TORONTO — Paul Maurice says the Toronto Maple Leafs need Mats Sundin more than ever now.
With the team a non-playoff failure for the third year in a row, which hadn’t happened to the franchise since 1928, some fans are screaming for a total overhaul. Sundin will be an unrestricted free agent July 1 and some say it’s time to let him go.
The head coach disagrees.
Maurice, who might not be in the Leafs employ once a new general manager is hired, led into his reasoning on Sundin by saying his team has left itself open to ridicule because of disappointing season after disappointing season.
“When you lose, all things are wrong, and that’s where we’re at – three years without making the playoffs,” Maurice said during a news conference Monday. “This is not a statement on the media but there’s a fair amount of negative tone to (coverage of) the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“When you’re making the cover of national magazines, it’s easy to say, ‘You stink.’ That’s now almost a sign of intelligence if you can say something nasty about the Maple Leafs. But we’re in that environment and, because of that, all things are wrong.
“The GM’s got to go, the coach has got to go, the captain has to go, all the players have to go, you have to blow everything up. That is certainly something we’ve put out there by losing.”
Getting around to Sundin, Maurice couldn’t say enough positive things about the captain.
“Mats Sundin is a fine a man as you will ever meet,” he said. “He’s got a track record of what he says he means, which is a little bit rare at times.
“Maybe now, more than ever, it’s more important that he’s here. Because of the example that he brings, going forward with younger players coming in and so much of a change, you’ve got one man in that room who knows exactly how to carry himself as the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“My feeling on him is that he’s more valuable to this franchise today than maybe at any other point because he has to be the light for this team going forward.”
Maurice says he’s not a bundle of nerves as he awaits the hiring of the new GM and thus the determination of his future.
“It’s not as difficult as you might think being that I’ve grown up in this game,” he said. “It’s a rumour.
“It’s going to be out there from now until the time the next general manager is hired and it’ll be talked about and contemplated. The things that went well will be talked about occasionally and the things didn’t go well will be talked about repeatedly and the new guy will come in and take a look at the hockey club and make a decision on where they think they want to go.”
He declined to knock the underachieving skaters in his lineup by name. That’s a matter between him and the players, he said.
“I still have a higher opinion of this hockey team than I think everybody else does, which doesn’t relate to our finish very well,” he said. “The easy thing for me to do would be to come out and say, ‘These are the things that we need to fix.”‘
The Leafs have “some good developing mid-range players who are going to be very good Toronto Maple Leafs.”
He offered Matt Stajan, Alex Steen and Ian White as examples.
“Then a couple of the young kids came in and gave you a little bit of hope,” he added. “So that’s a real strong positive, and we’ve got a goaltender. He’ll be good here for a long time.”
A 13-game stretch in the middle of the winter did the Leafs in, he said.
“We didn’t survive that stretch and that was clearly, looking back on it, the death knell.”
It has been reported that Jason Blake is critical of the way he was used. Maurice wouldn’t shoot back.
“If I have any concerns with players’ performance, I have those conversations directly face to face with them,” he said. “I’d leave it at that.
“I know he played with four different centremen. We would have liked to have found someone he was very comfortable with in playing. He had a career year in assists. I’m clearly disappointed in his goals production output. That will be an important issue for this hockey club – to find the pieces that fit with the right people, especially in the top six (forwards).”
It was an off year for Darcy Tucker, and for Bryan McCabe, too.
“For Bryan, it was a very, very difficult year,” said Maurice. “He got off to real tough start and drew the attention of the fans, which I don’t think was easy for him by any means.
“His first injury set him back. There were a block of games between injuries when I think he played better hockey than at any time of the year prior. But, clearly, after he came back off his injuries . . . the end of the season was very difficult for him.”
Being the Leafs’ highest-paid player, earning more than US$7 million this season, was a factor.
“When defencemen get big contracts it puts more focus on their offensive production, and when that falls off that’s what is pointed at,” said Maurice. “Clearly, when you pay somebody that much money they have to put pucks in the net and they have to produce numbers.”
Maurice will keep an eye on the playoffs and the world tournament, and he’ll attend games played by the Toronto Marlies AHL farm team.
“It’s nearly impossible to go cold turkey on hockey,” he said.
When his fate is determined, he’ll stay or coach somewhere else. Life will go on.