Joe Nieuwendyk was on the phone assessing the Maple Leafs chances next year when he hit upon an obvious point.
“You know, if we have Mats we become a much better team,” he said.
Yes, yes they do.
And Nieuwendyk’s presence with the Leafs does nothing to diminish that possibility.
Earlier Tuesday, Nieuwendyk had been reading Sundin’s comments from Sweden. Sundin had not written off returning to the Leafs and cited the return of Nieuwendyk, assistant to general manager Cliff Fletcher, as a cornerstone in the team’s rejuvenation.
“Mats and I had a great relationship when I was in Toronto (2003-2004),” Nieuwendyk said. “He was a great teammate and a friend. Being a captain in Toronto is not always an enviable job. I have a lot of respect for Mats and I appreciated his comments.”
No one knows whether Sundin will return to the Leafs for a 14th year, accept the Vancouver Canucks two-year-deal or ride off into a life of leisure, but one thing is true. The presence of Nieuwendyk, a Stanley Cup winner with Calgary, Dallas and New Jersey and one of the game’s true gentlemen gives the Leafs management group another coat of luster.
After a year as assistant to Florida Panthers GM Jacques Martin, Nieuwendyk is performing basically the same job for GM Cliff Fletcher, who drafted him out of Cornell in 1985.
“It’s a job with a lot of different aspects,” Nieuwendyk said. “Obviously I will be involved in player evaluation meetings. I will be around the team a lot, talking with players, sharing experiences. I will see a lot of different aspects of how things are run.”
After 20 seasons, Nieuwendyk’s jump from player to executive passed uneventfully.
“I can’t say I really missed playing. I played for 20 years and I felt good about what I had done. I’m very excited about what I am doing now.”
Ask Nieuwendyk what needs to be done in Toronto and he points to recent buyouts of Darcy Tucker and Andrew Raycroft, bringing in coach Ron Wilson putting a renewed emphasis on the draft.
“Those are tough decisions that Cliff had to make. In today’s game, you’ve got to have that pipeline, you’ve got to have youth. You’ve got to be smart about the draft and stockpile as many assets as you can. Cliff has been doing that.”
Nieuwendyk knows he comes to a team that has fallen short of the playoffs for three straight years. But he’s not so sure that all that much patience will be required.
“Look at New Jersey. They don’t always seem to have the best team on paper but they end up with 100 points every year. I think a coach can have a big impact on a season. A coach can help a team become a better team together, to believe in one another and what the coaches are doing.
“It’s amazing how things can turn around for a team when it plays that way.”