Is Sundin still the man?

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:02 AM ET

From his prime, end-of-the-rink perch, Vesa Toskala has one of the best views for this Maple Leafs season of transition.

And from what he has seen so far, the Finnish goalie suggests the team in front of him arguably is playing better and learning more without Mats Sundin as their captain and offensive leader.

After recent games in which the Leafs are getting scoring from a variety of different sources, it's an opinion worth exploring.

"I think sometimes when you have a big goal-scorer like Mats, it's easier to stay behind him and just wait for him to do some things," Toskala said yesterday when asked for his take on the distribution of goal-scorers among the Leafs the past several games.

"(This season) we know we don't have any natural-born 50-goal scorer here, so we have to work hard as a team to get goals. No one can just wait for someone else to do the job."

To be clear, Toskala wasn't ripping on Sundin, who had a team-high 32 goals and 78 points last season and reportedly is set to meet with the Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke either today or tomorrow. But the second-year Leaf hit on the central point of the should-he-or-shouldn't-he debate that rages whenever the subject of the big Swede's return is mentioned.

For public consumption anyway, the company line among Leafs brass has been consistent: There always will be room for Sundin in the blue and white should he finally end his waffling and decide he wants to come back. As the team's career leading scorer, any other stance would be a public relations liability.

Privately though, it's hard not to get the sense management would rather the Mats saga go away ... either to retirement or another NHL team.

It would be foolish to suggest that the Leafs wouldn't be a better team without No. 13, certainly one capable of scoring more. But could it not be disruptive if Sundin's production masks some of the weaknesses or stunts the growing process already well under way?

"I don't see how it could hurt," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said yesterday when asked yet again if he'd like Sundin back. "But that's just speculating ... according to you guys, there's 29 other teams he's rumoured to be going to."

Understandably, Wilson at times seems exasperated with the ongoing fixation over a 37-year-old he never has coached and from his hiring it was clear the coach wasn't going to be held hostage by a dithering free agent.

So Wilson's more telling comments yesterday referred to the development of a Leafs offence, such as it is, built on speed and pressure, one bound to improve with experience and ice time.

"If you take one guy out of your lineup and the other guys get those opportunities, they are going to score," Wilson said. "Maybe not at the same pace as a star player like Mats Sundin, but if you spread it around, they are going to score."

With Sundin as their regular centre for so long, life was easier for Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky, who could feed or be fed regularly by the big centre. This year, they've been held accountable for every shift.

That too hits on a point made by Toskala, who only can compare last season to the current one. The goaltender implied that through better coaching, this Leafs already are playing more consistently.

"I felt that last year, you never knew what to expect," Toskala said. "I have much more confidence now. We don't get those letdowns like we had last year.

"In our zone, we are not running around. (There is) more coaching. (Wilson) has a system. I think everybody here trusts it's going to work and it's already working pretty well."

It is true that energy players such as Dominic Moore and John Mitchell, who had such a rousing third period in the Leafs' 5-2 comeback win over the New York Rangers on Saturday, can't be counted on for long-term production.

But without Sundin, the young players under Wilson's watch appear to improving at a nice pace. With the ex-captain, there would be no such guarantee.


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