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Original Issue


Time to Let Go
The Maple Leafs' new G.M. should speed the rebuilding process by trading beloved captain Mats Sundin

IF CLIFF FLETCHER is to crown his Hall of Fame career in hockey management by righting the Maple Leafs, he'll need to get cracking. It's no coincidence that Fletcher, 72, was appointed as Toronto's interim general manager on Jan. 22, just five weeks before the trade deadline. He replaces John Ferguson Jr., whose benighted four-year reign has left the Leafs headed for a third straight season of no playoffs, short on NHL talent, bereft of prospects and saddled with cumbersome, cap-eating contracts. Fletcher, whose term will expire in August 2009, plans to spend a couple of weeks sorting through the mess before charting a plan of action—"The idea is simply to take the initial steps," he says—but it is clear that the plan must include trading the team's longtime leader and captain, Mats Sundin.

That won't be easy, logistically or emotionally. Sundin, set to be an unrestricted free agent at season's end, has a no-trade clause and recently said that "a move is not on my agenda. The Maple Leafs jersey, well, is special to me." He is beloved by Toronto's discerning fans and also dear to Fletcher, who during an earlier stint as Leafs G.M. acquired Sundin from the Nordiques in 1994. Sundin, the franchise leader in goals and points, is arguably the greatest Maple Leaf ever.

Though he will turn 37 this month, the 6'5", 231-pound Sundin remains a marvelous player, possessing an alloy of attributes—strength, speed, supple hands and a persistency of effort—that has hardly weakened over time. Last week in Toronto's first game under Fletcher, a 3--2 win against Washington, Sundin set up the team's second goal with an impudent, backhanded wraparound attempt, then scored the game-winner in the final minute when he bulled to the net to knock in a bounding puck. The nine-time All-Star center, who has 54 points in 51 games this season, certainly would have been selected for Sunday's showcase in Atlanta if he hadn't asked for the weekend off.

Still, if Toronto is to begin to replenish its talent base, Sundin must go. He has conceded that if pressed by management, he'd be willing to "sit down and talk about" waiving his no-trade clause; Fletcher must initiate that conversation because he has few other chips. Potentially marketable veterans such as forward Darcy Tucker and defenseman Bryan McCabe also have no-trade clauses given to them by Ferguson and, regardless, would not bring nearly the return that Sundin might. Any of the Western Conference's top contenders—Anaheim, Detroit, San Jose—makes sense as a destination for Sundin, and the Ducks might be especially enticing to Fletcher as a trade partner because Anaheim has both young NHL talent (winger Bobby Ryan, for one) and Edmonton's first-round selection in the upcoming draft, a potential lottery pick.

Fletcher swears he won't engage in the unseemly insider trading that in recent years has seen impending free agents such as Keith Tkachuk (Blues to the Thrashers) and Mark Recchi (Penguins to the Hurricanes) accept trade-deadline deals, apparently with the private understanding that they would re-sign with their original teams after the season. What Fletcher does say is that "to trade Mats, it would have to be extremely beneficial to the Maple Leafs in the short term and the long term."

He should forget the short term—the current Leafs are unsalvageable. But dealing Sundin could be the beginning of a better future in Toronto, and that has to be Fletcher's priority.

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 SIGNINGOFF? Sundin, who has a no-trade clause, would have to agree to bedealt.