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Would the ‘80s have looked different if only…

The Leafs recently held yet another pre-game ceremony. I didn’t pay close attention, but there was an ‘80s theme to it.

With that as a backdrop, my earlier posts this week provided a modest overview of just a few of the things that went off rails in that down decade.

Indeed, the ‘80s, in terms of results, were about as bad as a ten-year period can be for a sports franchise. Twice the Leafs won only 20 games in a season, 21 another year.

That’s not good by any definition, even pre- “shoot out” freebie wins.

The decade started with Punch Imlach in charge, began badly and never rebounded in any real, pronounced way.

There were colorful characters along the way—coach John Brophy certainly brought some intensity and colorful suits behind the bench for a time in the mid-latter part of the decade — and there were some individually talented players, for sure.

But it was a bad era overall. Perhaps much like today’s Leafs, everybody who played in Toronto were all good pro players. The mix just wasn’t there to be a really strong, contending team.

So in an exercise in pure fun, I thought it would be interesting to select the best Leaf players from that decade to comprise a team, and see if things may have been a lot better, if only they could all have been brought together for one season.

So, here’s a selection of 20 guys—the best of the Leafs in the 1980s: (My selections assume the player being at their best, which in some cases may have been before or after the ‘80s, but they must have played with the Leafs in the ‘80s.)

• Alan Bester
• Don Edwards
Honorable mention: Ken Wreggett

• Todd Gill
• Al Iafrate
• Jim Benning
• Borje Salming
• Brad Maxwell
• Dave Burrows

• Darryl Sittler
• Russ Courtnall
• Bill Derlago
• Laurie Boschman
Honorable mention:
• Dale McCourt (though his best years were earlier in his career)
• Vincent Damphouse (also had his best years elsewhere)
• Ed Olczyk

Left wing
• Wendell Clark
• John Anderson
• Dan Maloney
• Steve Thomas
Honorable mention: Mark Osborne

Right wing
• Rick Vaive
• Gary Leeman
• Wilf Paiement
• Ron Ellis
Honorable mention: Miroslav Frycer

I won’t go into detail on why I chose all of the above. I always liked Bester. He just need someone who understood goalies, to give him the confidence he needed on a consistent basis. I thought Benning could have been so much better in the right environment. Maxwell and Burrows had their best years elsewhere, I realize. (Maxwell’s time with Toronto paralleled that of Larry Murphy to a degree. Both were extremely talented defensemen, but it just never worked in Toronto.) Courtnall had all that speed; Derlago was such a fine passer. I think if Paiement had been here under different circumstances (not as the guy traded for Sittler) he might have thrived.

My conclusion is: all were solid NHL’ers. Some were pretty elite players, for a while, obviously. At their very best (in some cases, with other teams- Donnie Edwards with the Sabres being an example) there are some true “stars” on the list.

But even so, taking the very best players that the Leafs had at some point during the 80s, they would not have been a great squad, and certainly not a championship level team. They didn’t have the goaltending, though to this day I believe that Bester had the talent to be a solid NHL’er if he had had the right kind of support system in place. The defense I’ve selected is interesting: Salming still played some good hockey in the ‘80s, but his ‘hey day’ was the ‘70s. Gill, who I really liked as a Leaf, played some excellent hockey under Pat Burns in the early-mid ‘90s but struggled earlier in his career. Maxwell was a fine defenseman in Minnesota who never found his stride in Toronto. Burrows had his best years earlier with Pittsburgh. But again, it’s not a standout defense, even if you measured these players in their absolute best years.

In terms of forwards, I had a hard time finding enough right-wingers, for example. There’s some skill throughout the squad, for sure, but not a lot of toughness beyond Paiement and Clark.

No matter how we look at it, the ‘80s were not a great era for Leaf fans. The standings didn’t lie.

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