The passing of the torch is an expression in the sports world that is often used when a team sees the face of there franchise either retire or slowly fade to the back while a younger player steps up to replace him in that role in the hopes of leading his team to greatness. In Toronto this passing of the torch is slowly but surely starting to happen. As it stands right now Mats Sundin is the torch holder and has been for the past number of years since Doug Gilmour passed it to him. Mats Sundin has been loyal to the Leafs and the city of Toronto since he arrived on the scene. Through the good and the bad and there have been plenty of both he has done it without once complaining, demanding a trade or threatening to leave via free agency. This is an amazing site to be hold in today’s sports scene as all to often we see the face of other franchises leave under less then ideal circumstances, usually with money or team performance being the reason. In Toronto we have seen the likes of Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Roberto Alomar all leave there teams behind the moment times got tough leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of fans who seem to be able to forgive but never forget. In Mats Sundin’s case he would probably be the captain of the Leafs and play until his dying days….well that’s a bit of an exaggeration but you know what I mean, but unfortunately the human body doesn’t allow for that and eventually it all has to come to an end. The day is coming for the Leafs captain not just because of age but for the growth of the franchise, to eventually succumb to the inevitable.
I remember like it was yesterday, seeing Mats Sundin in his mid twenties skating around in the Maple Leaf uniform in that dome shaped bucket looking helmet quickly stealing the hearts of all Leaf fans and establishing himself as a Toronto sports icon. Alas it’s 2008 and Mats is 37 years of age and there is more talk about whether Mats will/should retire or whether he should have accepted a trade to bring back draft picks and young players to eventually take his place. I’m not complaining about this because it was inevitable as Sundin is an aging captain of a team that is starring in the face of missing the playoffs for the third straight season and as mentioned he is 37 years old which in terms of today’s NHL is almost geriatric status. At his age, 25 minutes a night every night is a lot to ask of Sundin if you are expecting him to be healthy and energized for the stretch run let alone the playoffs as the Leafs found out last season when he all but fell off the radar when he was needed most, and this season as the Leafs are in a serious push for the playoffs and Sundin is watching from a press box with a groin injury. As a captain and star player it’s almost required that you be able to play those kinds of minutes and Sundin’s body just doesn’t seem up to it anymore. In no way am I suggesting that Sundin has to pack it in at seasons end but a reduced role on the team almost seems necessary not just for Sundin but for the whole team which brings me to my next point, who is going to assume the role of go to guy/face of the franchise?
Despite the criticism the Maple Leafs have taken and currently take for their draft performance over the past years this team does have some blocks on which to build on. In Sundin’s absence we have seen the likes of Matt Stajan, Alex Steen, Jiri Tlusty, Kyle Wellwood among others step there game up like never before suggesting that they are ready to take on more of a prominent role in leading this team in the years to come. Since Sundin pulled himself out of a game almost two weeks ago against the Philadelphia Flyers the Leafs have played 4 games, and in that time Steen has put up 6 points, Tlusty has scored two goals, Wellwood has four points and learned how to back check, Stajan has three points and has looked amazing killing penalties especially in Toronto’s 4-1 win over Buffalo. Honorable mention has to be made of Alex Ponikarovsky, Ian White and Anton Stralman who have all stepped up to make key contributions to a team that has lost it’s two top scorers Sundin and Nik Antropov, it’s number 4 defenseman in Carlo Colaiacovo and depth players Hal Gill, Chad Kilger and Wade Belak at the trade deadline. With all of those losses this team has managed to play its best hockey of the season when logic would dictate they should have fallen out of playoff contention long ago. I’m not suggesting that any of these players will ever be able to put up the points and be the player Sundin is/was but with all of these players maturing with the added responsibility and playing time they have been given, maybe the future isn’t as bleak as some like to make it out to be. It is also important to note that all of those players listed above are Maple Leaf draft picks, which would indicate that there drafts haven’t been as fruitless as they are made out to be.
With the young talent that the Leafs have gathered the question then becomes who will be the next leader and face of the franchise and quite frankly I have no idea who that will be but in today’s NHL anything can happen. Cliff Fletcher has a track record of finding players that fit this role; after all he is the one that brought Gilmour and Sundin to Toronto in the first place. With the Edmonton Oilers perhaps starting a trend of offering contracts to other teams’ restricted free agents, and the possibility of a major trade which is always something to look for with Fletcher calling the shots anything can happen. Wouldn’t a player like Vinny Lecavalier look good in the blue and white? While that might be a stretch Lecavalier is a player the Leafs have pursued in the past and he is a UFA after next season which does make it a possibility, as remote as it might be. At the end of the day it will be up to the Leaf GM no matter who it might be to find someone for Mats to pass the torch to which could make for an interesting off season.
In closing I want to say that Mats Sundin could very well be the best player to ever wear the blue and white, in my opinion he is the best Maple Leaf to never win a Stanley Cup, but like anybody else to play the great game of hockey, the time eventually comes to except the fact that the end is near and all good things must come to an end.