I lived through a lot of the era, so I’m among those who loved old “Original Six” hockey. Yet the truth is, other than the “Flying Frenchmen” of Montreal and sometimes the offensive-minded Black Hawks of Bobby Hull, Pierre Pilotte and Stan Mikita, it was often not exactly exciting hockey, by modern standards. The pace was generally pretty slow compared with what we see nowadays.
It was just a very different game. Oh, you still had some guys who could fly, like Hull, Henri Richard, Ralph Backstrom, long-time Leaf Dave Keon (pictured at right), Yvan Cournoyer and Bobby Orr when he joined the league in 1966 but they were the exception. Later, Gilbert Perreault and Guy Lafleur in the ‘70s led a new generation of players who could really skate, and the evolution of the game continued.
(I was recently watching a game from the 1965-‘66 season between the Leafs and the Bruins pre-Orr. While I always enjoy the old games, it was a plodding affair. I flipped over to see the 1981 playoff match up between the young, emerging Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers and the Canadiens, and it was night and day. The Montreal-Oiler games were played at a comparably furious pace, with tons of skill.)
Today’s game is different still.
All this said, I was thinking about what a six-team NHL would look like nowadays. Can you imagine how good those teams would be? In the old days, you had almost exclusively Canadian-born players, and the thinking was there weren’t enough players to fill the rosters of more teams. (The truth is there were many capable players in the old AHL, the Central Hockey League, the extinct Western Hockey league and throughout senior leagues in Canada. Players were often buried in the minors, with little chance of moving to the “big leagues.)
Then, sensing money to be made, the league doubled in size overnight, for the beginning of the 1967-’68 season. And we’ve kept growing since, now to thirty teams.
While not at all realistic, it’s fun to consider who would make a pared-down league of six teams of the very best players, now that the NHL has most of the top players from Europe in addition to Canada and the ever-growing influx from the United States.
With only six teams, who would be your six first-string goalies? Brodeur, Luongo and Miller for starters, right? But after that, we’d have some pretty good arguments, I would suspect. Is Kiprusoff still top-six material? Young Rask in Boston? Would (now former) Montreal playoff hero Halak or the Stanley Cup goalie, Niemi, be in the first six? Giguerre might have been, five years ago, but not now.
Who makes the grade? And who are the six “back-ups”?
Only 36 defensemen would make the grade in a new six-team NHL. (In the ‘60s, most teams played with four defensemen only, with a fifth on the bench getting limited ice time.) Only the best of the absolute best of the best would make it if we had only six teams. To put this in context, all 30 NHL teams have what they consider to be their “top four” defensemen, who play big minutes. Right there, that’s 120 defensemen. In my new six-team NHL, we’re down to 36 rearguards.
How many, if any, Maple Leaf defensemen would make that list? Kaberle? Phaneuf? If Gunnarsson has the potential to be like Lidstrom, could he be on the list?
Up front, with 12 forwards per team,you’d at least have 72 forwards to play with throughout the league. But would teams take only the most skilled guys, or would you still have your checking lines and your fourth-line role players?
Would any current Leafs make the top 24 centers in hockey? Probably not.
Of the 48 wingers that would be a part of this “league”, my sense is Kessel would make it. Not everyone can score 30 goals a season these days. But beyond that, it would be quite a battle for up and coming Leaf players like Kulemin to make it.
I would be interested in hearing your thoughts about Leafs you feel deserve to be on this elite list of players.
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