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Putting the Burke re-build in some historical (Leaf) perspective

Leafs fans generally think of the 1980s as the wasteland decade.  A couple of 20- win seasons, not many playoff years and very modest actual playoff series “success”.  As I write this, I’m trying to remember how many (if any?) best four-out-of-seven playoff series they actually won in the ‘80s.

Why do I raise the 1980s Maple Leaf teams?  Well, in a roundabout way, I’d like to do a brief and not very-scientific comparison of sorts.

I realize what happened 25-30 years ago has nothing to do with where the team is now.  The eras were different.  Ownership and management are different.  The way the game is coached and played today is very different.  Understood.

But when Leaf fans understandably look for any shred of evidence that Burke’s continuing re-vamping (he doesn’t seem to like calling it a re-build, especially the five-year kind) of the roster is leading toward Cup contention, it’s sobering to look back.  Especially to a time when the Leafs were considered far worse than they are now—and do a little comparing of the two teams.

In the mid-later 1980s, Toronto had two good young goalies in the fold, Bester and Wregget.  (Personally, I was always more a Bester guy but I’ll write about that another time.)

They had Al Iafrate on the back end, and to me, in terms of pure skill, he was as talented a defenseman as the Leafs have had in all the years I’ve been watching the team.  He had, to me, the potential to be a true superstar.  And had it not been for a serious injury and some internal team issues (and less than stellar coaching) he may indeed have been great.

Beyond Al, they had Gary Nylund (once a third-overall choice in the draft), rugged Bob McGill, offensively talented Jim Benning, the veteran Bill Root and of course Borje Salming.  They also had former North Star Brad Maxwell for a time, though he never played as well as he had in Minnesota.

Up front, they had an assortment of young, talented guys—Bill Derlago, Rick Vaive, a very young and rambunctious Wendel Clark along with Steve Thomas, Russ Courtnall, Peter Ihnacak, and the offensively talented Miro Frycer.  (He wasn’t a Burke grinder-type but trust me, the Leafs could use someone right now who could make plays and score like him.)  They also had some grinders like “Motor City Smitty”, Brad Smith, little Dan Daoust and Walt Poddubny.

Now, when you “compare”, for what it’s worth, that not-very-good (I mean, they were OK, but not a team that really went anywhere in the playoffs) team to today’s Leafs, the ’85-’86 version I’m discussing seemed to have way more talent and offensive pop than the current roster with Burke’s fingerprints all over it.

Interestingly, the GM through much of the 1980s was former Leaf goalie (he played a handful of games with the big team, but mostly played in the minors) was Gerry McNamara.  McNamara was a long-time Leaf scout who helped bring in Salming and Inge Hammarstrom as free agents from Sweden.  He was heavily criticized in his GM years, fairly or not.  He and his tiny scouting staff made some very good draft selections through the years, but a combination of injuries, coaching or just flat-out poor player development hindered any real progress the club might have made.

(Gerry’s biggest problem may have been the bunker-mentality he seemed to develop with the Toronto media.  With cantankerous owner Harold Ballard garnering the headlines and McNamara seemingly reluctant in his dealing with the local press, it was a bad combination.  It’s worth noting that his son, Bob, has been an excellent minor-league hockey executive for many years.)

My point is simply this:  we can criticize the Leaf teams from that era and conclude they were just awful and that McNamara did a lousy job.  That seems to be the general concensus.

But the facts suggest  while he did build some decent teams they just weren’t good enough to compete with the NHL’s best in an era when the Islanders and Oilers, and to a lesser degree Boston, Philly (at times), Montreal and Calgary, ruled the league.

So if we get excited at the idea that young Nazem Kadri, along with Phil Kessel, Mikhail Grabovski, Nik Kulemin and say, Kris Vertseeg, may help turn the Leaf fortunes around under Burke, think back to the team I just cited, the 1985-’86 Leafs.

They had a tough and rampaging Wendel Clark and all the other talented kids—Courtnall, Thomas, Vaive (a 50-goal scorer, kind of like 35 goals nowadays), Derlago and Frycer.

They had two promising young goalies, and a defense with high draft choices and veteran leadership in Salming.  On paper, that is a much better squad than what the current Leafs look like—again, recognizing this is a very time and hockey era.

And that team was not even close to being a Cup contender.

This is not to draw a conclusion that Burke has done a worse job than the mid-1980s Maple Leafs.  Simply to put the current reality into context.

So yes, we can and should hope, always hope.  But history suggests that the road is long.  It can be done, sure.  Other teams (Pittsburgh, in two separate eras), Washington, Tampa (when they won the Cup and again now) and others have turned their franchise around.  But it was generally built on the backs of absolute superstar draft picks (Lemieux and Jagr the first time in Pittsburgh, Crosby and Malkin more recently; Ovechkin in Washington and Lecavalier in Tampa; now Stamkos).

Are the Leafs close right now to “contention”?

I’d rather not say.  But by all means share your views here.



  1. Long suffering Leaf fanDecember 28, 2010 at 6:36 PM

    I know that this may sound a little strange for some, but the teams of the 80's as bad as they were did offer some glimmer of hope. It seems to me that Mr McNamara had some bad luck namely Gary Nylund injuring his knee twice in his rookie season, and later losing him to Chicago as a free agent, in which he did not get fair value in return. I believed at the time the rules for signing someone else's free agent was equal value or greater. Mr. McNamara asked for a young Ed Olczyk and judge Houston rules in favor of Chicago offer-Ken Yaremchuk and Jerome Dupont.

    Mr McNamara did have some luck at the draft table Russ Courtnall (I still believe he should have selected Cam Neely in the 1st round and Peter Zezel in the 2nd as I had hoped at the time), Al Iarate, Todd Gill, Wendel Clark, Vincent Damphousse just to name a few. The problem was that he didn't have much success in the later rounds. Believe it or not Mr. McNamara did make some shrewd deals to help his club, paying Washington a dollar for goalie Mike Palmateer, Tom Fergus for a underachieving Bill Derlago, Greg Terrion for a fouth rounder, and Mark Osborne for a young Jeff Jackson. Like most G.M McNamara did have his bad moments when it came to trades that seem to set his team back Rick Vaive, Steve Thomas and Bob McGill for Ed Olczyk and a aging Al Secord. But overall he did have a very good young team that needed a coach who had patience and was a teacher. Mike Nykoluk was too soft, Dan Maloney and John Brophy too harsh.
    I believe that the Leafs were coming together in 86 playoffs after they swept Chicago in the first round and took St. Louis to the limit in the 2nd round. And again in a thrilling first round series against St Louis in 87 and nearly defeating Detroit in the second round. After those two series it seems things went south for the Leafs until Fletcher sat in the GM chair.

  2. Thanks Long suffering...I agree, that as GM, McNamara did some good things throughout the '80s, including drafting some solid young prospects who turned into good NHL'ers.

    As I posted, I'm not suggesting there is a direct comparison, not at all, but it is interesting to look at what Burke is doing and contrasting with what the Leafs did 25 years ago. Will this team get past a "glimmer of hope", as you put it?