The Sundin Effect
November 7, 2005
Sam McCaig is a Senior Editor at The Hockey News and writes a weekly NHL column on thehockeynews.com
(Toronto) -- U.S. president/Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan inflicted a mighty blow on the financial foundation of his country in the 1980s when he unveiled his "trickle-down economics" approach. Basically, the concept was that corporations at the top of the business food chain would reap all sorts of financial benefits and tax breaks, because those companies - the biggest, best and most competitive in the world - would be a all be even more efficient and productive with all that extra money. They would make astute business decisions, and the result would be a "trickle-down" effect throughout the rest of the U.S. economy, with new jobs and more money and shiny automobiles for everyone.
But that was in the real world. Let's face it, not much works there. Reagan had the right idea, he was just in the wrong arena. Instead of worrying about financial flow and the SEC, he should have started with offensive flow at the ACC. That's because the return of Toronto Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin is going to test Reagan's trickle-down approach, albeit from a puck perspective.
Sundin needs little introduction. In short, Toronto's attack revolves around him. He has directed the Leafs' offense for a decade, and his blend of size, grit and sublime skill elevated him to "special player" status a long, long time ago. More recently, Sundin missed the first 11-plus games of this season after being struck near the left eye by the puck in the season opener.
Sundin returned on the weekend, electrifying the Air Canada Centre crowd with a goal and an assist in a 5-3 win over visiting Tampa Bay on Saturday night, and chipping in a pair of assists in a disappointing 5-4 loss at Washington on Sunday. So, a victory over the Stanley Cup champions, followed by a loss to perhaps the worst team in the NHL. With up-and-down play like that, a cynic might suggest Sundin has had no effect at all - the Leafs are just as wildly inconsistent as ever. Of course, Sundin's reappearance in the Leafs lineup, and eventual re-emergence as an NHL superstar, is going to have a significant impact on the fortunes of the team. Most of that impact will help lift the Leafs...but there's always a little backlash, too.
Here's a look at some of Sundin's teammates who will be most affected by his return:
- Kyle Wellwood: No kidding, right? Considering that this 5-foot-10, 180-pound 22-year-old is in the NHL in the first place because of Sundin's injury, of course he's going to pay the price for the captain's comeback. Wellwood acquitted himself well in Sundin's absence. The native of Windsor, Ont., is a superb passer and playmaker, and wasn't afraid to skate into the danger zones. At the very least, he served notice that he intends to be a key contributor in the coming seasons. Wellwood collected three goals and 10 points in 14 games, including a goal and an assist against the Capitals on Sunday (when Sundin also was in the lineup). After playing less than four minutes against Tampa on Saturday (including being stapled to bench in the third period) in Sundin's return game, Wellwood had 11:25 in ice time against Washington. He'll make it tough for coach Pat Quinn to take him out of the lineup, but if Wellwood sits rather than starts, look for the Leafs to send him to the AHL Marlies. The kid needs to play, and he'd be better off feeding first-line wingers in the AHL than fourth-liners in the NHL.
- Eric Lindros: Lindros leads all Toronto forwards in average ice time this season, and actually played more than usual in Sundin's first two games back. No. 88 is getting about 19 minutes of ice time this year, including 21:11 against Tampa on Saturday and 19:06 versus the Caps on Sunday. Most of the time this season, Lindros has skated on a checking line with Tie Domi and Chad Kilger. So, it's not like Sundin is going to steal his wingers or anything. Really, Sundin should take some of the heat off Lindros, who hasn't scored in five straight contests after sniping seven goals in a seven-game span. And if Lindros sees a little more time with Darcy Tucker or even rookie Alex Steen (who may end up on a top line with Sundin), a few more goals might trickle the Leafs' way.
- Jeff O'Neill: The free agent left winger had four goals and nine points in 11 games playing with Jason Allison and Tucker - and three of those goals and four of those points came in one game, that 9-1 beating of Atlanta. In two games on Sundin's left side, O'Neill has three goals and an assist, plus an encouraging handful of close calls. As opposing defensemen are drawn to Sundin (who loves to hold the puck, then send a backhand pass to an open winger), O'Neill slinks to the open ice and waits for the feed. In the first two games, Sundin hasn't let him go hungry.
- Jason Allison: If speed kills, Allison has nothing to fear. But the Leafs didn't sign him to orbit the earth; they just want him to take care of the team's wingmen. And make no mistake, Allison has had some dominant shifts. He's got good on-ice vision, great hands and brilliant body control, resulting in two goals and 12 points in 15 games. Opponents will focus on shutting down Sundin, theoretically freeing up Allison to wreak havoc. On Saturday, with Sundin in the lineup, Allison skated with youngsters Matt Stajan and Steen while his usual linemates Tucker (with Lindros) and O'Neill (with Sundin) were on other units. With two assists in his past six games - none with Sundin in the lineup -Allison is sliding, and taking away his wingers and ice time won't help. He's averaging less than 15 minutes a game when Sundin plays, after skating more than 18 minutes per game in October.