A couple days ago, I tried to focus on some of the positive things the Leafs have built up over the past few years, as I do believe there is the nucleus of something successful here. Yesterday, I questioned whether management (forget the players, that ship seems to have sailed) have quietly packed it in as well, and have joined many fans who are actually hoping (sad as that is to think) that the team does indeed flop their way through the rest of the season to ensure a top three-to-five pick in the upcoming June entry draft.
No member of the Leaf brass would ever concede that, of course, but given that all we keep hearing from Nonis, Dudley and Poulin is the fluff about “the future” and how great a job of building they are doing, well, what else can we think? No one is stepping forward to offer an explanation for the disaster that has been these last two months.
But I’ll set that aside for the moment, and try a hybrid approach today. That is, let’s look at some of the good pieces here (through your eyes), and try to, if not compare exactly, maybe relate the current roster experience and potential with some Leaf teams and players of the past.
You perhaps remember Darryl Sittler. Sittler (right) was the captain of the Leafs from the mid-70’s to his (disastrous) departure in a trade to the Flyers in the early-esh ‘80s. But for about five pretty successful seasons here, Sittler was a real hockey warrior, scoring at a very high rate while being a physical front-line center who (unlike Bobby Clarke in Philadelphia) could—and would—fight his own battles. He was, for his time, one of the top power forwards in the game, though we didn’t use that terminology at the time. Guys rallied around him, and looked up to him because of his leadership and work ethic.
So who fits the Sittler bill now, or may soon?
Before Sittler there was another Leaf captain, by the name of Dave Keon. He played here from 1960 through to his unceremonious departure in 1975. (Thanks, again, Harold…) To many observers, Keon (left) was not a great team “leader”, but he certainly led by example on the ice, though his last couple of seasons in Toronto were somewhat tainted by diminished production and on-again off-again criticism from ownership. Still, Keon was, for many fans (including me), the ultimate Leaf. He was one of the fastest players of his early ‘60s generation. While not a natural goal-scorer, he created so many chances for himself that he still generally managed 20+ goals a season when that was a high-water mark for very good players. (Come to think of it, it seems to be again these days in the NHL…). While not a physical player or a fighter by any means, Keon played the game with his feet and his head, using angles to cut off people’s lanes. He led the team every year not in “hits” but in “take-outs”. He never took penalties (I mean, really, like four minutes a year) and killed penalties well. He was the team’s number-one center through virtually his entire 15-year career.
Who is our modern-day Keon?
Lanny McDonald was one of my favrotie Leaf wingers from the ‘70s. He was a high-scoring junior player who struggled offensively in his first couple of seasons with the Leafs. In fact, such were his difficulties that a veteran Toronto Star writer said McDonald would never be a goal-scorer at the NHL level. (He went on to score 500 goals in a Hall-of-Fame career. Hey, beat writers don’t always get it right, eh?) The thing I really loved about Lanny is that he would work the corners diligently and could hit guys in open ice. His one-on-one battles with Montreal’s Bob Gainey were classic. I remember, in the mid-‘70s (probably the ’74-’75 season) McDonald nailed superstar defenseman Denis Potvin and Bobby Orr with big-time ass-over tea kettle open-ice hip checks at the Gardens. I knew then that I liked the guy. Anyway, he was a great Leaf, and the beginning of a hopeful (though short-lived) era under Roger Neilson died when Neilson and GM Jim Grgeory were fired, and incoming General Manager Punch Imlach traded McDonald to, of all teams, the Colorado Rockies in 1980 (right)—just to get back at Sittler, who Punch thought was running the dressing room. Odd situation. You really had to be there..
Who is our Lanny McDonald? Anyone close?
In goal, in the early 1970s we had Bernie Parent here for a couple of wonderful seasons, until he jumped to the WHA, which was a huge heartache for Leaf fans at the time, myself in particular. Then Mike Palmateer stole the show in the late 1970s. Mike was not a big guy, and, like the legendary Gump Worsley before him, did not look like a "typical" athlete, though many goalies didn't in those days. He was as cocky as you could imagine and had a great glove hand. He was a rare lefty goalie, who caught with his right hand. He was scrambly, athletic, acrobatic, entertaining and occasionally spectacular. He seemed to be the kind of goalie that gave his teammates a sense of confidence that he would bail them out, a bit like Grant Fuhr did for the Oilers in later years in the high-scoring ‘80s.
Any Palmateer’s on the horizon?
One of my favorite Leafs of all time only played here a couple of seasons. That was Brian Spencer. He was not a gifted skater, but he was a ‘Tazmanian devil’ on skates. He hit, he fought, he was a really, really good third and fourth-line guy. In fact, he played that role with the Sabres in the mid-70s, and became a beloved player with Buffalo on their third line, often with current Leaf management staffer Rick Dudley on his opposite flank. (Now that was a hard line to play against…) He was an "energy line" player before we started using that term. Spencer was a guy who wore the Leaf crest with intense pride, and would stand up for his teammates at the drop of a hat. That he could chip in with some timely offense on occasion was almost a bonus. He was let go by the Leafs after an injury, and went to the Islanders in the expansion draft of the time, a sad day for me.
Who is going to be our “Spinner” Spencer?
Every good team needs a bellwether defenseman. For the Leafs, for better or worse, that was Borje Salming for close to 20 years in the 1970s and ‘80s. Borje was a splendid skater who was a bit of a Gumby on ice. Not as fast in a straight line as his Swedish teammate Inge Hammarstrom, he nonetheless could skate away from trouble and turn on a dime. His weakness was that he was not great in front of his own net. He tended to fall down while guys would bat the puck past the Leaf goalies. (I have this enduring mental image of big Bruin and Flyer forwards hammering away at rebounds with Ian Turnbull and Salming fishing around for the puck on their hands and knees, when they should have been knocking down the opposition players...) But other than a couple of ill-timed give-aways in the playoffs against those Flyers (I’m not bitter) in the mid-later ‘70s, Salming had a very good career. He blocked shots, played hurt, was a real good Leaf.
Can we conjure up a Leaf “D” who can play a bit like Borje?
Al Iafrate was another Leaf whose name I like to raise because he may have been the most gifted defenseman I’ve seen in more than 50 years of observing the Maple Leafs. I don't mean he was the best, but of all the Leaf defenseman I’ve seen over the years, he seemed the most naturally talented. He had good size for his era, could really skate, and used his long reach so well. He had a booming, and I mean booming slapshot. Not always great in his own zone (better coaching might have helped…), some serious knee injuries and off-ice issues led to a trade to the Capitals in the early ‘90s. But boy, could he skate and shoot.
Another Al out there somewhere?
Gary Roberts, for more recent Leaf aficionados, brought a lot of important traits to the Maple Leaf hockey club. We all know he was tough as nails and in top physical condition. Not the prettiest skater, he still generally got where he needed to go. He could fight, sure, but mostly he was a rugged player who, when he hit a guy, they knew they’d been hit. If you were just becoming a Leaf fan in the early 2000s, you probably fell in love with Gary Roberts in some of those wonderful playoff series (you remember the playoffs, right?). A leader, too, he was a vital cog, the kind of guy that could play on your first line if necessary but made all the players around him better by sheer determination.
Calling Gary Roberts?
I mention those names (and could throw in many others) not because anyone on the current roster has to be exactly like any of the above players, in terms of skill set, attitude or the way they play, but simply because each of these players brought something special to the table that, with the right mix, can be invaluable to a good hockey club, especially a team that wants to get to the playoffs—and do something once they get there. McDonald, Keon and Roberts all won Cups in their NHL careers. Spencer got to the finals with the Sabres in 1975. All those other individuals played a lot of playoff hockey.
I’d just be interested to know if you see a bit of any of the players I cited above (or other former Leafs you may remember fondly) in our current crew of Leafs.
I look forward to hearing from you.