Now that the dust has finally settled on the whole Mats Sundin free agent saga we can stop speculating about where Sundin is going to go and start analyzing what kind of impact he will have.
Sundin has been a dominant forward, particularly down low in the offensive zone, for his entire career. He is as adept as anyone in the game at using his huge size, strength and reach to shield the puck, allowing him to create scoring chances for both himself and his teammates. He has great vision on the ice, and rarely seems to make the wrong decision when it comes to choosing between shooting or passing the puck. It is the combination of these traits that make me think that Mats Sundin can still have a huge impact in this league despite his advanced years.
Sundin is not overly reliant on skating speed or stickhandling ability – the two traits that seem to desert most aging players – and that fact has allowed him to continue to put up point a game numbers while peers in his age group have seen their own stats drop precipitously. Now, by the time Mats Sundin gets back on the ice it will have been about 9 months since his last NHL action so it remains to be seen if he will be able to shake off the rust of the long layoff, but because of the style of his game I believe Sundin will swiftly round into form and be playing at the same level he was at before his hiatus began.
Not only can Mats Sundin dominate with the puck, his very presence will take pressure off his linemates and the other star players on the team. He’ll attract the other teams’ top defensive players, freeing up time and space for the Canucks other skilled forwards like the Sedin twins, Demitra and Wellwood. With a little more room to operate they should all flourish offensively.
Sundin also brings leadership qualities to the Canucks that have been missing with the departure of Trevor Linden. This is not to say that Roberto Luongo is not a good captain, and veterans Willie Mitchell and Mattias Ohlund lead by example game in and game out. But Sundin is one of the few players in the NHL that can singlehandedly take over a game, stepping up at the right moment and dominating just when the team needs a boost. This sort of presence has been missing since Trevor Linden was in his prime.
So, I’ve established that Sundin brings a lot to the table, and he definitely improves the club, but does his addition turn the Canucks into an instant Stanley Cup contender? In my opinion, yes it does.
For those shaking their heads right now, look at the facts: Vancouver currently sits tied for first in the very competitive Northwest Division. They are 4th in the conference in goals scored by game, and 3rd in the conference in goals allowed per game. They’ve overcome adversity in the form of numerous injuries, including to their superstar netminder, Roberto Luongo. Their defensive system, key to winning playoff hockey games, has been one of the strongest in the league since Alain Vigneault became coach. Most importantly the Canucks are playing with confidence. There is a swagger about the club that hasn’t been there the past couple of seasons, a belief they can win no matter what the odds. The play of Roberto Luongo had a lot to do with establishing that mentality, but in his absence the Canucks continue to play with confidence, and the addition of Mats Sundin to the mix will only boost that confidence further.
So, yes I believe they are now a Stanley Cup contender, providing that Roberto Luongo returns at 100% and picks up where he left off when he was injured.
However, don’t confuse the phrase Stanley Cup contender with Stanley Cup favorite. Coming out of the Western Conference in this season’s playoffs will be a monumental challenge. The San Jose Sharks set a record for the best start after 30 games in NHL history, and the powerful defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings will have to be reckoned with.
Still, though Vancouver might not be a favorite you can bet that no team in the Western Conference would want to face them in the first round of the playoffs. Luongo has the capability to steal a series, and Sundin has the ability to win games by himself. Definitely not a combination that any team would be eager to face.
Perhaps most encouraging of all for Vancouver fans is the fact that the Canucks still have cap space to sign someone else if they choose. If they could pick up another impact player before the end of the season they certainly could challenge Detroit or San Jose as the best in the west.
Whatever the outcome, the arrival of Sundin has the city of Vancouver abuzz with hope the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Naslund and Bertuzzi were dominating the league.