Lindros another Leaf late-career success story

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:01 AM ET

The stand-in captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs is on a path so rarely travelled it is intriguing.

The NHL's back-in- business season is only three weeks old but under scrutiny in Toronto, Eric Lindros is presenting dimensions not so apparent earlier in his career. Mind you, he hasn't played much in two years.

Yet, it is clear. The giant centre appears to be inexorably grooving into the skate-tracks of other late-career Leaf signing successes. Who can forget Doug Gilmour's early 1990s impact? Or, 30 years earlier, Red Kelly's?

There weren't many question marks surrounding Gilmour's arrival. He burst on the Toronto scene after ex-general manager Cliff Fletcher's career trading coup in 1992 and energized the franchise to within a game of the Stanley Cup final in '93.

Kelly, deemed expendable by the Red Wings after a long all-star defence career in Detroit, was reinvented as a Toronto centre critical to winning four Cups while orchestrating the goal- scoring onslaught of left-winger Frank Mahovlich.

Lindros didn't arrive on such a palette of potential.

He turned up to baleful faces and doubting whispers, an oft-injured superstar who had never completely realized his potential.

There were the eight concussions, the collapsed lung, the torn labrum in his shoulder, the knee injury, the pulled groin, the back spasms. The suspicion, despite his signing a contract at a pittance of his former take, was the 32-year-old was in town to simply ride out his career in hockey's mecca.

Yet here he is, rippling the twine as readily as he once did the garage door as a kid in London, tossing in timely hits and even going down to block shots. None of this is lost on a player's teammates.

Nor, certainly, is one's production. Going into last night's game against the Boston Bruins, Lindros was on a goal-a-game pace for five games and had seven scores in eight outings for fourth place among league scorers.

Lindros is captain of the Leafs while Mats Sundin recuperates from an eye injury he sustained when struck by a puck 2 1/2 weeks ago.

Lindros noted immediately after Sundin's cracked orbital bone "there's no replacing Mats" and that's true enough. The big Swede has set the tone too long for that to suddenly evaporate.

But while all teams have captains, many have other guys, veterans mostly, representing a sort of cabinet of advisers. You could say Lindros has become captain when Sundin is not around, deputy prime minister the rest of the time.

It is a function held by Gary Roberts, whose loss, at age 39 via free agency to Florida, is now looking far less debilitating against the backdrop of the Lindros contribution.

Outlooks change in the blink of an eye, as Sundin will tell you, so one is reluctant to etch a three-week trend onto a 32-week season. It is chancy, given Lindros's medical history.

But time and place tend to shape careers and there have been some positive ones as regards this guy's.

First, Lindros is finally playing where he has wanted to play for some time and that counts for a lot. More important, recent rules changes suit his style at this point in his career.

Big and strong and fast, he can be too much to handle for some defencemen when he's bursting in. In front of the net, where defenders are no longer permitted to cross-check a forward out of the way, he's a larger handful.

From the outside, where teams like the Leafs must get goal production, he's got a quick, accurate shot.

Intriguing. In ways, the de facto captain has become captain of his own ship for the first time.


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