Friday December 19th, 2008

At last, our long national nightmare is over.

After months of baseless blather about where he might sign -- or if he would even play at all -- the summer's last marquee free agent has hopped off the fence and into an NHL lineup.

Christmas came early for the Vancouver Canucks, the team that put us all out of our misery. The bait: a check reported to be worth about $6 million for a little more than half the season. Nice work if you can get it.

Mats Sundin certainly could have stuffed a few million more under his mattress if he'd chosen to sign earlier. Or he could have taken less to play with a club with tighter finances but a better shot at the Stanley Cup.

But at 37, Sundin has earned the right to pick his spot and his bounty. He owed nothing to no one, and if he felt he'd had enough of training camps and preseason and the early grind, who can blame him? The NHL has no set a signing deadline, so he was entitled to let things play out exactly as they did, no matter how stultifying the drama of it all became.

Apparently, it came down to the Canucks and the Rangers, with the Cup-less Sundin wanting to go to the team that gave him the best chance to win it. He realized that it wasn't the Blueshirts. Despite the presence of Henrik Lundqvist, arguably the best goalie in hockey, the Rangers are doomed by a porous defense, and their 27th-ranked offense would have been gutted in order to slip Sundin's deal under their salary cap. Wisely, he recognized that his arrival could have made a bad situation worse.

No such problem for the Canucks, thanks to some fairly astute planning by GM Mike Gillis. In fact Gillis, who had basically left a candle burning in the window for Sundin since July 1, still has a couple million left to play with -- an ideal situation should the decision be made to airlift in some last-minute reinforcements to complement the team's new arrival.

And once Sundin joins the lineup -- he's in excellent shape and should be available shortly after joining the team on Dec. 27 -- the matter of adding the final pieces for a serious run becomes a front-burner issue for Gillis, the rookie GM who deserves high praise for playing his cards like a vet.

Gillis won't need many more pieces. Already blessed with an excellent blueline (when healthy), Vancouver now has what looks to be a solid forward corps. Not an elite group, but nicely balanced, with two legitimate scoring lines, a high-end shutdown unit led by Ryan Kesler, and some energetic depth.

Assume for a moment that Sundin skates on a top line with Pavol Demitra and Kyle Wellwood, a player that Sundin might have trouble recognizing if you consider how nicely Wellwood has developed since the two last played together in Toronto. Not on par with Thornton/Marleau/Setoguchi, but it's a nice group with some strength, creativity and finish. That leaves the Sedins to form a second offensive unit with Steve Bernier, Taylor Pyatt or Mason Raymond ... or a new addition. The twins should be more effective facing a lighter checking load, and will give the Canucks the reliable secondary scoring they've been missing for the past couple seasons.

Once Roberto Luongo returns to health (we're still weeks away from that, apparently), things should get interesting. You wouldn't look at this roster and put it on the same level as the Sharks or Red Wings, but that doesn't really matter. Upsets are a fact of life in the NHL playoffs, and with Luongo in net and more firepower than Vancouver has had in years, anything's possible.

Contenders? Absolutely. But recognize this: the Sundin the Canucks just bought is playing the back nine of his career. He's not the savior, nor will his impact match the hype generated by 13 years of playing under the grateful eyes of the Toronto media. But he can be a solid piece of the puzzle. Overhyped or not, his addition makes the Canucks a more dangerous team than they were yesterday. And if nothing else, it spares us from another day of pondering his future.

So, did you hear that Peter Forsberg says he's healthy and wants to play again? Ooh, I wonder who he'll sign with?

Welcome back, Otter. Thursday's 6-5 shootout thriller over Columbus gave Dallas its first two-game winning streak of the season, and while Loui Eriksson enhanced his All-Star credentials with his first career hat trick, the real stars on the night were Steve Ott and Joel Lundqvist. The two bangers returned to the lineup after a combined 32 games on the IR and completely changed the energy level of a club that had sunk into last place in the west. In their absence, the Stars had devolved into a decidedly meek bunch that seemed all too willing to turn the other cheek rather than engage the opposition. Their leashes removed, Ott and Lundqvist stirred the pot early and often in an entertaining match that saw 81 hits recorded. It's premature to call this a course-changer for the Stars, but if they keep up this style they'll have an easier time of enticing crowds larger than the 8,000 to 10,000 that have been showing up of late, and that could have an impact on how much Tom Hicks decides to spend next season. . .

The loss to the Stars was a tough one for the Blue Jackets, who thought they'd won the game early in OT after a rebound bounced off Manny Malhotra's skate and past Marty Turco. The league's war room judged that a distinct kicking motion had powered the puck into the net, and while there's ample ground for argument there, you have to give the eyes in the sky credit for consistency. The Stars were victimized by a similarly questionable call that negated a Brenden Morrow strike in Game 5 of the playoffs last year against the Sharks. Still, that gray area is a source of increasing frustration, and has some folks wondering whether there needs to be a more concrete rule that simply negates any goal that goes in off a skate or allows them universally. Given a choice, and considering how most puck-off-the-skate goals are scored, I'd support the latter. . .

Jason Spezza to Edmonton? On the surface, the rumors suggesting that this deal could happen make sense. The Oilers have a surplus of puck-moving defenders and young offensive talent -- exactly what the struggling Senators could use. But Spezza's pass-pass-pass style doesn't do much to address Edmonton's obvious need for a shooter who also brings a big bag of knuckles to the front of the net. Don't look for this one to happen.

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