Only the captain knows for sure and, for the record, he is chirping the company line when the subject of his future comes up.

"There are no hidden agendas for me signing a one-year deal," Sundin said. "I have said that since the start of training camp, and I mean it. I just felt it was the best thing for me.

"I want to end my career in Toronto."

The fans aren't neccessarily buying what Big Mats is selling.

At the February trade deadline, the Internet blogs and radio talk shows were saturated with calls for the Leafs to deal Sundin for a package of younger players and prospects, thereby addressing the future of the franchise.

And there is the rub.

With apologies to Tomas Kaberle, who ranks a close second, what does it say about a team when its most talented performer is a hockey greybeard like Sundin?

In Ottawa, Jason Spezza provides the franchise with a youthful building block for years to come. Calgary's Jarome Iginla and Vancouver's Roberto Luongo, meanwhile, are in the prime of their careers and will be the foundations for their respective teams for a number of seasons.

In Toronto, however, there does not seem to be such a player who will take the torch from Sundin and run with it. Alex Steen perhaps? The jury remains out.

In the meantime, Ferguson hopes the acquisition of speedy winger Jason Blake serves as the fountain of youth that revives some of the spring in the captain's legs. Blake is slotted to start the season on Sundin's wing, providing the veteran Swede with his most talented linemate since the days of Alex Mogilny.

"Jason is very fast and creates a lot of things out there," Sundin said. "It's fun playing with him."

Scoring just once in the team's final 21 games a year ago, Sundin is perplexed at why the goals dried up. Should it happen again this time around, the Maple Leafs playoff aspirations might shrivel up as well.

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MATS SUNDIN

Age: 36

Born: Feb. 13, 1971, in Bromma, Sweden

Position: Centre

Shoots: Right

Height: 6-foot-4

Weight: 231 pounds.

Experience: 13th season in Toronto, 17th season in NHL.

Drafted: Quebec's first choice, first overall, in 1989 entry draft.

Acquired: From Quebec on June 28, 1994 with Garth Butcher, Todd Warriner and Flyers first-round choice in 1994 draft for Wendel Clark, Sylvain Lefebvre, Landon Wilson and Toronto's first-round choice in 1994 entry draft.

NHL numbers: 523 goals, 720 assists for 1,243 points in 1,231 regular-season games; 35 goals, 39 assists for 74 points in 83 playoff contests.

Awards: NHL second all-star team (2002, 04); NHL all-star game appearances (1996-2002, 2004); captained Sweden to gold medal at 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.


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