Steve Sullivan's comeback from a major back injury was recognized Thursday as one of the most feel-good stories of the 2008-09 NHL season, when he was named one of three finalists for the Masterton Trophy.
However, the free agent-to-be also guaranteed that the issue of whether or not he will come back to the Nashville Predators next season will be one of the most-discussed local sports issues of the next week.
Even as he expressed great affection for the area and the relationships he has established since he was acquired in a trade a little more than five years ago, Sullivan made it clear that his return is anything but certain. First-and-foremost the 34-year-old stressed that his primary goal is to try to win a Stanley Cup, and he suggested that his desire to re-sign will be directly affected by what — if any — other moves the franchise might make.
“Do we have a chance to win here?” he said. “I think we have an unbelievable core of players here, and I think to build around it would be outstanding and a great chance to win. Do (I) take a chance and stay here, or does someone take a chance on me somewhere else?”
He did acknowledge that trying to gauge Cup contenders from one season to the next is particularly challenging during the salary cap era.
Detroit, for example, became the first defending champion in seven years to make it out of the first round when it swept Columbus last week. At the same time, though, San Jose finished with the best record in the Western Conference this season but was knocked out in the first round by Anaheim.
“Trying to pick your team and say who’s going to be the winner is going to be pretty much impossible to do,” Sullivan said. “I just know I’m on the tail end of my career. I’m not on the front end, so giving myself the best chance I can every year is the most important thing.
“Is it here? It could be.”
Then again, given his age and his health concerns, this likely is his last chance to sign a hefty contract. Plus, he is a proven offensive performer, and those types of players often command the most money on the open market.
Upon his return to the lineup, Sullivan played in 41 of the Predators’ final 42 games and eventually regained his offensive form. He had 27 points in his final 25 appearances, including a goal and two assists in the regular-season finale.
“There’s a lot of what-ifs,” he noted. “There’s too many what-ifs to talk about. What do people think about how long my back is going to hold out? Do you look at that side or do you look at the fact that I was able to put a point a game up for the last 23 or 25 games? It’s going to depend on both sides.”
Sullivan has met once with General Manager David Poile, in what both parties called a superficial discussion. Poile did make it known that if Sullivan decides to test the free agent market, which begins July 1, the team would not wait for the player to weigh other offers before it seeks other options of its own.
They agreed to meet again sometime in mid-May for a more substantive exchange of ideas and information and to maintain communication for the next two months.
“In my meeting with David, the team didn’t have a budget yet, so we couldn’t even negotiate,” Sullivan said. “It’s not like I’m just telling everybody I want to wait and see. There’s a process, and we’re going through it.
“Once David comes back, we can start talking numbers.”
The Masterton Trophy is presented annually to the player who “best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.” The other two finalists are Florida forward Richard Zednik and Detroit defenseman Chris Chelios.
Zednik had his carotid artery accidentally sliced by a teammate’s skate during a game in the 2007-08 season. He lost five pints of blood and required emergency surgery, but returned and played 64 games this season.
Chelios has played 1,460 career NHL games, the fourth highest total in league history, and is one of three players ever to appear in 25 NHL seasons.
The winner will be announced the NHL Awards Banquet, June 18 in Las Vegas.