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Will the Leafs ever have another end-of-season NHL All-Star?

With the Olympics winding down, NHL hockey returns shortly. The Leafs will continue to rebuild their squad, with an eye toward 2011-12 and beyond.

There was genuine excitement before the break, largely due to the arrival of Dion Phaneuf and J.S. Giguerre. Acquiring “star” caliber players makes the earlier move to trade for Kessel all the more significant, with some actual building blocks now in place.

That said, we all know, and Brian Burke certainly knows, there is so much more to be done to build a truly competitive team. This squad lacks an abundance of elite-level players. And the question I have been pondering the last few days is: Will the Leafs be able to produce a legitimate “All-Star” in the foreseeable future?

To be an NHL All-Star is not easy. (An all-time Leaf, Dave Keon, pictured above in action in the early ‘60s against the Bruins, played 22 years combined between the NHL and WHA, and “only” made it twice. ) I don’t mean a mid-season selection to the annual All-Star game. That’s an achievement, sure, but my point of reference is the end-of-season All-Star team, when they name the very best players at their position from the season just ended—a total of 12 players out of the more than 700+ individuals who play in the NHL in any given season.

The difference between the two (mid-season versus year-end) is similar to the gap between selection to the NFL Pro Bowl and the end of season NFL “All-Pro” team. Almost everyone makes the Pro Bowl at some point, it seems—and many of those who do pass on actually playing in the game. So you end up with, say, the seventh-best quarterback in action. On the other hand, the “All-Pro” selections are the absolute best of the best.

It’s the same with the end of season NHL all-star selections. Only the best players at their position make that “team”.

How hard is it to make? To put things in context, the best player of the past thirty years, Wayne Gretzky, made the end-of-season first all-star team once in the last twelve seasons of his illustrious career. (He was a second-team all-star 4 times in that span. In five of his last ten seasons, he wasn’t an all-star at all. That’s how hard it is.)

At the moment, no one would even think of a member of the Maple Leafs being in that category. But now that they have acquired Phaneuf—good enough to be in the running for the Norris Trophy just a couple of years ago—could the Leafs actually have a true “All-Star” in their future?

As discouraging as the present seems in this regard, there are precedents, of course. As I look back on my 50+ years as a Leaf fan, a few (though not many) have made this exclusive category.

Here’s the list of Maple Leaf All-stars from the mid-‘50s to the present that I’m aware of (let me know if I’ve missed any):

1959-’60 - Allan Stanley (second team defenseman)
1960-’61 - Allan Stanley (second team defenseman)
1960-’61 - Johnny Bower (first team goalie)
1960-’61 - Frank Mahovlich (first team left-wing)
1961-’62 - Carl Brewer (second team defenseman)
1961-’62 - Dave Keon (second team center)
1962-’63 - Carl Brewer (first team defenseman)
1962-’63 - Tim Horton (second team defenseman)
1963-’64 - Tim Horton (first team defenseman)
1963-’64 - Frank Mahovlich (second team left-wing)
1964-’65 - Carl Brewer (second team defenseman)
1964-’65 - Frank Mahovlich (second team left-wing)
1965-’66 - Allan Stanley (second team defenseman)
1965-’66 - Frank Mahovlich (second team left-wing)
1966-’67 - Tim Horton (second team defenseman)
1967-’68 - Tim Horton (first team defenseman)
1970-’71 - Jacques Plante (second team goalie)
1970-’71 - Dave Keon (second team center)
1974-’75 - Borje Salming (second team defense)
1975-’76 - Borje Salming (second team defense)
1976-’77 - Borje Salming (first team defenseman)
1977-’78 - Borje Salming (second team defenseman)
1977-’78 - Darryl Sittler (second team center)
1978-’79 - Borje Salming (second team defenseman)
1979-’80 - Borje Salming (second team defenseman)
2001-’02 - Mats Sundin (second team center)
2003-’04 - Bryan McCabe (second team defenseman)

Again, I may have missed some, and let me know if I have. Some observations on the above:

• In the 50s and ‘60s, there were perhaps between 25-30 “regular” NHL defensemen. I say this because there were only six teams, of course, and most teams played with only four or five guys on the back end. So while it was still a huge accomplishment to be selected to the end-of-season all-star list, it’s even harder now with so much talent and competition

• Frank Mahovlich (pictured at left) was seen throughout his Leaf years as an under-achiever. Even the year that he scored 48 goals, people were disappointed because he struggled at the end of the season and didn’t reach 50. Yet, despite the criticism he received, the future Hall-of-Famer was an NHL All-Star on four separate occasions

• I have fond memories of Allan Stanley as a truly solid defenseman with the Leafs in the ‘60s, and I knew he was a Hall-of-Famer, but I didn’t realize he was an all-star three times in Toronto. His higher-profile partner, Tim Horton, was an All-Star four times.

• An interesting thing about Keon’s selections is that they came ten years apart. Keon was a wonderfully skilled player, but there were many other outstanding centers throughout his long NHL career. To be so honored that many years apart says something about the quality of his play over a period of time, in two different eras—pre and post—expansion

• Carl Brewer walked away from Punch Imlach and the Leafs at training camp in 1965, still in his 20’s. He had been an all-star three of the previous four seasons—and was again when he came back to the NHL with Detroit in 1969-’70. Amazing.

• Salming obviously had an remarkable run - six seasons in a row as an all-star in an era with many top-end defensemen

• Once the ‘80s hit, the Leafs weren’t generally in the running for many individual honors, which mirrored their lack of team success throughout the entire decade

• The fact that those excellent Pat Burns-led teams in 1993 and ’94 had no All-Stars reminds us how balanced that team was (and how many good centers there were in the NHL, since Doug Gilmour never made it)

• Al Iafrate, traded earlier for Bob Rouse, was an All-Star in 1992-’93. He was amazingly talented, but Rouse was an indispensible part of that versatile Leaf defense

• McCabe was much-maligned during his time in Toronto, but he prospered under Pat Quinn and was good enough to be selected as one of the top-four defenseman in all of hockey in 2003-‘04

Bottom line, it’s a major achievement to make the real all-star team at the end of the year. It means you were the best of the best, at least for that season. Yes, reputation can help when you may not deserve it, but again, I believe that comes into play more for things like mid-season all-star games in basketball, hockey and baseball, or football’s Pro Bowl.

It’s hard to project where the current Leafs fit into this picture, but fans can dream, right?

Team success would be way more fulfilling, but in the meantime, Phaneuf seems to be a possible fit in the above category. Maybe someday we can talk about Kessel, Gunnarson, Schenn, Gustavsson.

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