Older, but never better

Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin has been the toast of Toronto since scoring his 500th goal....

Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin has been the toast of Toronto since scoring his 500th goal. (Toronto Sun/Ernest Doroszuk)

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:09 AM ET

The smile that lit up the Toronto skyline late Saturday night was full of little boy charm and passion and emotion -- everything that Mats Sundin isn't supposed to be.

And when he took to the ice alone, as the first star on Hockey Night In Canada, he stood for what seemed to be the longest time, applauding those who were applauding him.

It is at these celebratory moments, in this case the magnificent 500th goal -- a game-winning, overtime, shorthanded blast -- that Sundin's singularity as a Maple Leaf stands out. He is, in many ways, the last man standing.

And after the noise of the Air Canada Centre had gone silent and from the back of the Leafs dressing room, Sundin made arrangements on his cell phone for a post-game celebration, arrangements that indicate much about his place with this team. He met first with old friends and close friends, cracked open a bottle or two, then met with his younger teammates afterwards.

That is the strange and illuminating spot Sundin finds himself in, this his 12th season as a Maple Leaf. His buddies are almost all gone. The dressing room is his by acclamation: The old man and the kids he is coming to know.

He shows not a single sign of aging besides a disappearing hairline -- you can argue that in the last half of last season and the beginning of this season there are few players in hockey that could be considered his equal -- at a time when the game is most welcoming to his skills set, at a time when the coaching change coincides with his own personal beliefs.

Playing for Pat Quinn was a constant internal tug of war. The team had some success but Sundin never experienced the kind of personal freedom he believed to be possible. He never thought he got the right kind of opportunity, rarely thought he had the right linemates or was utilized quite properly.

CONTRADICTION

Quinn was an absolute contradiction in one way: How he chose to utilize his top forwards was in direct contrast to how he utilized his top defenceman. He always played his best two defenceman as the first pair and the next two as his second pair.

But when it came to his forwards, he was pure egalitarian. Four lines were going to play. No one player was going to monopolize ice time. Nobody was about to get double shifted in a tight game or under pressure circumstances.

It worked for Quinn. At times, it worked for the Leafs. It was rarely satisfying for the captain.

The Paul Maurice approach is basic. If you have a horse, you ride it. If you want to win the race, you ride it even harder. And as hockey players go, Sundin is pure thoroughbred.

Nothing tells you that more than his total of games played in his time as a Leaf. This is Year 12: In that time, Sundin has played 96% of all Leafs regular-season games. He has lost only 36 games to injuries, total. For a player who engages physically, that number is crazy.

The question is: Will there be a Year 13 in Toronto for No. 13?

This is Sundin's last year on a guaranteed contract. The Leafs hold an option for next season, but it comes with a rather hefty kick against the salary cap. A decision will have to be made -- no matter who happens to be in charge of the Leafs -- regarding further commitments to Sundin, who turns 36 in February.

This season still is young and so far it appears relatively and surprisingly successful. But should matters change -- and this is only six games we're talking about -- then Sundin's view of the Leafs and the Leafs view of him might be altered accordingly.

NO-TRADE CLAUSE

While he says the opposite, Sundin might consider waiving his no-trade clause closer to March. Much will depend on where the Leafs are both in standings and negotiations with the captain. There have even been suggestions the Leafs could trade Sundin away and then sign him back as a free agent this summer. The situation will be monitored all season long.

Mats Sundin, getting better as he gets older, never more isolated on the Leafs, never more important.


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