Mats holds key to Leafs' future

STEVE SIMMONS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:51 AM ET

If Mats Sundin is to be taken at his word, that he truly bleeds blue and white, then in the best interests of the Maple Leafs he must act accordingly.

He must waive the no-trade clause in his contract and allow Cliff Fletcher to trade him at the Feb. 26 deadline.

That way, he can impact the next decade of the Leafs, just as he impacted the past decade. That way, he can enable the Leafs to build for next season and beyond, and if he chooses to return as a free agent in July, then he returns to a team that has a Steven Stamkos or a Drew Doughty, a team with fresher, younger legs, a team he can resume his captaincy and leadership of, while surrounded with a better cast and crew.

He must allow the Leafs to do what they haven't been able to do since the lockout ended -- and that is compete in the top half, not the bottom half, of the National Hockey League. Sundin can bring that kind of price, make that kind of difference. No one else on the roster else can, especially no one with an expiring contract.

And no one else would be so attractive to the Canucks, the Flames, the Sharks, and others, teams that might be able to challenge in the playoffs, but would suddenly become favourites with the addition of the 37-year-old Sundin, who has not slowed down with age.

Sundin is a perfect fit for a San Jose team that plays the down low game he has come to specialize in -- and it has no shortage of admirable prospects.

Recently, I asked two of Sundin's closest friends whether they believed Sundin would waive his no-trade clause. One said yes. One said no. Neither seemed certain they had the right answer.

With Sundin, answers are always a bit of a mystery.

Both friends agreed, however, that Sundin lives in a comfort zone here in Toronto, loves the job description, eats at his favourite restaurants regularly, enjoys the company of his young girlfriend, and relishes that there is almost no pressure on him to produce much of anything. It is easier to exceed expectations when the goal at the start of the season is finish top eight in your conference.

In fact, the other day, on Sundin's 37th birthday, he emotionally spoke about the number of years he has played in the league and said how much he has enjoyed his latter years better than those before them. His latter years include the past three seasons, three seasons playing for teams out of the playoffs, years that should have been crushing.

He apparently is content not playing for a contender. He is content that his season ends in early April, rather than late June. He is, like too many of the Leafs, not terribly frustrated playing for a team that has fewer wins than any team in the NHL.

Other athletes of his character and calibre would be tearing their hair out if they found themselves in Sundin's situation. In fairness to him, the hair is already gone but this is the time of career when most NHL players are thinking Stanley Cup and nothing but.

Sundin has never been made like other NHL players. He isn't Ray Bourque or Lanny McDonald nearing the finish line, thinking ring. Sundin won his gold medal, captaining Sweden, at the 2006 Winter Olympics. That was his Stanley Cup. That was the dream of his youth. His smile lit up the sky that night in Turin. That was as good as it gets.

Maybe as good as it will ever be.

When last season ended, I asked him about missing the playoffs. He answered the way he usually answers, supporting those he played with, saying: "I believe in this team." Halfway through this season, I asked the same question. He answered that he believed in this team. Now, by nature, athletes are optimistic, that's part of who they are, why they are successful. But in response to his answer, I asked: "If you believe in this team, and you're not in the playoffs again, aren't you setting your standards too low?"

He answered: "Maybe I am."

Fletcher's job is reaching crunch time. He has two weeks to accomplish two difficult goals. One is to strengthen the Leafs roster with younger players, draft picks or prospects. Two is to somehow reduce the $40-million-plus US the Leafs have tied up in salaries for next season. Reaching either place will be challenging, to say the least.

This is how Mats Sundin can help build the Leafs for the future. If he's about the Leafs -- and not necessarily about himself.


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