I have no idea how good a head coach Sylvain Lefebvre is with the American Hockey Hamilton Bulldogs—the top club in Montreal’s farm system. He is in his first season as a “Head coach”, having been an assistant at the NHL level for a few seasons. But those of us who remember his NHL career (and his time with the Leafs) are prone to think, I sense, that he should be very adept at “teaching” the game to aspiring young players.
In truth, I mostly followed Lefebvre when he was here with the Leafs. He had begun his NHL career as an undrafted player out of the Quebec Junior ranks. He played three seasons with the Habs (see photo below right) before he was acquired by the Leafs for a third round draft pick in the summer of 1992.
He was, as Leaf supporters of that era well recall, a crucial component of the Pat Burns’ coached “no name” blueline corps for the 1992-’93 and 1993-‘94 Maple Leafs. The group of defensemen included rugged Jamie Macoun, smooth-skating Dave Ellett, Todd Gill (a personal favourite), and versatile Bob Rouse, in addition to Lefebvre. (I'm forgetting someone as I write this...who was that other defenseman?)
That team’s “success” (two “final four” appearances in successive seasons in the springs of ’93 and ’94) had a lot to do, of course, with Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour and goaltender Felix Potvin. That said, that rock-steady Burns defense was hugely instrumental in the Leafs winning two playoff rounds each of those years. Each guy on Burns’ team in those days had a well-defined role, and if you did your job, the reward was that you got to keep doing it.
So while none of the defenseman was necessarily considered a “star” (and none were, in reality), they all meshed very nicely together in front of a young and inexperienced - but quickly maturing - Potvin. Macoun had a lot of sandpaper, as did Rouse, who also brought some offensive pop. Gill was a heart and soul Leaf who seemed to play his most confident hockey under Burns and Ellett was one of the better “two-way” defensemen in the league in those days. He played hard at both ends of the ice and could put up points from the back end.
Lefebvre, though, was probably (in m view) the indispensible Leaf defenseman, the guy who limited his mistakes and played a smart, simple but very effective game. He was not the toughest defenseman in the league, but could hold his own in the physical side of the game. He moved the puck really well and looked to be one of those defenders who used his head as much as his God-given talent. I just loved the way he played in the Burs “system”, and thought he was our most valuable defenseman in that short era when all was said and done. He was the type of defenseman who made his partner better.
That is why, on that fateful day in June, 1994, when “Wendel” was traded to the Nordiques for Mats Sundin, I was more distraught by the fact that then Leaf GM Cliff Fletcher had given up Lefebvre as I was that Clark had been traded. I could understand that Clark had to go the other way, as a centerpiece component of a deal that brought a budding superstar to the Leafs. Clark had played his heart out with the Leafs, but was often injured, getting older quickly (for his age) and was not likely to get any better as his body broke down—which it ultimately did.
In fairness, the idea of the trade was simple: the Leafs had been deemed by Fletcher to be stagnating, and not quite good enough to win a Cup with their roster at the time. The final-four appearances were nice, but to get to the proverbial “next level”, Fletcher, perhaps not unreasonably, felt the team needed to change its make-up.
There is no question that, long-term, the Leafs got the best player in the deal (Sundin), and “won” the trade. It was a bold move, and it worked out for Toronto.
However, that assessment discounts a few things, including the fact that Lefebvre took his burgeoning skill set and playoff experience to an organization that, once settled in its new home in Denver, Colorado, was a perennial Cup contender while (and beyond the time) Lefebvre was patrolling the blueline.
Now, we all remember that Patrick Roy, Sakic, Forsberg and many others were the key components to championship success, but Lefebvre played a pivotal role as well. Five years in a row with the Quebec/Denver franchise, Lefebvre made the playoffs, and he helped the Avs win the Cup in 1995-’96, which stung all the more for Leaf fans like myself who missed seeing him on our blueline.
He did not put up flashy numbers in Colorado, but he was a steady player there as he had been in Toronto. He played in something like 65 playoff games in those four seasons in Colorado. Lefebvre finished his career with the Rangers at the age of 35 in 2002-’03, a pretty nice run for a guy who had never been drafted.
Seeing him behind the Hamilton bench in a game against the Marlies on Wednesday afternoon triggered fond recollections of his time here. I write this today because, while I know most Leaf fans were forlorn that Clark was traded away in the summer of ’94, I have always much more rued the notion of losing a young defenseman in Lefebvre.
He always struck me as a guy with talent, yes, but a player who made it to the top mostly because of work ethic and his sense for the game. If he can somehow impart those things to the young players in Montreal’s system, he should be a heck of a head coach some day.