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|Mats Sundin had 32 goals and 46 assists in 74 games last season with the Maple Leafs.|
Sundin had chances to both score and make plays, but none emerged as his hands and timing betrayed him. That's understandable after a nine-month layoff with only three practices under his belt, and most believe that in time, those hands, which have averaged almost a point per game during his long career, will re-emerge. But what if they don't? For skill players, that's what goes first. Not the legs, and only rarely the desire. It's the hands -- Gretzky scored only nine goals in his final season -- that ability to make quick yet powerful movements on skates in a sport that has seen its overall speed increase dramatically since the 2004-05 lockout. The rules were changed to open up the game, and although scoring is still not what many would like it to be, the pace is far greater than that of even 10 years ago, with a remarkable group of twentysomethings making the game even faster these days. At some point, Sundin's hands will be gone. But could that time be now? Clearly, one game is not nearly the evidence required to make that determination, and we'll know a lot more by the end of January. That said, those who remember the first season after the lockout recall that players who didn't play at all in the 2004-05 season took months to get their games back in order, and some of the best in the game didn't return to form until the following season. Sundin, by sitting out since March 29 (he missed the last few games of last season thanks to injury), essentially has put himself in that same position. Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne both pulled the same trick last season, and although both came back to play good hockey for Anaheim, the Ducks didn't come close to defending their Stanley Cup championship of the previous season. The Canucks, who missed the playoffs last season, are a good team with visions of greatness. The Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik, are the focal part of the Vancouver offense, and they have as many detractors as supporters. Forward Pavol Demitra is a clever attacker who has underachieved throughout his career. Young forwards like Ryan Kesler, Alexandre Burrows and Steve Bernier are promising but unproven as playoff performers. The Vancouver blue line is talented but has a history of being brittle. Then there is Luongo, who was named captain of the team this season but has been out since Nov. 22 and didn't have a terrific 2007-08 after almost unseating Martin Brodeur as the game's best goaltender the previous season. Gillis held on to coach Alain Vigneault and has sought to change attitudes and regimens. He has even instituted a sleep program for his team. But as a former agent, he has yet to demonstrate an ability to put a winner on the ice, and he has more than a few enemies in the GM fraternity after years of tough contract dealings. So whether the Canucks win is about more than Sundin's play, just as the Leafs' failure to win with No. 13 was more than his fault alone. Still, Sundin could make a big difference, and despite his months of reluctance, he seems happy to be back. "For me, it was just a pleasure to be out there in a sold-out arena, to have the feel of an NHL game," he said after the Edmonton game. "It's a feeling you don't get anywhere else as a hockey player." Sundin played his first game wearing No. 13 -- youngster Mike Brown surrendered the jersey after being instructed to do so by Vancouver management -- between wingers Kyle Wellwood and Mason Raymond. But most figure it's inevitable that at some point, Sundin will be assigned to skate with the Sedins, his teammates on the Swedish championship team in the 2006 Olympics. "Only way to get where you want to be is to start playing games," Sundin said. "I'm not sure how long it's going to take me to get back to being the player I was last season. It's impossible to say. I'm going to take it shift by shift." Sometimes these big moves work, as in the case of Niedermayer's move to Anaheim. Sometimes (see: Favre, Shaquille O'Neal) they don't. Not one for telling people what lies within his heart, Sundin did seem to indicate he found a new appetite for the game while he was away, and that it helped him train hard in December to arrive in reasonable shape for his tour of duty with the Canucks. "More than anything, you realize that when you're in the mix of an NHL season, you don't appreciate the situation you're in," he said. "You're so involved in your next game, your next performance and where you are and how to improve your own game, that when you sit back and look at it from the outside when the guys are playing, it's only then that you realize how much you miss the game." Only one player in NHL history, Gretzky, has scored more goals for Canadian-based teams than Sundin (555), who has never played for a team in the United States. But Sundin is becoming a Ray Bourque-like figure, a top player who never could win until he arrived in a specific situation, and after he finally did win, was gone again. Maybe that's the scenario of Sundin's dreams, and perhaps it will even pan out that way. Maybe that's why the people of Edmonton booed. It would have been their dream too, and seeing another pursue it with such apparent casualness, such a lack of urgency and desperation, drives them utterly mad. Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."