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Skill testing questions for Leafs fans: does the current Leaf team have any of these types of former Leafs….?

A couple days ago, I tried to focus on some of the positive things the Leafs have built up over the past few years, as I do believe there is the nucleus of something successful here.  Yesterday, I questioned whether management (forget the players, that ship seems to have sailed) have quietly packed it in as well, and have joined many fans who are actually hoping (sad as that is to think) that the team does indeed flop their way through the rest of the season to ensure a top three-to-five pick in the upcoming June entry draft.

No member of the Leaf brass would ever concede that, of course, but given that all we keep hearing from Nonis, Dudley and Poulin  is the fluff about “the future” and how great a job of building they are doing, well, what else can we think?  No one is stepping forward to offer an explanation for the disaster that has been these last two months.

But I’ll set that aside for the moment, and try a hybrid approach today.  That is, let’s look at some of the good pieces here (through your eyes), and try to, if not compare exactly, maybe relate the current roster experience and potential with some Leaf teams and players of the past.

Let’s start:

You perhaps remember Darryl Sittler.  Sittler (right) was the captain of the Leafs from the mid-70’s to his (disastrous) departure in a trade to the Flyers in the early-esh ‘80s.  But for about five pretty successful seasons here, Sittler was a real hockey warrior, scoring at a very high rate while being a physical front-line center who (unlike Bobby Clarke in Philadelphia) could—and would—fight his own battles. He was, for his time, one of the top power forwards in the game, though we didn’t use that terminology at the time.  Guys rallied around him, and looked up to him because of his leadership and work ethic.

So who fits the Sittler bill now, or may soon?

Before Sittler there was another Leaf captain, by the name of Dave Keon.  He played here from 1960 through to his unceremonious departure in 1975.  (Thanks, again, Harold…)  To many observers, Keon (left) was not a great team “leader”, but he certainly led by example on the ice, though his last couple of seasons in Toronto were somewhat tainted by diminished production and on-again off-again criticism from ownership.  Still, Keon was, for many fans (including me), the ultimate Leaf.  He was one of the fastest players of his early ‘60s generation.  While not a natural goal-scorer, he created so many chances for himself that he still generally managed 20+ goals a season when that was a high-water mark for very good players.  (Come to think of it, it seems to be again these days in the NHL…).  While not a physical player or a fighter by any means, Keon played the game with his feet and his head, using angles to cut off people’s lanes.  He led the team every year not in “hits” but in “take-outs”.  He never took penalties (I mean, really, like four minutes a year) and killed penalties well. He was the team’s number-one center through virtually his entire 15-year career.

Who is our modern-day Keon?

Lanny McDonald was one of my favrotie Leaf wingers from the ‘70s.  He was a high-scoring junior player who struggled offensively in his first couple of seasons with the Leafs.  In fact, such were his difficulties that a veteran Toronto Star writer said McDonald would never be a goal-scorer at the NHL level.  (He went on to score 500 goals in a Hall-of-Fame career.  Hey, beat writers don’t always get it right, eh?)  The thing I really loved about Lanny is that he would work the corners diligently and could hit guys in open ice.  His one-on-one battles with Montreal’s Bob Gainey were classic.  I remember, in the mid-‘70s (probably the ’74-’75 season) McDonald nailed superstar defenseman Denis Potvin and Bobby Orr with big-time ass-over tea kettle open-ice hip checks at the Gardens.  I knew then that I liked the guy.  Anyway, he was a great Leaf, and the beginning of a hopeful (though  short-lived) era under Roger Neilson died when Neilson and GM Jim Grgeory were fired, and incoming General Manager Punch Imlach traded McDonald to, of all teams, the Colorado Rockies in 1980 (right)—just to get back at Sittler, who Punch thought was running the dressing room.  Odd situation.  You really had to be there..

Who is our Lanny McDonald?  Anyone close?

In goal, in the early 1970s we had Bernie Parent here for a couple of wonderful seasons, until he jumped to the WHA, which was a huge heartache for Leaf fans at the time, myself in particular.  Then Mike Palmateer stole the show in the late 1970s.  Mike was not a big guy, and, like the legendary Gump Worsley before him, did not look like a "typical" athlete, though many goalies didn't in those days.  He was as cocky as you could imagine and had a great glove hand.  He was a rare lefty goalie, who caught with his right hand.  He was scrambly, athletic, acrobatic, entertaining and occasionally spectacular. He seemed to be the kind of goalie that gave his teammates a sense of confidence that he would bail them out, a bit like Grant Fuhr did for the Oilers in later years in the high-scoring ‘80s.

Any Palmateer’s on the horizon?

One of my favorite Leafs of all time only played here a couple of seasons.  That was Brian Spencer.  He was not a gifted skater, but he was a ‘Tazmanian devil’ on skates.  He hit, he fought, he was a really, really good third and fourth-line guy.  In fact, he played that role with the Sabres in the mid-70s, and became a beloved player with Buffalo on their third line, often with current Leaf management staffer Rick Dudley on his opposite flank.  (Now that was a hard line to play against…) He was an "energy line" player before we started using that term. Spencer was a guy who wore the Leaf crest with intense pride, and would stand up for his teammates at the drop of a hat.  That he could chip in with some timely offense on occasion was almost a bonus.  He was let go by the Leafs after an injury, and went to the Islanders in the expansion draft of the time, a sad day for me.

Who is going to be our “Spinner” Spencer?

Every good team needs a bellwether defenseman.  For the Leafs, for better or worse, that was Borje Salming for close to 20 years in the 1970s and ‘80s.  Borje was a splendid skater who was a bit of a Gumby on ice.  Not as fast in a straight line as his Swedish teammate Inge Hammarstrom,  he nonetheless could skate away from trouble and turn on a dime.  His weakness was that he was not great in front of his own net.  He tended to fall down while guys would bat the puck past the Leaf goalies.  (I have this enduring mental image of big Bruin and Flyer forwards hammering away at rebounds with Ian Turnbull and Salming fishing around for the puck on their hands and knees, when they should have been knocking down the opposition players...) But other than a couple of ill-timed give-aways in the playoffs against those Flyers (I’m not bitter) in the mid-later ‘70s, Salming had a very good career. He blocked shots, played hurt, was a real good Leaf.

Can we conjure up a Leaf “D” who can play a bit like Borje?

Al Iafrate was another Leaf whose name I like to raise because he may have been the most gifted defenseman I’ve seen in more than 50 years of observing the Maple Leafs.  I don't mean he was the best, but of all the Leaf defenseman I’ve seen over the years, he seemed the most naturally talented.  He had good size for his era, could really skate, and used his long reach so well.  He had a booming, and I mean booming slapshot. Not always great in his own zone (better coaching might have helped…), some serious knee injuries and off-ice issues led to a trade to the Capitals in the early ‘90s.  But boy, could he skate and shoot.

Another Al out there somewhere?

Gary Roberts, for more recent Leaf aficionados, brought a lot of important traits to the Maple Leaf hockey club.  We all know he was tough as nails and in top physical condition. Not the prettiest skater, he still generally got where he needed to go.  He could fight, sure, but mostly he was a rugged player who, when he hit a guy, they knew they’d been hit.  If you were just becoming a Leaf fan in the early 2000s, you probably fell in love with Gary Roberts in some of those wonderful playoff series (you remember the playoffs, right?).  A leader, too, he was a vital cog, the kind of guy that could play on your first line if necessary but made all the players around him better by sheer determination.

Calling Gary Roberts?

I mention those names (and could throw in many others) not because anyone on the current roster has to be exactly like any of the above players, in terms of skill set, attitude or the way they play, but simply because each of these players brought something special to the table that, with the right mix, can be invaluable to a good hockey club, especially a team that wants to get to the playoffs—and do something once they get there.  McDonald, Keon and Roberts all won Cups in their NHL careers.  Spencer got to the finals with the Sabres in 1975.  All those other individuals played a lot of playoff hockey.

I’d just be interested to know if you see a bit of any of the players I cited above (or other former Leafs you may remember fondly) in our current crew of Leafs.

I look forward to hearing from you.


  1. I see a bit of Al Iafrate in Phaneuf. Good size, speed, booming shot and trouble in his own zone.

    Lanny had a really quick shot as does Phil Kessel, but most similarities end there.

    The similarities to other great Leafs is mostly missing on this team.

    With his decent two-way play and ability to get up after a bit hit, Grabovski makes me think of Gilmour sometimes, but he doesn't carry the team the way Gilmour did.

  2. Of all those guys you mentioned I think the closest we come is Gardiner as Salming. Gardiner is not an overly physical guy who has some defensive shortcomings. A better skater than Salming but very gifted offensively.

    The next guy I can think of is probably Brad Ross as "Spinner" Spencer. By all acounts Ross is a nasty peice of work. He score lots in junior but would probably fit really well as a third line guy that just makes life miserable for the oposistion. Still can chip in offensively as needed.

    Funny enough I still see Reimer as the goalie of the future. Espicially under Carlyle's coaching staff. Never going to be as athletic as Palmateer but I feel he will still be very good. One of my first memories was of Palmateer racing a guy for the puck at the blue line and poke checking the puck away. I was just a youngster at the time, still in single digits, and had never seen a goalie do that. I remember looking at my dad and seeing him laughing and I asked who that was. "That my son is Mike Palmateer". He instantly became my favourite player. Shortly after that he was gone therby beginning my life long habit of having my dreams crushed by the Maple Leaf orginization. Something that continues to this day if you can beleive it.

    The only other guy I see who has an outside shot is Jesse Blacker as Al Iafrate. He might not be as good a skater as Al was but from what I have read he skates pretty well. He is a big guy who while not the best defenseman seems to be good at most things. He scored lots as a junior but still has a phyiscal side to him. Maybe a poor man's Iafrate.

    For sure no Sittler, McDonald, Roberts or Keon. I would say probably no one even close.

    One guy I might keep an eye on is Colbourne. He is not nearly as talented as Sundin but remember Sundin was good for 80-85 points a year as a Leaf. I think Sundin's biggest talent was his consistency. Year after year he put up a PPG pace or better. Colbourne might not equal that pace but as big center if he puts up 75-80 point every year he could be that guy. Not a superstar but a star who is consistent.

  3. Some good news from the OHL playoffs:

    Leafs prospect Andrew Crescenzi is 6th in playoff scoring with 8 points in 5 games. He's a big kid, up to 6'5" and 213 lbs this year.

    Another Leaf prospect, Sam Carrick is right up there with 6 points in 4 games.

  4. Thanks DP. I thought about Lanny and Kessel, too (I've [posted here before that Phil has a little Mike Walton in him, too...)

    Agree on Grabbo. Hard-working centre, but no Gilmour- who is?

  5. Super post Willbur....Thanks for those young names, all guys we can keep an eye on. Thanks.

  6. I meant to say, Willbur, that I'm with you on Reimer- but we may be in a small minority!

  7. I’d just be interested to know if you see a bit of any of the players I cited above (or other former Leafs you may remember fondly) in our current crew of Leafs.

    Uhh.... nope. What I see are a lot of Dmitri Khristichs, Peter Ings, Ron Sedlbauers, and Robert Reichels.

  8. I can see you've been following the team for quite a number of years Anon....

  9. Long suffering Leafs fanMarch 31, 2012 at 10:38 AM

    Mike love the topic and photo's along with the memories! Where is Dave "Tiger" Williams in your leadership assessment??

    Hmm...of those leaders mentioned I see a similarity of Brian "Spinner" Spencer in Mike Brown, but Spencer was a better scorer.

    Funny that you see Walton in Kessel. Outside of their speed and shot I don't see the similarities. A more accurate comparison to Walton for me is Grabovski and here is number of reasons why:
    1. Better suited skating north to south oppose to going east to west.
    2. Small in statue, but not afraid to stick their noses into the dirty areas.
    3. Both, had and have that one game on two games off, two games on one game off mentality.
    4. Not very strong in the defensive end. Wasn't this one of the struggles Punch had with Walton?
    5. Could change the course of a game with one dynamic play, but sadly not often enough to be a top tier player.

    Kessel reminds me, with slighty more talent of a John Anderson and Errol Thompson. Ex-Leafs who could hurt the opposition with their speed and shot. But like Kessel succumb to tight checking.

    PS, Its interesting to read Stars Dave Feschuk article where former Leafs questioned Dion Phaneuf leadership abilities, and the tall-telling RIF between he and Luke Schenn. I guess the summer will spell the end for Luke being a Leafs, as Pal Burke looks upon his "alter ego" (Phanuef) as the "savior" of the franchise.

  10. You're right about Tiger, Long Suffering. I did think about including him, but realized I was getting a little "long" on this post!

    And it's f air point about Kessel/Walton. For me it is exactly what you stated, the speed and shot, though Walton was more of a snapshot guy and Kessel more of a wrist shooter. (I guess the flair they each have/had was part of my thought process there, too...)

    I hear you on Grabovski, yes. And I see your point on Thompson and Anderson, though Phil is a better pure finisher, I think.

    We've discussed Phaneuf in this space before. Wearing a "C" and being a leader can be, as we all understand, two very different things.

    Like you, I think Schenn's future is elsewhere, but we'll see. I'll have more to say on that soon.

  11. While nobody is ever going to match up as a "twin" or a former player, Grabbo is clearly the guy who comes closest in character. After that game against Boston, where Chara crushed him twice, the guy's concussed, he comes back and scores... that clinched it. That made him a Leaf forever, at least to me.

    Otherwise, we have a lot of guys who COULD become something like these former greats. Next year, with some changes, and a new character to the team, some of these individuals will begin to stand out, and take on new roles in our minds.

    Here's hoping.

  12. I'm with you on Grabovski, Anon.

    And I think your last point was probably the trigger for my post. We're all wondering who (including some of the young guys on the way) has some of those traits (like those earlier really good Leafs) to help get this team to contending status.

    Well said. Thanks.

  13. Long suffering Leafs fanMarch 31, 2012 at 4:15 PM

    Talk about comparisons. Just finished watching the fabulous 71 series between the Leafs and Rangers. Man, if the late John McLellan would have moved Sittler up with Keon, and Monahan back with Dupere the outcome might have turn out a little different. Oh, well all things consider. I was amaze to see how Matt Frattin strong skating strides resembles former Leafs great Ron Ellis! Now if the young rookie can capture Ellis success we will be in good shape eh!

    Speaking of Ellis, don't you think its a mystery why he doesn't get enough recognition for his solid career from the Leafs or the HHF selection committee? After all,when Bob Gainey was starting out with the Habs many compared him to Ellis. I guess all those Stanley Cups's gave the former defensive checker an advantage. Sad though, when one compares the numbers of Ellis to Gainey's, and too the fact when Harry Sinden was selecting the Canada's 72 summit team he specifically asked for Ellis. And to think that two Leafs and a Flyers may up one of the best checking lines history ever witness, who would have thunk it?

  14. I don't know if I would be right in saying Ellis was under-rated, but he was certainly a fine Leaf, Long Suffering. (The '71 series remains painful to this day...we were up two games to one and just died in Game 4 at home on a Sunday night....)

    The Gainey point is interesting. Both he and Ellis were outstanding defensive players. Ellis was better offensively, of course.

    Clarke (of all people between Ellis and Henderson, yes...

  15. Nice one, Michael. This is exatly the kind of post I began following your blog for.

    As someone who only discovered hockey in 2000 (although my love affair with the Leafs began a scant 2 weeks later), reading you all draw these comparisons is fascinating and also shows that Leaf's fans are maintaining a core of passion despite the current woes: would anyone have bothered if they'd given up hope?

    Being a late starter, Gary Roberts is the only one of the above I saw play (although I think Lanny was a coach the year I came to Canada) and my recollections of him gel with your own. Hopefully we can find someone with his kind of moxy to play with and stand up for Kessel.

  16. Thanks for the kind words, Kiwi Leaf.

    As for Roberts, well, I think most Leaf fans would agree with you- we could use a player like him now. We can't expect Kessel, as you cite, for example, to play his game and handle that stuff, too. That's not his game.

    A guy like Roberts, who worked so hard and brought enough skill (along with all those other attributes) to be a high-end impact guy, would be a nice fit now, for sure.