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Can this Leaf defense ever be as good as what we had in 1993?

OK, it’s only been four games, and the Leaf have only won two, since the much-discussed “resurgence”, which of course included the arrival of Dion Phaneuf and J.S. Giguerre.

Real or imagined, as we head to the Olympic break, Leaf fans are hoping this is a peak into the future. That is, Phil Kessel will score a lot. Tyler Bozak will hit, make passes and score (can you say Bryan Trottier?). Nikolai Kulemin will double his production next season. Poni will stay and score 35 goals. Nazim Kadri will make an impressive jump from junior to lead a second line. And on it goes.

Defensively, the dream unfolds this way: Phaneuf stays healthy and signs a long-term deal to be the Leaf captain in hockey perpetuity. Luke Schenn matures, under Phaneuf’s wing, into a top-4 NHL defenseman for years to come. Rather than regress, Gunnarson becomes a consistent, solid rearguard. Kaberle actually stays and continues to be a fine, puck-moving, point-producing (if often defensively-challenged) defenseman. Beauchemin grows more and more comfortable as a Leaf, and plays 25 sturdy minutes night in and night out.

The 6th spot is filled with one of a then healthy Komisarek or a player to be named later.

All this is sounds tremendous—though reality may well get in the way.

But still, a question: with the new-look Maple Leaf defense in place, can we hope, at least hope, that this group may be able to mirror the success of the Leaf defense from, say, 1993 and 1994?

Maybe writing about Wendel Clark and the ’93 run a few days ago just got me thinking fondly about that particular group of Leaf defenders. Whatever, I don’t feel the team has ever had a steadier group of defensemen—at least not since the really old days when they used to play with only four at the back—the ‘hey day’ of Baun and Brewer, Horton and Stanley.

Those ’93 guys were no superstars, but every one of them could play, and they all came to that time and place in their careers a bit differently.

Dave Ellett was a college product, I seem to recall, who came to Leafland via the Winnipeg Jets—as an offensive defenseman. When Pat Burns arrived, he trimmed his game down a bit and was a solid, if unspectacular player.

Jamie McCoun had success in Calgary, winning a Stanley Cup under Terry Crisp and Cliff Fletcher. He arrived in the “Gilmour trade” but became an indispensible Leaf. McCoun was not at all fancy, a bit dirty and rough around the edges—perfect for a Pat Burns defense.

I loved Sylvain Lefebvre. For me, he was the pick of the bunch, as an all-around defenseman. He could clear the front of the net, play physical, move the puck, create a little offense, a bit of everything. (He was acquired in a superb Fletcher trade, from Montreal, for a third-round draft choice. It’s heresy as a Leaf fan to admit it but years later, when Toronto had to include him in the deal to get Mats Sundin, I was actually more disappointed to lose him than Clark.)

Dmitri Mironov irritated me more than the others. I probably never fully appreciated his skills, and focused too much on his mistakes. But he played some good hockey a lot of the time for Toronto.

Bob Rouse cost the Leafs one of the most talented players I’ve ever seen in Toronto, Al Iafrate. But given the reality that Iafrate apparently had to be moved because of team chemistry issues, the Leafs obtained a rock-solid, reliable player who made relatively few mistakes in a position that usually creates many. He was tremendous on the blueline for the Leafs.

My favorite, though, was Todd Gill. Why? It may be in part because I sat next him once at a Leaf function, and he just presented as a decent young man, with precious little ego. But I well remember how he, as a promising Leaf draft choice in the ‘80s, went through so many struggles early in his career. He was booed, seemed to make the big “mistake” too often, was downright unlucky at times.

But he worked and worked and under Burns became, in my eyes, a dependable Leaf who was obviously proud of the sweater he wore. He was the kind of guy who defended his teammates and as importantly, he became a very reliable defender.

I liked those six as a group, in part because they could handle the playoff pressure. Not one was a much more important than another. In fact, most hockey people probably don’t even look back on any of them as “stars”.

But for Leaf fans, they represented something that the club had not really had since the early 60s- a comforting feeling that, whichever defense pair the coach sent out, they would work their tail off not to give up goals.

If the current group—and whoever joins it in the future—can mirror the ’93 group, it would be good news for Leaf nation, indeed.

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