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The Leafs haven’t always been lousy since '67

It’s easy for Leaf-haters (and they have their place) and relatively new-generation Leaf supporters to talk as though the Leafs have simply been lousy for 40+ years.

I get it, but the truth is, it’s just not so.

Now, have they won anything of substance, other than a playoff round here or there?  No.

But they have not always been poorly managed, lacked talent or had lousy coaches.

The Leafs did struggle in the period just after they won the Cup in 1967.  In fact, it is fair to say they were beginning to fall apart by the 1965-’66 season, but the miracle Cup in ’67 was a nice, if temporary, delusion.  While Punch Imlach was trying desperately to bring in some new blood (Mike Walton, Ron Ellis, Pete Stemkowski, Jim Pappin,  goalies Al and Gary Smith, defensemen Pat Quinn, Mike Pelyk, Rick Ley, Brian Glennie and Jim McKenny are just some examples) it wasn’t enough, fast enough, given how the game changed with expansion in 1967-’68.  They weren’t fast enough to keep up with the Habs or skilled or tough enough to handle the Bruins (through they did beat Boston at Maple Leaf Gardens during the regular season quite regularly in the late 1960s.)  So, they struggled in the early expansion years.

But after Imlach was fired in the spring of 1969, new GM Jim Gregory re-tooled the team nicely and by 1970-’71 had pulled together a very competitive squad. With veterans Dave Keon, Norm Ullman and young Jim Harrison (acquired from Boston) they were strong up the middle.  Jacques Plante and Bernie Parent (acquired in a major trade) were a perfect combination of emerging talent and experience in goal.  Gregory developed a wonderful young defense corps with Jim Dorey, Rick Ley, ex-Olympian Glennie, Brad Selwood, Pelyk and McKenny along with the returning veteran, Bobby Baun.

With Paul Henderson, Ellis and youngsters like Brian Spencer and Darryl Sittler in the fold, that team looked good to go.

But then the WHA—and owner Harold Ballard’s refusal to pay—cost the team a number of young stars and killed that re-build.

Undaunted, Gregory rebuilt the team again from the ashes, in one year bringing in five rookies—first-round draft choices Lanny McDonald, Bob Neely and Ian Turnbull and Swedes Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom.  With Sittler emerging as the new leader and a young Mike Palmateer (the ex-Marlie junior star) in goal, the Leafs got better and better through the ‘70s.  This second Gregory re-build culminated, sadly, in two playoff losses to the powerful Montreal Canadiens, but in fairness, the Habs at that time were one of the best teams ever assembled- and remain in that category to this day.

Through this time the Leafs had brought along a youngsters like John Anderson, Tiger Williams, Lanny McDonald (pictured at right), who eventually blossomed in Toronto but was traded unceremoniously to Colorado, rugged Scott Garland, fighter Kurt Walker and youthful defensemen like Trevor Johansen and  future Norris winner Randy Carlyle.  It was, as they say, a pretty good team.

But not good enough fore the meddling owner, Harold Ballard, who saw fit to get rid of Gregory (and innovative young coach Roger Neilson) and bring back Punch Imlach.

Now, Imlach had built some outstanding teams, largely through the draft, with the expansion Sabres.  While criticized for letting the Leafs “grow old” in his first go-round (which, as I alluded to above, was not entirely fair or accurate, in my view), he was shrewd in building the Sabres with Gilbert Perreault, Richard Martin, Danny Gare, Craig Ramsay, Jim Schoenfeld and others.

In any event his return to the blue and white was not triumphant, and that, along with Ballard’s continued meddling, set the team back for many years.  Imlach tore the team apart, brought in players past their prime, and left a mess for the next GM, Gerry McNamara, to try and clean up.

McNamara and his staff managed at least a few very good draft picks and throughout the ‘80s the team was littered with some talented young players:  Vaive, Derlago (via an Imlach trade), Anderson (from the previous regime), Russ Courtnall, Gary Leeman, Al Iafrate, Alan Bester, Ken Wregget, Peter Ihnacak and Ed Olczyk all played with the Leafs at one time or another.

But they just weren’t good enough, consistently enough, despite those players and the presence of a boisterous young Wendel Clark (pictured at left) to compete with the really solid teams at the time—the Habs, Islanders, Oilers, Flames, Bruins, etc. (The Red Wings, so good for the last fifteen+ years, were similarly challenged through much of the 1970s until the later 1980s.)

So yes, we can certainly acknowledge that the Leafs struggled in the ‘80s, and that, as much as anything, created the impression that they were continually “lousy”.  (But even in the ‘80s, they had some stirring playoff series, against Chicago, St. Louis, and Detroit a couple of times.  That said, I don’t remember how many best-of-seven series they actually ever won in that decade?  And they never advanced even as far as the semi-finals, as they had once in the 1970s, when they lost to Montreal in 1978 after upsetting the Islanders.)

From the early and mid-'80s to the early ‘90s, the Leafs tried a lot of different coaches—I can’t remember them all, but all seemed like a good idea at the time:  Joe Crozier (an Imlach favorite), Mike Nykoluk, Dan Maloney, John Brophy, Doug Carpenter and Tom Watt spring to mind.  They tried everything; ex-Leafs players like Crozier and Nykoluk, fiery guys like Maloney and Brophy and cerebral teacher-types like Carpenter and Watt.

Nothing worked real well for very long, until General Manager Cliff Fletcher brought in Pat Burns.

We all know how exciting things got around Leaf world in 1993 and 1994, with Clark, Gilmour, Andreychuk, the Zezel trio and that tremendous no-name defense corps, along with Potvin in goal.  But Fletcher saw that, despite those two inspired runs to the “final four”, the Leafs needed something more.

Out went a lot of players, in came Mats Sundin, but the team went backwards, and before long, both Fletcher and Pat Burns were gone, too.

There were more steps back until Pat Quinn arrived as coach in time for the 1998-’99 season.  And in the time that Quinn (pictured at right) was coach and later GM and coach, through 2004 (by his last season, he had relinquished the GM post and it was no longer really his team), I would argue the Leafs were generally a pretty good, competitive team.  Good enough to again get to the final-four on two separate occasions, and play in—and win—some memorable playoff series.

Now, we are seven years into what feels like another near 1980s swoon, and it is uncomfortable for Leaf enthusiasts.  But we should not lose sight of the facts.  The Leafs have not been lousy for 40+ years.  No, they haven’t won a Cup, or even reached the finals, but in the early ‘70s (1970-’71 in particular), the late ‘70s (especially 1977-’78), they were pretty good.  In ’93 and ’94 they were awfully good, and should have made the finals in ’93, eh?

I would argue that the Leaf team in 2002, when they lost to Carolina in the semi-finals, was one of the best Leaf teams in the “modern” era, along with the ’93 team.  They both had goaltending, some talent, a fair bit of toughness and were hard to play against.

As I write this, that’s all Leaf fans want now (yes, a Cup, but until then…): goaltending, skill, and toughness.
(In fact, that’s pretty much what we were promised by current management in the "build from the back end" model.)

And the team, now, has a bit of each of the above attributes.  Burke’s job, and he knows it well, is to get more of each, so people can finally stop talking about 40+ years of lousy hockey—even  though it isn’t true.

3 comments:

  1. Great recap of our years of frustration (but not total frustration).

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  2. Long suffering Leaf fanJanuary 6, 2011 at 11:34 AM

    Nice post Mike. I remember reading a couple of books that Punch Imalch wrote after each of his firing in Toronto. In his first book (Hockey is a battle) he admitted to the fact that he was a little to loyal with some of the older veterans after the 67 cup (I think Jim Dorey mention this in his interview also). In his words, "they played like dogs for me". He also regretted for not holding unto Gary Smith whom he tried to retain in the Gerry Ehman trade on October 12 (this is how the Leafs attained J.P Parise with Bryan Hextall Jr), as he felt that Bower was finally losing his edge and Gamble wasn't a number one goalie. It seemed to him that Gamble would have some stellar games and long stretches where he was just mediocre.
    In his words he believed that if he had made the Mahovlich trade earlier that the Leafs would have made the playoffs in 68. The only other regret he had was allowing Gary Unger to be part of that deal. The first offer a month earlier was Mahovlich, Brewer, Walton and Carleton for Macgregor, Henderson and Ullman but fell through when Walton was hurt. Macgregor was replaced with Smith and Barrie because as Imalch put it “We weren’t scoring many goals at the time, and Walton was our leading scorer so I reluctantly deceived to give them Unger instead”.

    As you have stated, Jim Gregory did do a nice job by adding some nice pieces to Imalch rebuild. By adding defenseman Brian Glennie and Brad Selwood from the minors, trading aging and underachieving players (Pulford , Carleton and Walton) for Gary Monahan, Jim Harrison, and Bernie Parent, and the drafting of Darryl Sittler and Rick Kehoe prior to his second rebuild was a work of genius. However, some of the decision he made in the second rebuild leaves the head scratching. First the trading of Rick Kehoe to Pittsburgh for Blaine Stoughton and a 1st rounder, I think the pick ended up being Trevor Johansen? I remember hearing Mike Bossy on one of Toronto’s sport radio saying that Gregory had called him prior to the draft that he was going to select him and that he would be wearing number 14! He said he was surprised when his agent called him to congratulate him on being drafted by the Islanders. First word that came out of his mouth was “What happened to Toronto!” Apparently Mr. Gregory had overruled his scouts and decided to draft Johansen and Anderson at George Armstrong’s urging. Other head starches by Gregory, the dealing of Errol Thompson and two first rounders and a second pick for Dan Maloney and a second pick from Detroit. The dealing of Randy Carlyle and George Ferguson for an aging Dave Burrows from Pittsburgh, I believe along with other poor 1st choices Jack Valiguette and Don Ashby ended his tenure with the Leafs and opened the door for Imalch’s ”heaven and hell in the NHL”.
    Sorry for the long post.

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  3. Thanks Anonymous...

    Long Suffering: we are very much on the same page. (As an aside, I'm with you, I absolutely loved reading those books, expecially "Hockey is a Battle" by Scott Young and Imlach in 1970, I think it was. I read and re-read that book so many times. It is absolutely great reading for fans who want to know what really went on behind the scnes with Imlach running the Leafs from '58-'69.
    On the Mahovlich trade, to me, it still remains one of the biggest deals of all-time. I would have loved to have obtained McGregor instead of Smitty, no offense to Smith. McGregor went on to have many outstanding years with Detroit and the Rangers- just a good, honest Kris Draper-type of player.
    The Leafs got some nice players in Johansen and Anderson, but yes, Bossy would have been a catch. I just wonder if he could possibly have prospered in the Toronto environment? He seemed to thrive under Arbour and playing with Gillies and Trottier.
    Thanks for a great comment, Long Suffering...

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