April 18, 2006
TORONTO (CP) -- Mats Sundin pondered the question before answering with a nervous laugh.
Would he definitely be back in a Toronto Maple Leafs uniform next season?
"Yeah, I hope so,'' the Leafs captain said after wrapping up the season with a four-point effort. "The way it looks right now, I have at least one more year left on my contract. So that's what I plan on doing.''
His future is really in his own hands. He has a no-trade clause on a contract that pays him $6.84 million US next season with the Leafs holding a $5.32-million club option for 2007-08. So he's not going anywhere unless he wants to.
Sundin scored two goals and added two assists Tuesday night to put the finishing touches on his best offensive season since 2002 as the Maple Leafs wrapped up a disappointing NHL campaign with a 5-3 win over the hapless Pittsburgh Penguins.
Whether or not Sundin fits into the plans of the remodelled Maple Leafs next season, he reminded the Air Canada Centre crowd of 19,392 that he's got plenty of hockey left in his 35-year-old body,
His 78 points (31-47) in 70 games are the Swede's best total since he got 80 points in 82 games in 2001-02. Not bad for a guy who missed a dozen games at the start of the season after fracturing the orbital bone over his left eye.
"He's a wonderful athlete,'' said head coach Pat Quinn. "I know people had questions about him early on but he came off a year (lockout) when he didn't do much. For most athletes, it takes a while.''
Sundin ended the year on fire with 25 points (14-11) in his last 13 games, serving notice that he remains among the elite centres in the NHL.
"He was terrific down the stretch for us,'' said Quinn. "And not just points-wise, but sound defensively as well. To me he's got lots of hockey left in him.''
Darcy Tucker added to a career-high total with his 28th goal of the season while AHL callups John Pohl and Jeremy Williams also found the back of the net for the Maple Leafs, who finished the season ninth in the Eastern Conference with a 41-33-8 record.
Williams, a 22-year-old Regina native, scored his first NHL goal in his first NHL game, blasting a slapshot past Sebastien Caron while on a 2-on-1 break midway through the second period.
"I was skating by the bench and everybody yelled `shoot' so that's what I did,'' said Williams, grinning ear to ear. "What a nerve-racking day. I woke up three times during my pre-game nap.
"But at least my first NHL goal was a nice one, it didn't go off someone's shin pad.''
Sidney Crosby scored his 39th goal and added an assist to give him 102 points in a sensational rookie season while Ryan Malone and Colby Armstrong also scored for the Penguins, who finished dead last in the Eastern Conference at 22-46-14.
The 18-year-old Crosby will likely finish behind Washington's Alexander Ovechkin for the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year but he nevertheless lived up to the hype this year. Now he's off to Riga, Latvia, for the IIHF men's world hockey championship.
"One hundred points would be one (of the highlights),'' Crosby said of his rookie year. "After after the Olympic break it was a lot of fun playing with this group. We weren't winning as much, but I can't see other teams in the same situation reacting the way we did.''
Meanwhile, it may have been the last game for several faces on the Leafs. Star defenceman Bryan McCabe, for one, is slated for unrestricted free agency in July. McCabe didn't feel he played his last game in a Leaf jersey.
"No, that's not the way I'm looking at it,'' he said. "The summer will tell but there's lots of time left to get it done.
"We're going to start negotiating soon I'm sure. My No. 1 choice is Toronto but everyone knows it's a business.''
Quinn will await word on whether his employers will ask him back for an eighth season behind Toronto's bench. It's only his first season out of the playoffs since taking over the Leafs.
"It's the normal routine for me,'' said Quinn, who has another year left on his deal. "We'll meet with the players and review the season. That's the immediate future.''
The Leafs first hit the ice Tuesday night and polished off the Pens, former Pittsburgh goalie J.S. Aubin running his record 9-0-2 as a Leaf by stopping 30 shots.
Sundin's slapshot from the sideboards was deflected by Pohl at 8:19 of the first period to open the scoring. Alex Steen then fed Sundin with a nice cross-ice pass to make it 2-0 at 15:20. Sundin's tap-in gave Toronto a 3-0 lead 3:46 into the second period, Tucker put in his own rebound at 7:16 on a power play and it was 4-0, before Williams scored at 8:13 and it was 5-0.
That was it for Caron, who was replaced by Marc-Andre Fleury. That seemed to spark the Penguins, who rallied. First Crosby one-timed a shot at the side of the net to make it 5-1 just 27 seconds after Williams' goal.
Crosby then set up Armstrong on a power play 2:16 into the third period, and Malone put in a rebound in front on another man advantage less than a minute later and suddenly it was 5-3.
Notes: Nik Antropov underwent shoulder surgery Tuesday and was out of the lineup. Jeff O'Neill (shoulder) was also out for Toronto while defenceman Sergei Gonchar was also scratched for Pittsburgh ... The Leafs signed University of Minnesota defenceman Chris Harrington earlier Tuesday. The 23-year-old native of St. Cloud, Minn., had three goals and 33 assists in 40 games for the Gophers this season.