It's time for Mats Sundin, Leafs to part ways

The time has come to bid the big Swede adieu.

After almost a dozen years in blue and white, nine of those years as captain, Mats Sundin should move on. It is time for the elegant center and it is time for his struggling franchise.

If Sundin remains with the Toronto Maple Leafs beyond the Feb. 27 trade deadline, he will be doomed to finish out his career in frustration and mediocrity, ensuring the same fate to the Leafs and their legions of fans.

With the deadline looming, the team and those legions of fans will point to the standings and say, "Hey, wait a minute! Why would we trade our captain and our best player? We're in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, two points out of eighth; and once you make the playoffs, anything can happen."

These things are true -- they just don't apply to the Leafs.

This is an average team beset by injuries and plagued by inconsistent goaltending. Is Andrew Raycroft going to morph into Dwayne Roloson? Or Ryan Miller? Or Cam Ward? No.

If the Leafs squeak into the playoffs, and that's the only way they're getting in, they are almost certain to be waxed in the first round by Buffalo, Atlanta or New Jersey, the three best teams in the conference. That is going to happen whether Sundin is in the lineup or not.

The Leafs are still aching from their perpetual disregard for drafting and player development in the years (some would say decades) leading up to the lockout. There are signs the team understands the new landscape and young talent is being produced from within, but not in large enough numbers to ensure the team can be a contender anytime soon.

Sundin will turn 36 two weeks before the trade deadline. He is still a force, a point-per-game player who possesses a great shot and is difficult to contain. Still, he is not the man who will lead the Leafs to the promised land. Not now.

Sundin's contract will expire at the end of the season. The Leafs have a club option for 2007-08, but the problem is that picking it up means a $6.33 million cap hit (even though the actual payment to Sundin is about $2 million less). Sundin, who has a no-trade clause in his contract, would like to earn more in real dollars, and the Leafs would like to have more cap room. It's likely the two could come to an arrangement, something in the $5 million range for next season. But to what end?

The Leafs have already locked in defensemen Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina at a collective cost of $15 million for next season and beyond. With roughly one-third of the team's salary cap devoted to three players, the Leafs simply can't afford to have a 36-year-old as their top forward. That $5 million, along with other cap room Toronto has, would be better spent pursuing younger, more productive players, such as Daniel Briere, Chris Drury and Ryan Smyth, who all are set to become unrestricted free agents this summer.

If the Leafs decided to move Sundin to a contender, however, the return would be high.
At least four (maybe six or seven) teams would like to add a quality center, including Atlanta, Detroit and the New York Rangers. Anaheim and San Jose, as much to prevent such a player from falling into enemy hands, might also be interested in a player of Sundin's pedigree.

With centers Mike Comrie and Craig Conroy off the market, and so many question marks surrounding Peter Forsberg's health, Sundin would be the most sought-after asset at the deadline. A first-round draft pick, a legitimate prospect and possibly a roster player could be had for his services.

The Leafs would be another step closer to the future and Sundin would be a lot closer to the Stanley Cup that has eluded him thus far in his career. Remember, even though Sundin has played 1,201 regular-season games, and another 83 postseason games, he has never played in the Stanley Cup finals.

In many ways, this is a defining moment for both Sundin and Leafs GM John Ferguson.

There is the perception, correct or not, Ferguson will be dismissed if the Leafs don't make the playoffs -- if not at the end of this season, then at the end of next season, when his contract is up.

Does Ferguson play it safe by trying to sneak into the playoffs, and thus improving his job security? Or does he look big picture and build his team for the future? One has to imagine that if it's the latter, other owners will take notice; such a bold move would be rewarded with another shot in another city if Ferguson is ultimately dismissed in Toronto.

As for Sundin, as much as he likes Toronto and has become the face of the storied franchise, does he agree to a trade that helps the team move forward while giving himself a chance to play on the league's grandest stage?

Such a move makes sense on so many levels. Now, it remains to be seen if both sides have the guts to get it done.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.