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How will Mats measure up?

by Scott Rintoul / Vancouver Canucks
With Mats Sundin set to make his debut in a Canucks’ uniform later this week, everybody has an opinion on what type of impact he’ll make in the second half of the season. I’m sure every holiday party you went to had its share of puck experts hangin’ out around the eggnog, more than willing to give you the gift of hockey wisdom instead of an actual present. You’ve probably heard all of these on multiple occasions:

“He’s too old – this is just like the Messier signing.”

“Nothing’s going to change. They should have spent the money elsewhere.”

“He’s the final piece to the puzzle. Bring on the Stanley Cup!”

Look – no one knows for sure what impact Sundin will have on the Canucks after missing half the season. Scott Niedermayer was subpar last year after joining the Ducks in mid-December. Both are elite players near the end of their careers. The big difference, other than the position they play, is that Niedermayer was returning to a team that was underperforming, whereas Sundin will be inserted into a lineup that has been better than many predicted. Here’s my two cents on what he’ll bring to Alain Vigneault’s crew.

Jeff Scott Rintoul is a host of the BMac and Rintoul show on the Team 1040 broadcaster in the mornings starting at 6am.

Send him and e-mail.

Points for Pals

No one knows who he’ll play with, but it may not matter. Check the stats and you’ll see that Sundin produces a point per game like clockwork, but that’s not the whole story. Every former teammate that has been interviewed over the past six months says the same thing: Sundin makes his linemates better.

Not every elite player is capable of that; there are plenty of forwards around the NHL that can put up big numbers in certain situations, but they require someone else to make them effective. Sundin has been a catalyst for production wherever he has been; just ask Kyle Wellwood, who enjoyed his most productive season while playing alongside the big Swede.

Pump up the Power play

The Canucks currently sit in the middle of the pack with a success rate of 17.5% with the man advantage. Sundin won’t suddenly make the power play convert on every opportunity, but he gives Vigneault a couple of attractive options.

First, Sundin is more than capable of anchoring his own power play line, which should give Vancouver excellent balance between its first and second units. He had 29 power-play points last season in just 74 games. Second, his abilities to both shoot and pass the puck should allow him to play with the Sedins on the power play should Vigneault decide to load up one line from time to time. Either way, scoring should increase when the opposition is in the box.

Strengthen the Sedins

I believe that as the Sedins were emerging from their mother’s womb, there was a Canucks’ fan saying, “They’re not first line players.” Though their point production contradicts that statement, Daniel and Henrik have not been nearly as effective in the playoffs. But Sundin’s presence creates a problem for opposing coaches: which line do I play my checking unit and top defensive pair against?

If Daniel and Henrik can average a point per game when seeing the top defenders the opposition serves up, logic dictates they should be more productive against the second tier. Given the expectation that Sundin brings with him, he will also take a significant amount of pressure off the twins, who have been the focus of every “why aren’t the Canucks scoring?” debate over the past two and a half years.

Inspire the Inspirer

Though Sundin does upgrade the offense, he may also have a positive effect on the defense. Roberto Luongo still holds the key to the Canucks’ fortunes this season, and unless he stays healthy once he returns the Canucks’ chances diminish substantially. It’s hard to imagine that Luongo could be even better than the form he displayed just prior to his injury in November, but the addition of Sundin might make that possible. How do you improve someone who is already at or near the top of his profession? Inspire him.

There is nothing Luongo wants more in hockey than the Stanley Cup, and the acquisition of Sundin should provide him with the best opportunity he’s ever had. If you thought he was focussed before, it’s conceivable that Luongo may find a way to ratchet up his play upon his return.

So where does this leave the Canucks? There are way too many hypotheticals to suggest that Vancouver is poised to unseat the Sharks or the Red Wings, but their chances of doing so have certainly improved in my estimation. That said, I think this move serves notice that the Canucks are the team to beat in the Northwest. Despite injuries to their top two netminders, Vancouver is still in the thick of the race for the division title. Put a productive Sundin and a healthy Luongo in the mix, and the Canucks have an excellent shot of earning the third seed in the West.
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