Toronto Maple Leafs Carlo Colaiacovo (right) congratulates Mats Sundin on his second period goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning in NHL action in Toronto, March 13, 2007. (CP/Adrian Wyld)
"I love being part of the organization, I love the challenge that is for this team to win a championship," Sundin said as he and his teammates cleaned out their lockers Monday. "The challenge of the Toronto Maple Leafs not winning the Stanley Cup since 1967 is a huge positive thing in my opinion for motivation to come back and get better every year."
As the post-mortem on Toronto's 40th spring without silver began Monday, the focus seemed to centre on Sundin's future. The 36-year-old Swede once again refuted nagging rumours that won't go away - that he might just pack it in this year and call it a career.
"I don't know where that's coming from," said the star centre. "I love playing here.
"Toronto is my home. I haven't had any other thoughts."
His teammates sure hope that's the case.
"He's our leader," said defenceman Bryan McCabe. "We need him back.
"He belongs in a Maple Leaf uniform. Hopefully he'll retire in the blue and white."
Goalie Andrew Raycroft can't imagine where his team would be without their captain.
"He means absolutely everything to this team," said Raycroft.
Sundin needs a new deal. His current contract carries a US$4.56-million club option for next season but a $6.33-million cap charge - because it's the average of a contract that counts against the salary cap - so the Leafs would rather decline the option and word is GM John Ferguson would like to sign Sundin to a new two-year extension that's more cap-friendly.
Sundin could force the issue and try greener pastures, but he doesn't sound as if he wants to.
"That's always been my feeling all season long - that I wanted to finish my career as a Maple Leaf," he said. "That's still the same."
Still, he won't deny that being out of the post-season for a second year in a row is hard to digest.
"Being 36 years old and missing the playoffs two years in a row this late in my career - that's tough," said Sundin. "In saying that, for the most part of this season I'm very proud of my own performance but as a group we've really fought adversity.
"We haven't had a full roster throughout the whole season. It's a bitter feeling knowing that I think we had a good enough team to do well in the playoffs."
Sundin isn't the only player looking for a new deal. Winger Alexei Ponikarovsky will be a restricted free agent this summer while Nik Antropov, Bates Battaglia, Boyd Devereaux, Travis Green, Jeff O'Neill, Michael Peca and Yanic Perreault are unrestricted free agents. They won't all be back.
Forwards signed for next season are Matt Stajan, Alex Steen, John Pohl, Darcy Tucker, Kyle Wellwood, Kris Newbury and Chad Kilger.
On defence, McCabe, Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Kubina, Hal Gill, Wade Belak and Andy Wozniewski are all under contract while Ian White and Carlo Colaiacovo are restricted free agents.
In goal, Raycroft will enter the second season of a three-year deal while backup J.S. Aubin is unrestricted.
Raycroft has been the lightning rod for fans' frustration in Toronto throughout the season despite tying a franchise record for wins by a goalie. The 26-year-old netminder said he isn't bothered that the lasting image of his season might be getting pulled in Saturday's regular-season finale versus Montreal.
"Obviously, you don't want that to happen but at the same time I had 37 wins this year," said Raycroft. "Being in this city, I know there's going to be a lot analysed in the next week . . . but the bottom line is that there's not many people that plays goalie in the National Hockey League that get 37 wins in a year - top 10 in the league. I'm happy with that.
"I would have liked to have had 16 more (wins) in the playoffs but it is what it is."