One night after saying goodbye to Trevor Linden
, the Vancouver Canucks
said hello to Mats Sundin
. Vancouver General Manager Mike Gillis announced Thursday that Sundin has signed a one-year contract with the team.
Sundin is one of the NHL's most durable and consistent players. He has scored at least 72 points in his last 12 seasons, all with the Toronto Maple Leafs
, while playing 70 or more games in each. Gillis expects his team to get a major boost from Sundin's arrival. Vancouver shares first place in the Northwest Division with Calgary after Wednesday's 4-2 win over Edmonton, after a ceremony in which Linden's No. 16 was retired.
"He's a point-a-game guy, and he's been a team captain in a huge hockey market," Gills said in a conference call. "He should be a great addition to our team. It's with great anticipation that you add a player of this quality to your group."
The Canucks could have Sundin in the lineup soon. Gills said Sundin will arrive on Dec. 27 and is already in terrific shape. "We're going to treat this like we would any injured player that's had an absence from the team. They come back, begin skating, practicing hard," Gillis said. "He'll let us know when he's ready to play."
The 37-year-old Swede, who became an unrestricted free agent on July 1 after playing 13 seasons with Toronto, was the talk of the offseason and throughout the first quarter of 2008-09, with much speculation about whether he would retire, play in his native Sweden or return to the NHL.
"I am truly excited to be joining the Canucks,” Sundin said in a statement released by the team. “Once I made the decision to return to play a few weeks ago, the Vancouver opportunity was simply the best overall fit. I want to thank Mike Gillis and the entire Canucks organization for their professionalism throughout this entire process."
The Canucks made a two-year, big-money offer during the summer, but Gillis said he wasn't concerned about Sundin's long wait to make a decision.
"What would have concerned me was a player who was not committed and would have accepted our offer only because of that," he said. "He was total character, total integrity, and he was concerned about being able to contribute at a high level."
Gillis said Sundin would wear the No. 13 that he wore in Toronto and Quebec, with Mike Brown
, who had worn the number, switching to No. 15.
"To Mike's credit, it was never an issue," Gillis said. "He, like all our guys, is thrilled to have Mats here to help us win."
Sundin's agent, J.P. Barry, said last week that the Canucks and New York Rangers
were the finalists. Gillis said he wasn't worried about losing Sundin to the lure of New York and the Rangers, who also have several Swedes on the roster.
"Oddly enough, I wasn't worried at all," he said. "My objective was to make sure he was as educated as possible about our situation and what we had to offer. I don't get too focused on things I can't control, and I can't control what someone else is going to do."
One advantage the Canucks had was more salary cap maneuverability.
"We had a lot of flexibility," Gillis said. "We could do pretty well whatever we wanted. We used that to our advantage."
Eight months have passed since Sundin concluded his 13th season with the Maple Leafs, and as many as 11 teams had expressed interest in his services before he finally came to terms with the Canucks.
New Leafs General Manager Brian Burke
all but closed the door on Sundin in late November. Burke said he spoke with Sundin and came away from the conversation feeling Sundin wanted to sign with a Stanley Cup contender, not a team in a rebuilding program like the Leafs.
"I don't think we fit the profile he is looking for," Burke said at his introductory news conference.
"There has been a lot of criticism of Mats Sundin
for not making up his mind," Burke said. "Having been through this situation before, I do not agree with it. I'd rather have a guy who wants to make sure in his own mind of what he is doing, as opposed to a guy who plays (halfway) just to collect a paycheck."
Speaking in Boston, where the Leafs played Boston, Burke said he wasn't surprised that Sundin opted for Vancouver.
"I felt, given their cap situation, that [the Canucks] were a likely destination from the get-go," He said. "I want to thank Mats for all the great things he did in a Toronto sweater and I think people shouldn't lose sight of that.
"He was a warrior for us, and he'll go down as one of the great Leaf players. I wish him well in Vancouver."
On July 1, the first day of free agency, the Canucks offered Sundin a two-year, multi-million-dollar contract that would have made him the highest-paid player in the League. Instead, the nine-time NHL All-Star opted to take time and review all options.
Gillis said during the conference call that the deal agreed to on Thursday was for this season only.
"No, we haven't," he said when asked whether there had been discussions with Sundin about next season. "We talked about this team, this year, this focus. There were no discussions about what would happen beyond this season, beyond the playoffs."
Sundin, the Leafs' captain since 1997, led Toronto in scoring last season with 32 goals and 78 points in 74 games. It was the fourth consecutive season and 12th in his 13 in Toronto that he topped the team in points.
He has said he enjoyed the time off and is anticipating a fresh start.
"It's been a pretty relaxing summer actually," Sundin told the Canadian Press in September. "I've tried not to think about it too much. I've just tried to get away from the game a little bit.
"The last few seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs
have been tough years for us. I've actually been feeling pretty good about the situation that I've been in -- for the first time in a long time not being under contract and being able to really try to feel out what I want to do with my future."
Despite Sundin's offensive production last season, the Maple Leafs missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
"I felt great about playing hockey last year, but all that disappears when you're not having a winning season and when you're not competing in the playoffs because that's really all that matters," Sundin said.
Sundin scoffed at the trade rumors leading up to the Feb. 26 deadline last season, opting not to waive the no-trade clause in his contract. He said at the time he did not want to become a rental player, even when the Leafs fell from playoff contention.
Sundin, who underwent a physical exam in Toronto in September and was on a two-week conditioning stint in Los Angeles in November, admitted the decision whether to retire or continue playing was difficult. Now, all those worries can be put to rest.
At the conclusion of 2007-08, he was the second-longest active captain in the League behind Joe Sakic
of the Colorado Avalanche
Sundin began his career with the Quebec Nordiques, the team that chose him with the first pick in the 1989 Entry Draft, and was traded to the Leafs in 1994. The Nordiques sent Sundin, Garth Butcher
, Todd Warriner
and a first-round draft pick in '94 (Nolan Baumgartner
) to the Leafs in exchange for Wendel Clark
, Sylvain Lefebvre
, Landon Wilson
and a '94 first-round pick (Jeff Kealty).
On Oct. 14, 2006, Sundin became the first Swedish player to score 500 career goals when he beat Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff
while shorthanded to give the Leafs a 5-4 overtime victory. He still holds Maple Leafs records for goals (420) and points (984).
Michael G. Morreale contributed to this report