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Friday, April 6, 2007
Could Saturday's game be Sundin's last as Leaf?

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

TORONTO -- Sift through the reams of rhetoric leading up to Saturday's win-or-go-home season finale between the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, strip away the staggering notion that literally millions of dollars in playoff revenue hang in the balance and there is one sobering if little-discussed possibility: This might be captain Mats Sundin's last game as a Toronto Maple Leaf.

The big center's desire to finish out his career in Toronto is well known, and the team has made all the appropriate noises about keeping Sundin in the fold. But if the Leafs repeat their desultory performance of Thursday evening on Long Island and miss the playoffs for the second straight season, days of reckoning are at hand for many in the blue and white.

Mats Sundin
Mats Sundin has just one goal in 19 games for the Maple Leafs.

And unless the team is content to remain mired in mediocrity with little hope of getting better (aside from being hit with the lucky stick), severing ties with the amiable Swede provides one of the only real clear paths to improvement.

There is significant emotion involved on both sides of the fence heading into Saturday's game. Players will try to separate the hype from the game and Sundin will try to snap his lengthy scoring drought. If he and the Leafs fall, it will be time for management to separate emotion from reality when it comes to Sundin.

Over the past 19 games Sundin has provided just one goal. Granted he's added 16 assists over that time, but Sundin is a goal scorer. He's not Joe Thornton, a playmaker who makes the San Jose Sharks go because that's what he is. When Sundin, who has been a plus player in just six of the last 23 Leafs games, isn't scoring goals, the Leafs aren't winning, at least not enough to get into the playoffs.

Surrounded by reporters after Friday's practice, Sundin was asked, in a veiled reference to his specific scoring woes, whether the forwards need to step up.

"We all have to [step up]. I don't what to say about that. We all have to contribute both scoring goals and playing good defensively and try and win a hockey game," Sundin said.

"It's a hockey game. There's no time out there to think about ifs or buts or what could happen and not happen," he added. "We're just going to have to go out there and play as hard as we can every shift. It's all clichés, but you have to take every shift at a time and keep your thoughts on what you have to do on the ice and not worry about the other stuff."

So, with the season on the line, isn't it about time Sundin stepped up and took the pressure off the Hal Gills (who has outscored Sundin over the past month) and the John Pohls (who has also outgoaled the Leafs captain)? Who knows, maybe Sundin will answer the call and pot a crucial goal Saturday night. Or maybe Gill and Pohl and the rest of the foot soldiers who have been scoring in Sundin's absence will continue to keep the Leafs' dream alive. If it doesn't shake down that way, then the rebuilding has to begin the moment the game is over.

This isn't about pinning blame on one person or suggesting Sundin is a bad person or an inadequate captain. This is about a hard, clinical look at the options available to GM John Ferguson. A second straight miss of the playoff boat will highlight just how few options Ferguson has.

First, Ferguson's got about $15 million tied up in three defensemen -- Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Kubina and Bryan McCabe -- for the foreseeable future. That would be OK if McCabe hadn't turned into an almost nightly defensive liability (witness his inexplicable carp-like flopping in front of netminder Andrew Raycroft on the Islanders' second goal Thursday or his aimlessness on the tying goal against Pittsburgh last Saturday night). But he has. Now, maybe some GM with more cap room than brains would like that kind of player at $5.75 million a year. But that's a pretty big maybe.

So, if you know you can't trade McCabe or Kubina, who has been better than critics would suggest but is still wanting at $5 million annually, you've got to find some other way to make your team better. Which leads us back to Sundin.

PLAYOFF RACES
The Islanders, Canadiens and Maple Leafs are all battling for playoff position. Check out all of the potential playoff matchups here as the races heat up heading into the regular season's final weekend.
• Playoff matchups

The team isn't going to pick up the option on Sundin's contract, not with its $6.3 million cap hit. But rumors are thick the two sides would be agreeable to a two-year deal, somewhere in the $11 million neighborhood. If your team was bound for the playoffs and things were looking up, you probably could justify it. But when your captain comes up as dry as Sundin has, where is the future in tying up that much cap room on another player that can't provide a fair return?

Wouldn't that money be better spent on Ryan Smyth? Or Chris Drury? Or Daniel Briere? Or any of the many younger and more productive free agents who will be on the market this summer?

In part because he's gone almost one quarter of the season with just one goal, Sundin has managed to settle in at 37th among all NHL scorers, and he's still the leading scorer on the team. How does a team with a porous defense and ordinary goaltending expect to get better if Sundin remains their go-to guy both on the ice and against the cap?

Unless Ferguson can find the equivalent of Robert Redford in "The Natural" while on a fishing trip to Outer (or Inner) Mongolia, it doesn't happen. Of course, those dynamics will all still exist even if the Leafs rise up and smite down the Habs on Saturday and the pesky Islanders don't steal the show by winning their games Saturday against Philadelphia and Sunday against New Jersey.

But making the playoffs is a demarcation point. It separates hope from futility. A trip to the playoffs, especially an unexpected one, has a tendency to put a happy sheen on what might otherwise be a pockmarked surface. Win and the issue, at least for the time being, becomes moot. Lose, and it becomes something else.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.