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Who was the last real Maple Leaf superstar? Will Kessel be the next? Kadri? If not, who?

Just the other day I was thinking about the Leafs, past and present, and started going through in my mind:  who is the last Leaf player that really made me feel like we had a bona fide superstar talent in our line-up?

As many of you know, I started following the Leafs back in the late 1950s.  Most of the '50s were a somewhat bleak time for the blue and white, certainly so after their Cup in 1951 (the year of the famous Barilko OT winner against Montreal...).  While there were many fine players to perform for the Leafs (the legendary "Teeder" Kennedy was at the end of the line by the mid-'50s...), by the time I was really into following the Leafs, they were more a franchise in transition.  Then new GM, Punch Imlach, was trying too build a formidable team, mixing some outstanding young talent with solid veterans like Allan Stanley and Bert Olmstead, who came over from other teams.

But in terms of "superstars", I'm not sure we had any until the early '60s.  That “guy” was probably Frank Mahovlich (right).  He was big, fast, had a sizzling shot and could make those long, swooping, rink-long rushes.  The "Big M", as he was called, almost became a Blackhawk in an infamous one million dollar "sale"- the kind of thing that happens in professional soccer routinely these days (for much bigger dollars, of course), but back then, was a remarkable sum in sport, especially hockey.  He helped the Leafs win those four Cups in the '60s.  But Imlach traded Mahovlich before the end of the 1967-'68 season, ending an often tumultuous time for the supremely talented left-winger, who eventually went on to win two more Cups with the Habs.

In the ‘70s, I would say that while the Leaf had some talented guys, for sure, two players that could make you stand up and cheer for their pure individual brilliance were Darryl Sittler and Borje Salming.  Sittler was a power forward, though we usually think of those guys as wingers.  His 10 points in one game is still an NHL record, as Leaf fans well know.

Salming (left) was the smart, elegant, twisting, turning defensemen who was not the best guy in the world in front of his own net (he blocked a ton of shots, but was not the greatest at being physical in front of his goalie), but gave his heart and body to the team for many years and was probably our best all-around player most of the years he was here.

In the ‘80s, again, the team in its various incarnations had quite a number of talented guys.  Salming was still around.  But I’m thinking the one player who really made fans' hearts jump was Wendel Clark.  Toronto fans love guys (doesn't everyone?) who work hard and finish their checks.  Clark did that in spades.  And it didn't hurt that he had that outstanding wrist shot and would fight anyone to get the team going or protect his teammates.

In the early ‘90s, it was probably Doug Gilmour, though he was never really considered a “superstar” (despite being perhaps the best all-around player in the game in 1993 and 1994).  Later, we had Mats Sundin and he was a remarkable performer, though he left a lot of fans wanting more, much like Mahovlich more than 30 years before.

But right now, do the Leafs have a guy who makes you jump up and down?  Is it Kessel (right)?  The guy has elite-level skill and can score goals in bunches.  With some new talent to surround him for a full season (Lupul, Connolly?), is he capable of 40 goals- or more?  And will he step up and become a fine all-around player who can be a true difference-maker when it matters?

If not Kessel, will it be the even younger Nazem Kadri?

I’m not sure a team has to have a breathtaking Gilbert Perreault/Alex Ovechkin kind of player to be successful.  But the Leafs have a history of exciting, legendary players.  Yet in recent years, I’m not sure we’ve had that kind of player.

Do we have one now?  Is one emerging?

I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.


  1. I don't think we do. Kessel or Phaneuf could become such players, and Schenn could be one of the league's best but, as a defensive defenceman, probably won't be so prominent a star. I've only been a fan this past decade, but no one since Sundin can turn a game like he could.

  2. I can't see one at present. If the team comes together, and starts scoring with 3 lines and playing tight defence, then someone will probably take that next step ahead of the pack, and sit on the edge of superstardown. Maybe a Grabovski, maybe Kadri. Maybe one of the kids - Colborne or Frattin (if he plays like a Wendel.)

    But right now, nope, can't see one.

  3. I don't think we have a bonafide superstar in the pipe at all, and I don't particularly care, with the exception that I'd be happy to have one join the team. My bet is on someone like Matt Frattin or Brad Ross becoming the heir to Darcy Tucker's crown as the king of Maple Leaf instigators/rough players. My feeling is that we have a very interesting collection of players who will be sharing small amounts of the spotlight for quite some time- if they/their coaches/BB can forge a real single team identity out of them, they have the potential to be a classic lunch bucket Leafs roster. Which would be a blast.

  4. No superstar at the moment - and I'm not sure we really need one. I think hockey, more than any other sport, requires great team play to guarantee success. How many times have we seen teams with a great star - or two - fall to a team of relatively lesser lights who are all playing together? As Kid K says above, - sure, I'd be happy to see one join the team. But I don't think it guarantees success.

  5. Gerund O and Kid K...I agree that no "superstar" is necessary to build a really good team. I think for this column I was just thinking out loud about who was the last real "superstar" here, and who may be the guy who becomes that some day. But not because we have to have one!

    And thanks Peregrine and Quinn esq...valid points all...

  6. "Not needing a superstar" having been said, let's also not make the mistake of worshiping a 2nd tier roster. If let's say, Crosby "retired" for 2 years, had his contract voided, recovered fully and signed with the Leafs, well then, SCF here we come.

  7. I beg to differ on not needing a superstar to win. Look at the last 5-6 cup winners and there at least two players on each team. Chara-Thomas, Toews-Kane, Crosby-Malkin, Lidstrom-Datsuyk.

    I don't see anyone in the pipeline that you would say is a superstar. Maybe Riemer has the chance but needs a couple of years. Other than him though the Leafs have an impressive collection of second tier talent (Colburne and Kadri included). But doesn't that seem always the way in Toronto, I can't remember when the the best player in the game actually played for the Maple Leafs. This probably accounts for the stunning lack of individual awards won by Leaf players. We have had some very good talent in To (Sundin, Belfour, Joeseph come to mind) but never the best of the best. For everyone saying you don't need superstars to win I point to my last sentence and 42 years without a cup. Seems kinda self-evident doesn't it

  8. Wilbur.....there are certainly excellent points in your comment. My sense is that those of us commenting above were making the point (some will disagree, of course) that you can have a pretty good, even entertaining team and one worth following, even if you don't have a "superstar" or that absolute "best" player in the game.

    Now, whether a team can win a Cup without one or more of those top-tier guys, well, that is a point for debate, for sure.

    And many Leaf fans would acknowledge that it has been a long time (ever?) since the Leafs had the best player in the game on their roster. No Gretzky, Lemieux, Hull, Howe, Orr, Richard, etc. They did win in the '60s without superstars (maybe Mahovlich) but the game is different now...

  9. Your absolutely right Michael. You can have a very good team of everyday players. Every year we see a team of plucky decent players knock off a more talented team (Montreal come to mind from two years ago). But rarely if ever do they actually end up winning it all. Especially in a best of 7 series.

    I really think the Leafs this year could be a very entertaing team. I like most of the guys they have and few take any shifts off. It would really be nice though to have a top five player on the team to cheer for, just once.