Vantastic signing

RANDY SPORTAK

, Last Updated: 8:05 AM ET

The Northwest Division is shaping up to be a two-horse race.

And the rival running neck-and-neck with the Calgary Flames looks a lot more like a thoroughbred after yesterday.

Now, it's up to the Flames to figure out how to get to the wire before the Vancouver Canucks -- who yesterday added Mats Sundin -- with essentially the team they have right now.

As good as Sundin's addition makes the Canucks, it's also a boost for the Flames.

It will provide a little more motivation for a Calgary team which can't afford any sort of complacency in their play as they battle for the top-three seed that comes with winning the division.

With the rosters that came out of training camp, the Flames were the odds-on favourite to be the best team in the Northwest Division.

One-third of the way into the season, the Canucks are tied with the Flames in the banner chase, and now the coast crew has improved considerably.

Neither Flames players nor management could be reached for comment yesterday on Sundin's signing.

The key to Vancouver is certainly goalie Roberto Luongo. Their captain may be currently out of action -- and will be a while longer -- but soon enough he'll return and display his dominating form.

Between the offence and defence, though, the strength was still the blueline brigade. Sure, health issues cut into that crew on a constant basis with Kevin Bieksa and Sami Salo in a revolving door in and out of sick bay, but the West Coast gang is solid at full strength.

Now, the Canucks have received a huge boost to the offence with Sundin's arrival -- which will take place after Christmas -- thanks to a contract believed to be worth more than US$5 million for the rest of the season.

For starters, Sundin has been a Flames killer his whole career. In 43 games, he's racked up an impressive 25 goals and 53 points.

Even through the rotten years with the Maple Leafs, he found a way to make his mark against Calgary.

The last time he played the Flames, October 2006, Sundin scored three times, including a shorthanded overtime winner, which happened to be the 500th goal of his career just to make it really dramatic

At least for the Flames' sake, there are only two chances left this season for Sundin to pad those gaudy stats against them -- first at the Saddledome Feb. 17, then in Vancouver in early April.

The Canucks may have fallen on somewhat tough times of late -- victories over Florida and Edmonton only mask slightly the fact they're 4-5-1 in the last 10 -- but they still have a potent offence.

Without Sundin, they've managed to crack the top 10 in league scoring.

With him, their top-six forwards likely consist of the Sedin twins, Pavol Demitra, Mason Raymond and Steve Bernier. Plus, they can boast a third line of Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler and the surprising Jannik Hansen. That is a solid team at each position.

Frankly, the Flames can't counter all that much in the arms race.

A Flames optimist will say the Canucks had to make this move to keep pace with a Calgary club that appears to be gaining momentum as the season continues -- a statement with merit.

When it came down to it, the Canucks were about the only team with both the salary-cap space and willingness to add the centre to its roster.

The Flames don't have the salary cap space to add a player of that calibre at this time, at least not without jettisoning one of their core players in a blockbuster trade.

That means the Flames must continue to improve with their current roster.

There aren't any unsigned players out there who could make the Flames significantly better. Would Brendan Shanahan or Martin Gelinas -- just to provide a couple of names -- be impact additions? Strong depth, yes, but not front-line impact.

Therefore, the Flames must keep their collective feet on the gas pedal and continue to improve their play.

The way things were going, it appeared they were about to begin pulling away from the pack, but the job just became that much tougher.

Sundin may turn 38 in February and have been out of action until now, but he will make the Canucks a better team by a noticeable margin. In turn, the Flames' detractors will begin to write off the team, all but handing the B.C. squad the Northwest title.

Now, the Flames are back to underdog status.

It's just the prodding needed to keep them working night after night to ensure they don't just keep pace but move ahead of their rivals.


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