Wayne Karl is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. With a specialty in sports and sports business, particularly hockey. Karl publishes Hockey Business Report, a newsletter for the hockey industry. His freelance credits include The Hockey News, The Toronto Sun, The Globe and Mail and other publications.
If the Maple Leafs continue their rebound to good fortune and go on to make the playoffs this season, the proverbial turning point might not be the 9-2 drubbing of the New York Rangers on Saturday night, but likely the 4-3 squeaker they pulled out in Carolina the night before.
|Mats Sundin will look to continue his rise on the Leafs all-time scoring list. |
(Graig Abel Photography)
With the defending Stanley Cup Hurricanes up 1-0 in the first period, Leafs' forward Kyle Wellwood carried the puck from his own blueline and into the neutral zone, looking for a passing opportunity. Captain Mats Sundin, up ahead and approaching the Canes blueline on the off-wing, caught Wellwood's eye and danced around a defender with few quick steps to get open, and took his linemate's pass before going in to put the tying goal past Carolina goalie Cam Ward.
Even before the puck hit Sundin's stick, and long before he scored, you could read it as an impact play. Wellwood and Sundin once again showed the chemistry they've displayed much of the season, and big number 13 showed great vision and anticipation to get open for the pass.
You just knew he was going to score.
It was but one play early in a game that was far from over, but it was Sundin's first in a milestone night, a three-pointer, two goals and an assist that would move him past two Original Six legends on the NHL all-time scoring sheet.
In potting career goals 507 and 508 that night, Sundin passed Montreal Canadiens great Jean Beliveau and into 33rd place on the NHL's all time leader list. Sundin's three points also moved him ahead of former Leaf captain Dave Keon into second place for points as a Leaf. He trails only Darryl Sittler, another former captain who has 916 points, for the lead in all-time Leaf scoring.
With another three points against the Rangers on Saturday, Sundin has 29 points in 27 games as of Dec. 18, 2006, and is on pace for an 80-point season to put him ahead of last year's total of 78. More importantly, it would give him a total of 913 total career points as a Leaf, just three behind Sittler for the all-time lead.
Sundin is also just seven points shy of the all-time Leaf playoff scoring record, sitting at 70 points to Doug Gilmour's 77.
So, what we're looking at here is the greatest scoring Leaf of all time - and it may even happen this season if he exceeds his 1.07 point-per-game pace.
For this, Sundin in recent weeks has been the subject of much discussion, about whether his contract should be extended, whether the Leafs should trade him to get good value for their star asset while it's still high, whether he should retire, whether he really likes Toronto, and all kinds of other speculation.
Critics argue that the Leafs have never won with Sundin in Toronto, the closest they've come being getting to the Conference Finals twice, in 1999 and 2002, and losing both times. Skeptics will further compare Sundin to the likes of long-time captains Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic, who led their teams to Stanley Cup championships on multiple occasions.
While the point may be valid, such comparisons are not. It takes a full team to win, from strong goaltending to solid defence to reliable, consistent and widespread scoring. One player alone cannot win - not even the other Leaf greats, like Sittler, who captained the Leafs in arguably the most difficult era in franchise history, the Ballard years, or Keon, who was on the team when Toronto last won the Cup in 1967, but was not wearing the "C.' That honour belonged to George Armstrong.
Sundin has never scored 100 points in Toronto, the closest being the 94 he racked up in 1996-97. In fact, he's only scored 100 points once in his entire career, that being in 1992-93 as a member of the Quebec Nordiques - a team captained, coincidentally, by Sakic.
Maybe it's time Sundin's critics and supporters alike should stop expecting him to single-handedly lead the team to the promised land, and instead accept him for being the quiet, consistent and contributing leader he is, whose leadership has never seriously been questioned by those who matter most - his teammates and coaches.
"I'm very humbled. Some of these names are icons. It's certainly a huge honour to be mentioned with all these guys," Sundin said after the win against the Hurricanes, referring to passing NHL legends Beliveau and Keon.
"It's something I'm very proud of. The tradition of the Maple Leafs, I'm just proud to wear the sweater."
Indeed. Keon and Sittler, Sundin's peers atop the Leafs' all-time scoring stats, were allowed to leave Toronto and finish their careers elsewhere, with even less success than they enjoyed in the Blue and White.
Let's hope the same fate does not befall Sundin, the soon-to-be greatest Leaf of all time, right where he belongs.