Part of the fun of being a fan is that we all have our own memories, our own opinions, and our own personal favorites.
Top 10 lists are always fun, and since I developed the Vintage Leaf site I’ve been thinking about who the players are who have been, in my opinion, the ‘best’ Leafs over the past 50 years since I’ve been following the club.
I’ve tried to think in terms of talent, leadership, longevity with Toronto and their overall impact in Toronto.
Again, this is my view only. Readers of this site will certainly have their own thoughts. This “Top ten”, for my purposes, has been based primarily on the above criteria. While I’ve tried not to be unduly influenced by players who were personal favorites, I can’t deny that might have played a role, as long as the player was also a great performer.
Here, then, are my “Top Ten” Leafs from the last 50 years:
1) Dave Keon - Not an original choice, I realize. I’ve written about Keon previously on this site, and I will in future, so I won’t belabor the point. Yes, he was a favorite of mine so I am biased, but for 15 years, he was a consistent Leaf. Not the best scorer, not the best playmaker, but if you add everything up that it takes to be a great NHL player, he had (as former coach and longtime analyst Harry Neale has said about Keon) more of those qualities than any Leaf I’ve seen. He was one of the fastest players in his generation, a marvelous forechecker, a good penalty killer, excellent when it mattered on face-offs and a tremendous clutch player. He wasn’t a shot-blocker or body checker. His game was about anticipation, speed and angles. Arguments can be made about whether he was a great “leader”, but he certainly led by his on-ice example.
2) Johnny Bower – We sometimes overstate how great a player is “under pressure” or in “big games”. Sometimes it’s accurate, sometimes good fortune helps create a player’s legacy (as in whether a shot hits the post, or goes in). In any event, I remember Bower as a goalie who just kept coming back, who played with injuries, who was a leader on a club that won 4 Cups in 7 years. You did not win a Cup in those days without brilliant goaltending. He was superb and his teammates knew they could count on Bower. A classic old-style, stand-up goalie with tremendous reflexes.
3) Bert Olmstead- I don’t rank Olmstead here because he was a great player with the Leafs. It’s not like he played tons of minutes or scored a lot. But when he joined Toronto from Montreal in the late 50s, he brought a winning mentality, an attitude that helped drive the team to success. He was part of the ’62 Cup winner, a grinding, tough winger who influenced many of those around him. I would argue that he helped shape a dressing room attitude, even after he was gone, that helped win the next 3 Stanley Cups.
5) Carl Brewer – Tim Horton was stronger, Bobby Baun was tougher, and Alan Stanley perhaps better defensively, but when I look back at old Leaf games now, I appreciate Brewer all the more. He was a dirty player, a bit cheap in his tactics at times, and like a modern-day Claude Lemieux, wouldn’t back it up with his fists. But he was excellent skater and passer, smart and skilled. He helped the Leafs win 3 Cups in a row.
6) Mats Sundin - I don’t have to tell current Leaf fans Sundin was a gifted talent who scored a lot of big goals in the regular season—and playoffs—in 15 years with the Leafs. Like the Salming-Sittler era, there was no championship during his time with the club, but that should not diminish his legacy. Strong on the puck, he rarely played with elite wingers and made players around him better, the sign of a great player. And, he did it in Toronto for a long time, through good times and bad.
7) Darryl Sittler – Hard to argue against Sittler as a leader and power forward who did a tremendous job for more than 10 years in Toronto. I never felt he was as good on the road in the playoffs as he was at home, but that’s just my opinion, and again, his teammates would likely disagree strongly. He was tough, a strong skater, was a playmaker who worked the corners and could score, obviously. And unlike Bobby Clarke, he didn’t rely on others to take care of him. He could – and did – fight his own battles.
8) Bob Pulford – Gritty center who scored some huge goals and was a strong defensive player for Toronto throughout much of the 50s and 60s. A smart player, he brought a bit of everything- toughness, penalty-killing ability and dependability. I’ll never forget his last second short-handed breakaway goal in game 1 of the 1964 Stanley Cup finals against Detroit. That play reflected the kind of attributes he usually played with: a willingness to stick his nose in there, anticipation, and the ability to finish when it mattered.
9) George Armstrong – By all accounts Armstrong was a respected captain and leader of the hockey club that won 4 Cups in the 60s. While not a physically imposing man (he was tall but a bit on the slight slide, probably never lifted weights…) he was hard on the puck and won a lot of battles in the corners and along the boards. He was a guy who played more than 20 years, and proved you don’t have to be a speedster to be invaluable.
10) Dick Duff – Duff was such a tremendous player. Fast, shifty, fiery. He should never have been traded in 1964, in my view. A big-game player in Toronto, he demonstrated that in Montreal too, helping them win 4 Cups later in the 60s.
Many good, deserving players are not on this list. Wendell Clark, at his best (an example being the 1993 playoffs) was a rugged forward, an impact player with a tremendous wrist shot. He brought a physical dimension that the Leafs badly needed. But to me he was a bit like Frank Mahovlich, in that there were times he seemed uninvolved and disinterested. Time on the injury list prevented him from having a longer, even better career with the Leafs.
Speaking of Mahovlich, if talent was the only criteria, or assessing a player only when he was at his best, he’d be on my list. I’m just not sure he brought his “A” game enough nights over the years he was in Toronto. But what a great player. Big shot, a fine skater who could play, when so moved, with a physical edge.
Lanny McDonald should probably be on the list, too. I loved the way he performed once his game took off during the 1975-’76 season. He could hit and score. But he spent less than half his career with the Leafs.
In more recent times, Gary Roberts was an impact player, tough as nails in his short time with Toronto, but again, he was a player who spent a lot of time with other teams.
Others? Tim Horton built a well-earned reputation as an outstanding all-around defenseman for more than 15 years for Toronto. My only criticism is he took an awful lot of penalties because he would be beaten by opposing forwards, especially later in his career with Toronto when he seemed to have lost a step. But there’s no doubt he was a major factor in Toronto’s success in the 1960s. He’d be on a lot of people’s list, I’m sure.
Paul Henderson would no doubt have support from some Leaf fans. But while we can’t discount his work with Team Canada in 1972, when I look at his time with the Leafs, I remember a nice player, but not a guy who is one of the “ten best” over a 50-year time frame.
Similarly, I have great admiration for what Ron Ellis brought to work every day with Toronto. Again, I don’t quite see him as an “all-time” list kind of impact player. But he was, and is, a great reflection on the game and the Leafs.
I certainly look forward to your posts on this fun subject.