An Unheralded Center: In Praise of Mats Sundin

Diane HigginsCorrespondent IAugust 30, 2006

IconAs I wait for the 2006-2007 NHL season to start, I once again dare to wonder if this is the year.  Not for the Leafs - heaven forbid they make an effort to win the Stanley Cup.


No, I wonder if this is the year that Mats Sundin finally gets quality linemates.


It irks me on a personal level that Anders Eriksson (WHO!?!) has a Cup ring and Mats Sundin does not. Sundin is the elite player in the NHL. Yet, he's stuck being known as "The Helicopter Center" (for not playing with any wings).


His fluid skating style makes the difficult look effortless. His backhand is as legendary as his quiet off-ice demeanor. A low maintenance player, Mats has thrived in the Mecca of Hockey despite injury, lousy teammates, and the lack of interest in winning championships shown by the brain-trust of the organization for whom he has played his heart out.

He is probably the only NHL superstar that had to endure 4 years of Jonas Hoglund, and then 3 years of oft-injured (but reportedly very nice) Mikeal Renberg.


Sundin has always excelled in international play, and winning the gold medal at the Turin Olympics was the best thing ever to happen to his NHL season. He tore up the league in the post-Olympic schedule. In the remaining 25 games he piled up 20 goals and 17 assists.


His wingers: Alexei Ponikarovsky and the much-maligned Nik Antropov. These two players are also slated to be on his line for the coming season.


Winning is good motivation, apparently.


Can you imagine what this guy could do given the opportunities of say a Forsberg or a Sakic? Imagine the tour de force a healthy Eric Lindros would have provided had he re-signed with Toronto. Throw into the mix a credible winger like Simon Gagne and sparks would fly!


But while the Leafs have shored up what was once a one-line defense, somehow acquiring wingers for Mats is not among the top priorities.


Do we sacrifice the present for the future?


It is hard to imagine him in any sweater other than a Maple Leafs one, even though he was the reason the Nordiques made the playoffs for the first time ever.  But we're talking Toronto here, the land of sold-out games regardless as to who is on the roster. And it's clear Mats would make any team he played with better.


After all, he s been named the top Swedish player (the Viking Award) 4 times; top forward in a tournament his team didn't win; MVP of the World Cup of Hockey in 2003 (which his team also did not win); all star of the 2002 Olympics; and an NHL All Star 6 straight times, 9 in total.  He was also drafted first overall in 1989 — the first European to be so honored.


And he is as good today as he was the day he scored his first NHL goal against Hartford.


Despite facial injuries - a puck in the face delivered by teammate Bryan McCabe requiring many hours in the dentist s chair, and a devastating eye injury in the first 7 minutes of last season - he has never played less than 70 games in a season. Oh, and Mats has been the leading scorer for the Leafs every year but one. So is it time for Mats to get just a little more vocal about whom he lines up with?


There are a couple of things we know for sure about Mats Sundin. He makes every team he plays with better, and he will score those 6 goals he needs to make 500.


But will he win a Stanley Cup? I hope the answer to that question is "yes."