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Sundin to the Vancouver Canucks = Messier Era Revisited?

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When we heard of rookie Vancouver Canucks’ GM Mike Gillis’ offer of $20MM for Mats Sundin over a two-year deal, we immediately thought, “oh no, here we go again!”. The similarities to the Mark Messier fiasco of ’97-’00 were uncanny: in both cases the player involved was in the twilight of his career, in his late thirties, verging on retirement. Even the $20MM figure is the same (although in Mr. Messier’s case, the sum was spread over three long, unproductive and frustrating years, rather than the two being offered Mats Sundin (a one year deal is also on the table)).

You may recall Mr. Messier’s tenure with the Canucks: during his three years with Vancouver, the team failed to make the playoffs, the locker room was filled with turmoil and the team started bleeding money in an otherwise hockey-mad city. Then again, like us, you may have simply blocked it out of your memory.

Mr. Messier, who played 25 seasons in the NHL, posted his 21st, 20th and 18th worst seasons, respectively, during his three years with the Vancouver Canucks (as measured on an average points-per-game basis). Had he retired at the end of those dismal years, they would have been the worst years of his career (excluding his first season in the NHL). Fortunately, he peddled his dimishing services another four years to the New York Rangers (promising fans a playoff berth upon his signing there; alas, the Rangers went without a ticket to the dance for each of his final four years as Captain).

Mark Messier's three seasons with the Vancouver Canucks were among the worst in his career.

Mark Messier's three seasons with the Vancouver Canucks were among the worst in his career.

We’re hearing the same talk of Mr. Sundin’s leadership that we heard in the days before Mr. Messier was signed: Mats Sundin will bring the leadership, both on and off the ice, necessary to take the Canucks all the way to the Stanley Cup. Mark Messier has built quite a fiction around his supposed leadership abilities. In point of fact, during his final seven seasons, he was unable to lead his teams into the playoffs, let alone get anywhere near the Stanley Cup.

So, should we expect a repeat, another two seasons in the hockey wilderness, should Mats Sundin sign with Vancouver’s Canucks? There’s reason to think not.

Unlike Mark Messier, Mr. Sundin seems to be improving with age: a look at his stats gives lie to the notion he’s in the twilight of his career.

During his past three seasons with the hapless Toronto Maple Leafs, Mr. Sundin has posted the 3rd, 6th and 5th best numbers, respectively, of his 17 NHL seasons (again, on an average points-per-game basis). This coming not on a team with the likes of Alexander Mogilny and Pavel Bure in their prime (as Mr. Messier enjoyed (simultaneously!) while in Vancouver), but rather with a cast of teammates you’ll never see on a Hall of Fame ballot. In fact, if there’s one thing the Toronto Maple Leafs have excelled at since the storied days of Darryl Sittler, Börje Salming and Mike Palmateer, it’s assembling a roster of players that produce the odd situation of the sum being less than its parts.

Unlike Messier, Mats Sundin appears to be improving with age.

Unlike Messier, Mats Sundin appears to be improving with age.

Whether Mats Sundin will land in Vancouver (and get a shot at the once-in-a-lifetime chance to captain his country’s team on his home team’s rink in Vancouver’s 2010 Olympics) is something only Mr. Sundin is privy to at this point (Swedish media published a since-discredited report that he has joined the Cancuks). However if Mats Sundin does indeed sign with the Vancouver Canucks, there’s reason to hold out hope that his tenure in Vancouver will differ significantly from Mark Messier’s. For Canucks’ fans, that’s a very good thing indeed.