Comparisons are often futile at the best of times and particularly difficult when “comparing” athletes from entirely different eras.
But as an “old” Leaf fan who has seen this team in action— and many players come and go— since the late 1950s, I can’t help, when watching Kris Versteeg, but think about a young Ronnie Ellis.
Ellis had a wonderful career as a Maple Leaf. He came up when he was not quite 20, I believe, for the 1964-’65 NHL season. He just missed out on the Leafs winning the Cup the previous spring, though I believe he helped the Junior Marlies win a Memorial Cup.
Ellis, like most Maple Leafs of that era, came up through the old junior “sponsorship” system. He, Brian Conacher, Pete Stemkowski, Mike Walton, Jim Pappin and others were top juniors who had to fight their way onto the Leaf roster in the old six-team NHL.
Most of those guys were “yo-yo’d” back and forth between the big club and either Rochester in the AHL or Tulsa, I think it was, in the old Central Hockey League, until they got a full-time gig. But Ellis was different. Once he made the jump from junior, I don’t believe he ever played a day in the minors.
Like Versteeg, Ellis was a winger. He had a very strong lower-body and was a fine skater. While maybe not among the very fastest guy (like Bobby Hull, Ralph Backstrom, Henri Richard, Walton, Dave Keon and of course Bobby Orr, when he came along) he could really skate. He had a good slapshot and loved to take his shot from about the top of the face off circle as he drove in off the right wing.
Ellis, like Keon before him, learned early on that if he wanted to have a career with the Leafs, a long one, at least, he would have to play hard at both ends of the ice and not simply focus on scoring goals. He took that attitude seriously and was known as one of the better defensive wingers in the game. Ellis could play head-on against someone like Bobby Hull, but still create some offensive opportunities for his line. (I think he finished with over 300 goals in his NHL career.)
Ellis joined the Leafs at a peculiar time. They were actually on the decline, though they had just won those three Cups in a row. They did manage that surprise “bonus” Cup against the Habs in 1967, but were far from favorites heading into the playoffs that spring. (And they proceeded to miss the playoffs two of the next three seasons in the newly-expanded NHL.)
Ellis did his usual job in those '67 playoffs, playing, as I recall, mostly with long-time Red Wing and Maple Leaf Red Kelly as his center. In fact, Ellis scored maybe the most important goal of the playoffs, when he jumped on a Kelly rebound to score against Gump Worsley in Game 6. That gave the Leafs a 1-0 lead in what turned out to be the last game of a very tense final series against
. If the Leafs had lost Game 6, they were going back to Montreal to play the two-time defending champs at the Forum. I would not have liked their chances. Montreal
But Ellis scored, then Pappin notched a fluky one, and the Leafs held on to win the game, and the Stanley Cup.
Like most young guys who win the Cup early in their careers, Ellis likely figured there would be more to come. But the Leafs were about to hit the re-build button, and they never got back to the finals again in Ellis’ time with the club (or since, for that matter).
Nonetheless, Ellis went on to a fine and quite long career. He played for a few years with ex-Red Wings Paul Henderson and Normie Ullman (they came over in the huge Frank Mahovlich deal in 1968) and they were a strong, two-way “second-line”, though they really were a true “number-one” trio a lot of the time.
Ellis was very much the defensive “conscience” of the line, but still managed to score 20+ goals, sometimes more, pretty much every year.
While the Leafs struggled in many of those post-’67 seasons, Ellis was a solid, steady player, an alternate captain and well-respected guy around the league. So much so that, in the summer of 1972, he was invited to try out for Team
Canada and ended up on a key line with and Flyer leader Bobby Clarke. They formed an outstanding checking line for Team Henderson in that 8-game series. Canada
Ellis retired prematurely in the mid-1970s, but came back and played again in the late ‘70s under Roger Neilson before retiring for good in the early ‘80s.
To me, he was one of the all-time Leafs in my “generation”. Not the best scorer, not the best at any one thing, but so good at playing the game the way it should be played. Smart. Hard. Tough—and clean.
So I see, early on, in young Versteeg, some of the qualities I admired in Ellis. He is not a big guy either but, like Ellis was, is sturdy on his skates. He looks like he will be a conscientious winger. He can skate and make plays. He is able to kill penalties. He’ll score some goals. He can play on either the first or second line.
And if Kris can have anywhere near the career that Ellis had (and help the Leafs win a Cup along the way, like Ellis did), well, I sense that would be just fine with Leaf fans.