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It’s draft week: The best draft the Leafs ever had happened in 1973

Brian Burke will be working hard this week to get back some of those lost draft choices. As he has often stressed, scouts work hard and he doesn’t want to see them twiddling their thumbs on draft day while every other team enjoys making the selections that give organizations renewed hope annually.

Toronto may-or may not- end up with any first-round picks at this summer’s draft, but there was a time when the Maple Leafs actually had three picks in the first round.

The year was 1973. And not only did the Leafs own three-first round picks, in those days, there were only 16 teams in the entire league, so the Leafs had three choices in the first 15 overall selections. Can you imagine how excited Leaf fans would be in this media-hyped era if they had that opportunity now?

Well, as a still relatively young and very keen Leaf supporter back then (I was 19 at the time) I was pumped about the Leafs having a chance to boost their fortunes.

At the time, they were coming off a poor season (1972-’73), a non-playoff year. They had literally lost key players from what had been a promising young squad in 1971. Gone were goalie (and future Hall-of-Famer) Bernie Parent, rugged center Jim Harrison, and defensemen Rick Ley and Brad Selwood. They were all key pieces, and when they walked, the Leafs were not prepared for the 1972-’73 season.

But despite owner Harold Ballard’s short-sightedness, General Manager Jim Gregory wisely made deals to acquire two extra first-round picks. I know one of the picks was acquired from Boston for Jacques Plante, a brilliant move by Gregory since Plante (who had been a excellent with the Leafs) Plante was at the end of his career and Boston was desperate for another goalie heading into the playoffs that year.

In any event, they drafted well.

They took Lanny McDonald fourth overall. McDonald was a strong-skating winger from western Canada, and while he struggled in his first two seasons in Toronto, he turned the corner as his confidence grew in his third season and he went on to a Hall-of-Fame career, winning a Cup with the Calgary Flames in 1989.

Bob Neely was taken 10th overall. He was a man among boys because of his size as a junior, though he never quite put it together in his career with Toronto. He had no confidence when he first arrived on the scene, and would have benefitted from significant time in the minors. He had skill, and every once in a while he would make a big hit, score a nice goal or make a great rush. But he lacked consistency and his conditioning was seemingly poor. Still, it’s hard to criticize the Leafs for that pick, as he was a highly-regarded junior. The Leafs just did a poor job developing what should have been a good talent.

Finally, the Leafs went after Ian Turnbull (pictured at right), who was a star with the old Montreal Junior Canadiens before playing his last amateur year with the Ottawa 67s and future Hall-of-Famer Denis Potvin. I saw Turnbull play a fair bit in his last year of junior and I thought he was as talented as Potvin. But he was nowhere near as mean or tough, and his lackadaisical effort through much of his pro career saw the divide grow wider and wider between he and Potvin as the years went on.

Leaf fans of the time remember that Turnbull peaked in the 1978 playoffs, but he was out of hockey by the early ‘80s while Potvin was helping to lead the Islanders to four Cups in a row.

I remember that 1973 draft very well. The media coverage was nowhere near what it is today, of course, but I relished picking up a copy of and reading the Globe & Mail’s “extensive” coverage the next day (two stories, I think it was, in the sports section) , and remember being thrilled that the Leafs got Turnbull, in particular. I thought he was a steal at 15.

That fall, the Leafs also brought in Swedish youngsters Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom, and the team was rebuilt in one fell swoop.

All five contributed from the get-go, and were part of the team going forward as they built toward being competitive in the latter part of the ‘70s. Unfortunately, the Flyers and Montreal had their number in the playoffs, and the Leafs won only one best-of-seven playoff series with those five as the nucleus.

But I’ll always remember the 1973 draft -- the day the Leafs had three picks in the top 15.

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