The 80’s was not a good decade for the Leafs. Oh, there were moments of hope, some good draft selections but by and large, it was a revolving door of coaches and players—and not many playoff rounds won.
Thee era was bad enough that the Leafs had the first pick overall in the entry draft one summer, and grabbed Wendel Clark. That turned out to be a solid pick.
Clark, despite missing a lot of time due to injuries over the years in his three incarnations with the blue and white, became something of a hero in Leafland. Fortuitously, he also brought a nice return—Mats Sundin—in the trade that sent Clark to the Nordiques in the summer of 1994.
I think of Iafrate in part because, now with this current Leaf team, we have many young defensemen (Phaneuf, Schenn, Aulie, Gunnarsson and now Franson, with others in the pipeline) who bring an interesting and diverse skill set, from skating ability to toughness and big shots.
Back in the mid and later ‘80s, Iafrate had all of that—or at least most of it.
Big Al (6 foot 3 as a recall, maybe 230 pounds) joined the Leafs as a high draft choice and was parachuted into the line-up when he was only 18—which, given his lack of time in junior hockey, was way too young at the time, at least in my view. But desperation breeds rash decisions and the Leafs in those days were always looking for the “home run”, a quick saviour, whether it was Gary Nylund (a very high first-round selection in 1982, I think it was, also rushed into the line-up and then seriously injured) or any number of other high-profile junior draft picks.
So Iafrate played early, and often. He showed flashes of stardom, but was almost always a “minus” player with the Leafs, though I’m guessing most of the players were in those mid-and later ’80 years.
For whatever reason, Iafrate had a reputation as a guy who was a bit of a ‘flake’. Whether that was fair or not, or at all accurate, I have no idea. I only know what I remember reading about him, which tended to play up that “crazy guy” image. We’ve all since heard teammates speak of him as an unusual guy, so perhaps the descriptions were somewhat accurate.
In any event I do know the guy had talent. He could really skate, had a big-time shot and seemed to have a legitimately promising future. I clearly recall thinking this guy had a special skill set. He used his height and size well. With those long arms he could break up rushes. For a big man, he was exceptionally agile.
And he was talented—really, really talented. I particularly remember the late 1980s playoff series against a young Steve Yzerman and the Red Wings. He was dominant at times, with his fine skating, long reach and ability to anticipate the play.
In fact, he twice scored more than 20 goals as a defenseman for
, the last time in 1989-’90. (The 1980s was a high-scoring era, but that number was still exceptional.) A serious knee injury derailed his career for a while, but he still scored more than 20 goals for a third time with Toronto in the 1992-’93 season. Even in that higher-scoring NHL era, that was pretty impressive stuff. Washington
You’d like to think that, with the right kind of organizational support and coaching, a player like Iafrate would have blossomed in
. (Unfortunately he had issues with some teammates, and the organization dealt him during the 1990-’91 season to the Capitals for two guys who ended up playing significant roles in the Pat Burns era—Peter Zezel and defenseman Bob Rouse.) Toronto
But again, for whatever reason, a defenseman who was good enough to score more than 150 goals in 800 NHL regular season games, couldn’t find a long-term home in
. After the Caps, he also played with Toronto briefly and then the Sharks before retiring at the young age of 31. Boston
I’d be interested in hearing from Leaf fans of that era. The ‘80s saw some good young players here, from Courtnall and Leeman to Wregget and Clark. Do you recall Iafrate the way I do, or was he, to you, just another guy with “potential”?