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There is one thing that has not changed with the post-lockout Toronto Maple Leafs -- the annual question of who will play the wings with Mats Sundin.

It is also a question the team has never been able to answer satisfactorily in the 11 years (has it really been that long?) that Sundin has been a Maple Leaf. If the team found one winger to stick for a while, say Gary Roberts on his left, then the other side was always a problem.

Far too often over the years, Sundin found himself playing with the likes of Derek King, Sergei Berezin, Todd Warriner, Jonas Hoglund and Mikael Renberg. It was like pairing Secretariat with Mr. Ed in a tag-team horse race or telling Sam Cooke he had to sing harmony with Alanis Morrisette.

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When Roberts and Alexander Mogilny, a sometime winger for Sundin, decamped as free agents, once again the issue became a double-barrelled question. At this point, Leafs head coach Pat Quinn has not settled on a pair of wingers for his No. 1 centre. Twin towers Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky, who enjoyed a brief but shining run between Joe Nieuwendyk, another departee, in the 2003-04 season, played well beside Sundin in last night's 4-3 exhibition win over the Montreal Canadiens at the Air Canada Centre.

Sundin happens to be one of those supremely talented players with the ability to make those around him look better, which can be a curse as much as a blessing if your team is chronically short of good wingers over the years.

Among this year's candidates, Antropov and rookie Alexander Steen are the most suitable wingers for the Leaf captain. Both are the kind of player who should work well with Sundin, a great puck-handler who can get it to those smart enough and fast enough to find the openings.

Steen may not have made the team yet, and he may have grown up as a centre, but the 21-year-old has turned many heads with his creativity and hockey smarts. While Sundin is not the type of person who would ever make his preferences public, those who know him say that if you tied him down and played Abba CDs until he cracked, Sundin would admit Steen is his top choice as a winger.

This goes beyond the fact Steen is a fellow Swede whom Sundin has taken under his wing. The youngster is an excellent skater who is a wizard with the puck and who can play well along the boards, all things that mesh with Sundin.

At first glance, throwing a rookie on the first line puts too much pressure on him, but this could work out to the advantage of both Sundin and Steen. Sundin will be the focus of any checking effort, so Steen will receive less attention than if he were the centre on another line.

At the same time, Sundin will have a skilled player to work with to counter the checking.

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Roberts, for all the energy and physical play he brought to Sundin's line, was somewhat lacking in those areas. Sometimes, all Roberts worried about was plastering an opponent into the boards, which was not always necessary when Sundin had the puck and was looking for someone to get open.

Then there was Hoglund, whose only association with bodychecking was on the receiving end. He could not skate well enough to get to the openings, so it is no coincidence that the best both he and Roberts managed as Sundin's wingers were 29 goals in one season.

If Antropov can recapture the physical edge he showed at times in previous seasons, then he will be a good fit on the right side. He is also a good passer, something that plays well with Sundin, who likes the give-and-go.

It looks as though Quinn is considering Antropov seriously for the job, but only if he looks capable of a breakthrough season. He is now 25, a make-or-break age for hockey players. Last night's performance has him on the make-it side, although a few boo-birds among the fans would disagree.

Someone like Ponikarovsky cannot be dismissed, either, even though he managed a grand total of nine goals in the season he spent partly with Nieuwendyk. If he is good enough to play with Sundin for short stretches, and he certainly looked all of that last night, then it gives Quinn another look he can use to keep opposing teams off balance.

There are a couple of prominent wingers who are not likely to wind up with Sundin. If the fans had a choice, Steve Thomas would be there.

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He was Sundin's winger from 1998 to 2001 and is trying for a third stint as a Leaf at the age of 42. But even if he makes the team, the best Thomas can hope for is spot duty with Sundin.

Jeff O'Neill is a better bet at the age of 29, although he may not be the type of player to mesh with Sundin. O'Neill is a shooter who needs a centre to hold on to the puck and move it up the ice while he gets into position for a shot. That could be Jason Allison by the time the season starts.

dshoalts@globeandmail.ca

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