Wednesday January 9th, 2008

The absolute last thing that Toronto Maple Leafs general manager John Ferguson, Jr. wants to do is trade Mats Sundin.

It was Ferguson after all who promised his bosses -- apparently with a straight face -- that the Leafs would be a playoff team this season. And while they haven't exactly flourished with the nearly 37-year-old Swede in the lineup, the Leafs would quiver before the might of the Lightning and Capitals without him. Trading the centerpiece of the franchise would be akin to running up the white flag on the season. And that would all but guarantee the end of Ferguson's checkered tenure.

At least that's the way it looks on the surface. Because if Ferguson wants to justify his continued employment and save the franchise, auctioning his star center is exactly what he should do. And the sooner, the better.

Even at his advanced age, Sundin is in the midst of a remarkable season. He stands 12th in the scoring race, his 20 goals and 48 points putting him on pace for his most productive offensive campaign in more than a decade. Unless Atlanta decides to move Marian Hossa, Sundin would be the premier rental on the market and, in a season of parity, could be the player who tilts the balance squarely in favor of the team that acquires him.

Of course, the honor of adding the impending free agent won't come without considerable expense. Consider the rate of return on last season's rentals. Nashville coughed up Scottie Upshall, Ryan Parent and a pair of picks for a few weeks of the wonky-ankled Peter Forsberg. Ryan Smyth cost the Islanders two past and one future first rounder for all of 23 games and a first-round playoff exit. Even Keith Tkachuk attracted a first-, second- and third- rounder for St. Louis...and he's back wearing the blue note this season for a much-improved team.

As long as Ferguson doesn't go the route of Mike O'Connell -- the ex-Boston GM who apparently thought he was tendering a government contract when he accepted San Jose's low bid for Joe Thornton -- he can't afford not to deal with treasure like that to be plundered.

For his part, Sundin has professed a desire to remain in Toronto, even to the point of shooting down any rental gig elsewhere, but that's just the posturing of a good solider. He knows he has no chance of winning a Cup with the Leafs, a realization that had to play into his thinking when he signed a one-year deal last summer. Being a smart guy, Sundin received a no-trade clause as part of the package, which means he can pick the destination of his choice...and then follow the route pioneered by Doug Weight, who returned to the Blues just months after winning the Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes.

That's the ideal scenario for Ferguson and the player. The trick will be finding another GM ready to play cards. In a seller's market, the cost for Sundin is likely to be higher than what teams paid last spring, and as every team but Anaheim learned, no guarantees come with those deals.

Any package has to start with a high-end prospect, a solid depth player and two high picks. Honestly, it might take more than that. So who might be willing to ante up?

That's the million-dollar question...or maybe the two-million-dollar question, depending on when the deal is made. Almost every legitimate contender is capable of assuming the remainder of Sundin's $5.5 million salary with a tweak or two to their own lineup, and that could incite a healthy bidding war.

Anaheim has struggled to score all season long and has some enticing booty, including Edmonton's first-rounder this year and Bobby Ryan, the second overall pick in 2005 behind Sidney Crosby. But the Ducks are right up against the cap, and would have to move a regular, likely a defenseman, to clear space. Teemu Selanne's status, likely to be finalized in the next week or so, will determine if they're in the running.

With their Team Sweden East motif and strong playoff chances, the Red Wings would certainly be enticing to Sundin. Whether Ken Holland is interested in taking another chance after getting burned by last season's Todd Bertuzzi deal is another question. Odds are that the Wings will stay out of the bidding, but if they go all in, they'd have to offer either Jakub Kindl or Brendan Smith, along with Jiri Hudler and picks.

The chance to play with the Sedin Twins and old running mate Markus Naslund might make Vancouver an equally appealing notion to Sundin. The Canucks would be most interested in moving goalie Cory Schneider, whose path is blocked for the next decade by Roberto Luongo. With Justin Pogge down on the farm, the Leafs probably would prefer a deal that was built around defenseman Luc Bourdon and center Pat White.

Brett Hull has promised Mike Modano that he'd try to get him a winger, and the addition of Sundin would elevate Dallas' chances in the West. But former GM Doug Armstrong emptied the cupboard with a pair of ill-advised deals last spring, leaving few chips for his successors. The Stars would likely have to part with Niklas Grossman and James Neal to appeal to the Leafs, and that may be too rich for their blood.

Ferguson has ties to San Jose -- his late father was the team's head of scouting -- and the Sharks have failed all year long to find secondary scoring behind Joe Thornton. A perfect match? Maybe. San Jose has plenty of assets, including defensemen Ty Wishart and Nick Petrecki, or centers Logan Couture and Torrey Mitchell, any of whom would be appealing to the Leafs.

The dark horse might be the New Jersey Devils. GM Lou Lamoriello's never been shy about pulling the trigger on a big deal, and he knows Martin Brodeur's best-by date is fast approaching. With his team finally buying into coach Brent Sutter's game plan, the Devils are a legitimate threat to advance out of the East. Their package likely would center around 2005 first-rounder Nicklas Bergfors, along with World Junior hero Matt Halischuk and picks. That might do the trick.

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