Mats: A man of mystery

Leafs practice at Lakeshore Lions. Mats Sundin spoke to media after practice to say he would not...

Leafs practice at Lakeshore Lions. Mats Sundin spoke to media after practice to say he would not play for the rest of the year. MICHAEL PEAKE/SUN MEDIA.

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:16 PM ET

Reading between lines on his furrowed brow, the souvenir of 14 years as a Maple Leaf, you know that Mats Sundin wants to come back.

But in his last official media scrum of the 2007-08 season, the captain acknowledged the times, they are a changin' on Bay St., and the final decision might not be up to him.

"In terms of my situation ... will I be welcome?" Sundin said yesterday at Lakeshore Lions Arena. "We were two years out of the playoffs and now a third. Everyone is screaming for changes and Toronto fans deserve nothing less than a (playoff team). I don't have a contract. It's a fine line and we've been on the wrong side for three years.

"We all have to wait and see what direction they go in."

If the next general manager arrives in July and wants a true clean slate and a savings of $6 million to $7 million on a cap-strapped payroll, then Sundin can take a bow and exit stage right.

But if the new man looks at an obvious leadership and scoring void and knows the Leafs' sorry post-expansion history of abandoning their stars, then there will be some kind of deal by training camp.

In formally announcing yesterday that he is done for the schedule's remaining games with a minor groin tear, Sundin put out his usual batch of mixed signals about returning. He gave an emphatic "no" to the idea of actively seeking a new team, but wants time to think about his health and future, usually done in the solitude of the Swedish outback or on the golf course.

Turning 38 next year, he wants a Stanley Cup. but preferably as a Leaf, which would take a minor miracle before he hits 40.

"Whatever decision Mats makes will be the right one," coach Paul Maurice said. "If he comes back for two, three or four years, he'll be in good shape. If he doesn't want to come back, he has earned that right, too."

But two factors will muddy the waters this summer -- whether the new exec is pro-Sundin and how much of a raise the latter can expect after producing almost 80 points for the relative bargain price of $5 million US. He doesn't owe the Leafs a hometown discount and agent J.P. Barry likely will make that clear in the coming months. During previous contract negotiations, Barry has communicated Sundin's concerns about team direction.

During his latter years in Toronto, Sundin has earned some overdue praise and passed Darryl Sittler as the franchise scoring leader. But an outsider may well look at the Leafs' ongoing failure to make the Cup final -- more recently the playoffs -- and, fair or not, link part of that to No. 13.

Sundin might also consider emulating Teemu Selanne and Scott Niedermayer, who skipped the rigours of the first five months of the season to rejoin the Cup champion Anaheim Ducks at a cap-friendly price. However, that's also dependent on the Leafs being in the hunt in mid 2008-09.

The short term will see Sundin spend three or four weeks getting treatment for the groin injury. Then it's back to Sweden to begin his personal assessment, while the media here holds vigil.

Tonight's final home game of the season will not include any special video tribute from the team and the two or three variations of Sundin highlight packages on file aren't ever shown when he is not playing.

"It would be weird not having him back," centre Matt Stajan said. "He'd make us stronger at the start of next year.

"I'm sure he'll get a lot of whispering in his ear. But no one is going to tell Mats Sundin what to do. He'll probably do exactly what he did last summer (eventually agreeing to a one-year contract)."

Just expect a six-month soap opera in between.


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