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Sundin Ready to Roll on New Season

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs

August 25, 2005

TORONTO (CP) -- Mats Sundin spent the past year golfing in Spain and Dubai, salmon-fishing in Norway, fly-fishing in Sweden and just generally allowing his 34-year-old body to recuperate from the vigorous demands of elite-level hockey.

""I've been back and forth, travelling a lot, nothing too exciting,"" Sundin said Thursday during an informal gathering with media in the Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room.

""I played too much golf, I'm sick of that. ... I missed playing hockey.""

Good thing then that the lockout's resolution has put an end to Sundin's lengthy sojourn.

The Maple Leafs captain and first-line centre, looking fit and relaxed, is ready to go, enthused with renewed energy from the months off the ice and hope that the NHL's new rules will open the game up for skilled players.

""It's going to be good for everybody, whether you like physical hockey, or like a lot of scoring, or a higher-paced game,"" he said. ""(The crackdown on obstruction) is going to help all of that and the goalie equipment being a little smaller hopefully is going to give us some more goals.""

The big question in his mind, and in that of many others, is whether the NHL actually holds true to its plans for reducing the clutch-and-grab hockey that has often led to mind-numbingly dull play.

Sundin doesn't want fans, players or the league to get turned off by games with dozens upon dozens of power plays early in the season.

If referees keep calling penalties, he says, eventually the message will get through that hooking and holding must disappear.

""I think if they keep going like that for a few months there won't be 10 or 11 (penalties) a side,"" Sundin said. ""If they're just consistent and make sure they call the penalties it's going to sink in.

""But it will take a while because you're competing out there and looking for that edge and guys will try to get it.""

Combined with the extra rest, a more open game should allow Sundin to better utilize his deft puck-handling abilities and on-ice vision. He led the Leafs with 31 goals and 44 assists in 81 games during 2003-04 and will be counted on to carry the load again this season.

Only now Sundin will have to do it with a very different supporting cast around him.

Gone are frequent linemates Gary Roberts and Alexander Mogilny plus Joe Nieuwendyk and defenceman Brian Leetch. Eric Lindros, Jason Allison and Jeff O'Neill were brought in to replace them, giving the Leafs strong depth up the middle but leaving them a touch bare on the wings and on the blue-line.

The changes have led to plenty of hand-wringing among fans in a city obsessed with even the most mundane of Leafs minutiae. And while fans can't understand why GM John Ferguson has stood on the sidelines as rivals like Philadelphia, Ottawa and Boston have all made moves to get better, Sundin isn't worried.

""I really like our additions,"" he said. ""I think we acquired players as good as some of those teams. I know Eric is real excited about playing at home, Jason as well and both those guys are top, top players in this league.

""The Flyers were a good team before, Ottawa losing (Marian) Hossa getting (Dany) Heatley I don't think is going to change their team too much.

""We're still going to be a tough competitor for those clubs.""

Sundin remains frustrated by Toronto's second-round loss to the Flyers in 2004, believing that team had the stuff to go all the way. He feels like the Leafs shot themselves in the foot by dropping a couple of home games to weak teams in the final weeks of the season, costing them top spot in the Eastern Conference.

The Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning finished first overall with 106 points and the Leafs ended up fourth with 103, giving them a tougher road through the post-season.

""That's the thing that sticks out in my mind, how your playoffs start,"" he said. ""It's hard to play Ottawa in the first round and then Philly in the second round. Instead, if you play a couple of weaker opponents in the first two rounds like Tampa did, then you face two tough rounds but they're in the conference final and final.

""That's something I'm going to carry with me this year for sure. We can't leave points like that on the table.""

As for rounding into form after the long layoff, Sundin doesn't anticipate any problems.

""It was the right decision for me,"" he said of turning down offers to play in Sweden. ""Physically I feel great and mentally I'm very excited about playing hockey here again.""

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