I realize that I sometimes fall into the trap of “comparing” modern-day players to those of yesteryear, but, well, it’s fun to do. Not always because the similarities are so stunning or anything, but more that a trait, or just something about a current player and his style may trigger fond memories of the way a certain old-time Leaf might have played in my youth.
But as we see the emergence of four young Toronto defensemen happen right before my eyes, I can’t help but think back to a time when four defensemen was about all you needed to backstop an NHL blueline.
Yes, Schenn and Aulie are logging huge minutes defending against the other team’s best forwards, while Schenn and Gunnarsson are both seeing their responsibilities increase as the season wears on. Each one of these guys is in that much sough-after 25 and under category—not an insignificant roster reality to have going forward.
As I mentioned, few if any comparisons are pure, and this one certainly is not. But back when I was a young lad, as they say,
also had a defense corps whose names rolled off the tongue rather easily when it came to discussing the team’s fortunes: Horton and Stanley, Baun and Brewer. They each played together seemingly forever. Toronto
This all began in the late 1950s, when Punch Imlach had assumed (seized?) “control” of the hockey side of the Leaf organization under owner
and son Stafford Smythe as the erstwhile Assistant GM of the team. Imlach soon shoved incumbent head coach and former NHL star Billy Reay out of the way (click here to read how and when that firing went down) and took over as coach and full-time GM himself. Conn
He built the team around Johnny Bower in goal, and the four aforementioned defensemen.
Now, at the time,
had already been with—and found wanting by—three other NHL teams. He (pictured at right battling with Jean Beliveau in late 1950s action at the Forum) was not considered a big "star", though he played like one many of those years with the Leafs until he joined the expansion Philadelphia Flyers after the 1967-’68 season. He was an older guy, a true grizzled veteran. He was paired with Horton originally under Billy Reay, I believe, but Imlach kept them together and they became one of the formidable defense pairings of that era. Horton had a booming shot for the time and was a tremendous skater who could really lug the puck out of his own zone. Stanley was more the deft guy with the stick, the poke-checker. He was not the fastest guy on skates but knew how to get places the shortest possible way. And, he was smart, very smart. Stanley
They could be physical if necessary (Horton was remarkably strong, though not a fighter) and together they were just really, really good.
Brewer was a gifted guy, maybe the best pure player of the four He could feint guys out of their skate laces and was a smart puck-handler and nifty skater. He was a nasty piece of work, dirty, in fact, not above using his stick. Though he wasn't a fighter he was a guy who really irritated the opposition. Baun was the lumberjack, a tough, hard-nosed guy who could block shots and didn’t get near enough credit for his ability to skate the puck out of his own zone. He was also a big-time body-checker (Bobby Hull could confirm that, as he often came down Baun's 'side" of the ice) and he could fight.
Together, they were very, very good, too.
It’s a cliché, I suppose, but in those days, and I remember watching them play for many years, defense partners did seem to “know where the other guy was” most of the time- especially considering that they routinely played together every night.
My point in all this? Clearly, it’s awfully important to have a good defense. Horton and Stanley were voted into the Hall-of-Fame. Baun and Brewer were arguably close to that category themselves. It was the backbone, along with Bower and "strength up the middle", of
winning those four Cups in the 1960s. It was similarly important when Cliff Fletcher built that wonderful no-name defense for Pat Burns in the early to mid-1990s, as the Leafs twice went to the final four. Toronto
Will history repeat itself now?
I’m betting that, while there is much more to do to get this roster where he wants it, his much-stated goal of building from the back-end is, for Burke, well—and successfully— in play.