Time to see if anyone will grab baton

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:33 AM ET

The sneak preview of the Maple Leafs future begins now.

What the next month will bring -- without Mats Sundin -- should reveal much about the depth and stability of this Leafs roster going forward.

And much about whether the Leafs need to bring Sundin back on expensive terms once the guaranteed portion of his contract runs out at the end of this season.

The dependence on Sundin in this early successful run by the Leafs has been apparent. It isn't just that he leads the team in points, leads the forwards in minutes played, leads the club in shots on goal, and it's certainly no coincidence that Darcy Tucker has eight power-play goals and Sundin has eight power-play assists.

That said, Sundin isn't the kind of player or person who can be entirely measured from a sheet of statistics. His game and his influence can be that complete.

The 21 minutes Sundin plays each night are 21 minutes coach Paul Maurice is going to have a find way to replace. It isn't only the scoring. It isn't only the leadership. It isn't just the play down low and the hellish slapshot.

So much of what Sundin does -- now and historically as a Leaf-- has been taken for granted. It is almost always that way with special players. You come to expect more.

The way Sundin expects more. The way he attacks the small things. The differences between winning and losing. He plays in every situation. He plays when it matters most. He is the oldest Leaf and still the best of them.

So the natural instinct, with Sundin gone a month with an elbow injury, is to fret. It's what Leafs fans were born to do. It's what makes this hockey city different. There is every reason to fret when a team without great forwards loses its only dominant one.

There has to be a law of diminishing returns, at least briefly, here. No matter who inherits those minutes, they can't be equalled. They can only be filled.

But for now, the benefit of the doubt has to go to coach Paul Maurice. In the summer, when he talked about this undermanned roster, he spoke of his vision for the Leafs, about turning slow into quick, about playing pressure hockey, about conditioning, and those of us of a cynical nature nodded our heads and doubted accordingly.

So far, almost everything Maurice envisioned has come to fruition, in one form or another. These are mostly the same old Leafs but this a brand new team. Sundin has played a large part in the transition and you can hear the optimism in his voice even as he begins a stint on the sidelines.

For now the baton is passed -- but to whom? Last year, when Sundin went down with an eye injury, we saw the best of Eric Lindros as a Leaf. A few years back, when Sundin went down, Alyn McCauley played his best as a Leaf.

Neither ever played as well in Toronto as they did when Sundin was hurt.

As of this morning, the Leafs' first line has Kyle Wellwood centring Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov. On paper, it's not much of a first line. A career 13-goal scorer is being asked to replace No. 13. The new first line, combined, has 381 fewer goals than has Sundin.

But so far, you can't measure Maurice's Leafs by the sum of their parts. Jeff O'Neill, written off as finished by many a general manager, is working his way back to scoring form. Michael Peca has moved from near the bottom of the NHL to near the top in penalty killing. Matt Stajan has looked the part of second-line centre for the first time in his career and all this is happening with Alex Steen still trying to figure out who Alex Steen is.

"We're moving in the right direction," said Sundin, who turns 36 in February.

The kids he has played with most of the year are 12 and nine years younger than him. The coach is closer to his age than almost anyone he plays with.

The answers -- about how the Leafs react without him, whether they need him to have any kind of future --begin tonight.

steve.simmons@tor.sunpub.com


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