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A note of caution but Versteeg, Armstrong provide pedigree—and hope, heading into new season

As I’ve posted recently, training camp usually brings hope for fans, and this year’s revamped Maple Leafs bring at least that.

Burke has re-worked their line up significantly over the last  twelve months.  Some individuals have make significant strides.  For example, did we think Bozak or Kulemin would be cornerstone players already?

And this past summer, they brought in some guys who have experience with “winning” organizations.  Colby Armstrong spent time with the Penguins on their way to a Stanley Cup, and Kris Versteeg was a key component of Chicago’s Cup victory just this past spring.

Players who bring not only a bit of sandpaper (Armstrong) and elite skill (Versteeg) tend to get fans a tad more optimistic then they otherwise would have been, for sure.

That said, I try to push the mental ‘pause’ button, just because I’ve been around a while and have seen similar movies in the past when it comes to the Maple Leafs.

Since I’m an old Leaf fan (born in 1953) I allow myself to reminisce about the good old days—days that included some championships for the blue and white.

But those good times ended abruptly, as we all know, after 1967.  The next time the Maple Leafs actually won a best-of-seven playoff series was in the spring of 1978, when they upset the New York Islanders.  (I’m trying to remember the time after that, in the 1980s, they won a best-of-seven series.  Against St. Louis, maybe?)           

In the early to mid-1970s, while there were hopeful times (the 1970-’71 season, for example), the team generally struggled.

I well recall, however, that before the 1974-’75 season, there was a lot of optimism, even though the team had struggled the season before and bowed out in four straight in the playoffs against the vaunted Boston Bruins of Bobby Orr.  (The Bruins had won the Cup twice earlier in that decade, and that year made it all the way to the finals, losing to Bobby Clarke, ex-Leaf Bernie Parent and the Flyers.)

There was optimism because the young Maple Leaf crew of Lanny McDonald, Bob Neely, Ian Turbull, Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom were all entering their second NHL season.  But a lot of the hope centered on the arrival of two bonafide NHL wingers—and “winners”.  One was fireplug Gary Sabourin (pictured at right), a long-time member of the St. Louis Blues, who had three times been to the Stanley Cup finals.  He was an almost annual 20-goal scorer but more importantly, a hard-driving player.  Then there was “Cowboy” Bill Flett, he of the big beard. He was part of the "Broad Street Bullies", Stanley Cup champions just the previous spring.

These two guys were going to give the Leafs some pluck and some goal-scoring— and help make them a solid playoff team.  The team still had the old guys, Ullman and Keon, and players like Darryl Sittler emerging, too.

Well, things didn’t go quite as hoped.  Sabourin, whose numbers had begun to soften his last year in St. Louis, worked hard but didn’t have the impact everyone had hoped.  Flett (shown at left in action with the Leafs) mostly struggled as well and never really fit, it seemed, on any Toronto forward lines.  He, too, had seen his “numbers” drop the year before in Philly (he had scored 43 goals two years prior) and was shut out in 17 playoff games with the Flyers.

That trend continued in Toronto.

In the end, the Leafs barely made the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference in ’74-’75, and while they did upset the highly-ranked LA Kings in the preliminary (two-out-of-three) round, they were squashed by the Flyers in four straight in the next round.

Long story short, though it was hardly the fault of Sabourin and Flett alone, the Leafs weren’t the team everyone had hoped they would be that season.

How does this relate to today’s team?  Not at all, I realize.  I only raise it because it’s an example of— and I’ll speak for myself— getting pumped about  roster improvements that, in the end, didn’t do much.

That said, I’m of the view that what Burke has done this past off-season will help the team.  Versteeg, unlike Flett, is entering the very prime of his NHL career.  He is actually getting better and he will have a prominent role with the Leafs.  I have no idea what he will contribute in terms of offensive totals, but he is a talented guy with, importantly, very recent (and successful) playoff experience.

Armstrong, also unlike Sabourin, who came to Toronto as his career was winding down, is in his peak years.  We shouldn’t expect him to score 30 goals, just to play the brand of hockey that will keep the other side honest.

Will the Leafs be better this season?

I’m not into predictions.  Everybody has one and they are fun, but meaningless.  Some prognosticators see them as significantly improved, others still not likely to make the playoffs.

My instinct?  They’ll be better—somewhat.  I’ll post more on this, before the opener later this week.

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