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Who will provide the Maple Leaf "entertainment factor" this season?

One thing about the Maple Leafs through the first few weeks of the 2011-’12 NHL season:  they were entertaining.  Oh, I realize they were often less than sterling in their own zone, but they seemed to be giving, if not “max” effort, at least a pretty good effort most nights.  And, importantly, they could make plays, move the puck—and score goals.  They often looked faster than the team they were playing.  Was that something about Ron Wilson’s “system”?  Was it just that Kessel was not being checked closely through the first half of the regular-season?  Maybe it was the newly-'activated' Leaf defense corps, which saw Phaneuf and others taking chances up ice.  It could have been that Lupul was healthy for the first time in years and played more free-wheeling, and that spread to the the rest of the roster. We do have some guys who can fly.

In truth, I don’t really know why we looked so good at times, but though we all tended to focus on the obvious derailment that occurred in the last two months of the season, we shouldn’t deny what we also saw with our own eyes through January or so.  The Leafs played hard, they played fast, head-manned the puck well- including that quick (almost rink long) breakout pass to take advantage of a sometimes napping opposition.  They were fun to watch.  They didn’t always win but we’re back to that word: “entertaining”.

We all understand there is a new sheriff in town, and Carlyle will likely bring with him a different set of nightly expectations.  Each line will have a specific role, and there will be a lot of line-matching.  That likely means we’ll see fewer minutes from Kessel and the first line (and more from the third and  fourth lines), but that’s just the way it's going to be.

Now, teams -and individual players- can entertain us as fans in different ways.  An unorthodox goalie like a Mike Palmateer, Grant Fuhr or Dominik Hasek can lift you out of your seat, because they don’t play the standard, conventional style of their era.  Goalies like that often make those athletically brilliant, seat-of-their-pants saves that make you want to see the replay to figure out just how the heck they kept the puck out of the net.

You might be entertained by a defenseman who is a big bomber—that guy, like a Larry Robinson (left) or Scott Stevens,  who can level the opposition with clean but thundering body checks, the kind that stops the other guy in his tracks—and sends a message to the rest of the other team that they best keep their head up tonight. (I'm sure Hab fans of that era  still talk about the time Robinson hit Philadelphia's Gary Dornhoefer so hard, that he knocked the boards right of of their sockets at the old Montreal Forum - and the game was delayed while they put everything back together.)

A forward who can go the length of the ice like a Gilbert Perreault or Guy Lafleur, or has such fantastic on-ice vision that he can find the open man for those “easy” (though nothing is really as easy as it looks) tap-ins can do it for us as well.  I'm not sure anyone was more exciting than Bobby Orr in his prime, because he skated superbly and had that extra gear whenever he needed it.  Mario Lemieux had those silky smooth moves that made him special and Gretzky saw the game like few ever have, enabling him to do spectacular things on a fairly routine basis.

Indeed, there all kinds of ways we can be entertained.  Long-time Leaf tough guy Tie Domi stirred fan passions by taking on all comers, as Tiger Williams did for the blue and white back in the ‘70s.  Then there was the ultimate Toronto hockey entertainer, maybe of all-time, and that of course was the one-of-a-kind Eddie Shack.

Now I have to admit I was never a big Eddie Shack fan back when I was a youngster in the early 1960s.  (I had a lot of “favourite” Leafs over the years, but Eddie, for some reason, just wasn’t one of them.) Eddie had come over from the Rangers in one of many Punch Imlach trades in the early years that Punch was GM and re-building the franchise.  Eddie was a fine offensive player in junior hockey in the mid and later 1950s (Guelph, I think, but I’d have to check that) but didn’t play a ton with the Rangers in his early NHL days.  He was happy to join the Leafs, and though he was more of a river skater (I was born playing hockey on the local river, so I loved that style…sort of all over the ice, if you know what I mean) than a disciplined up and down winger.  (Check out the great photo of Eddie, at right, in the early '60s with the Leafs.  Seeing Eddie "in the air" was not that uncommon.  He would sometimes jump at guys to make a hit and you never really knew what he was going to do on the ice...)

But despite his rather unorthodox ways, he lasted almost a decade with the Leafs under the demanding Imlach.  Shack was not always a “regular”, but he usually made his minutes count.  He could fight, enrage and agitate the opposition (Montreal’s John Ferguson truly hated Shack) but the guy could also play. (In his last incarnation with the Leafs, in the mid '70s, he had the much of the St. Louis Blues roster after him on the ice at one point, including the tough Plager boys, after Eddie had again stirred things up...)

I think he scored more than 20 goals with the Leafs on a couple of occasions (and I'm pretty sure he finished with more than 200 goals in his career, a very good total back then) , but again I’d have to check the “stats”.  As a young Leaf fan he often drove me a bit crazy because he would be reckless and give the puck away sometimes or miss glorious scoring chances, but he also would, all of a sudden, launch one of those solo rink-long dashes with the puck that would make Leaf fans explode with excitement and anticipation.

He certainly played a role in all of the Cups the Maple Leafs won in the 1960s.  In fact, I believe he scored the winning goal on a deflection in Game 5 of the 1963 finals at Maple Leaf Gardens against the Red Wings—the Cup-clinching game that spring.

Ultimately, Eddie was traded after the ‘67 Cup season as Imlach wanted the slick-skating center Murray Oliver from the Bruins.  Shack went on to play well with Boston, and later in Buffalo, Pittsburgh and with the Kings, though I’m trying to remember the precise order.

He returned to the Leafs for a second time in the mid-‘70s, closing out his career with the organization with which he has always been most associated.

Now, we obviously don’t have an Eddie Shack in our line-up these days.  (I’m not sure we’ll ever see another quite like Eddie.) But I am hoping that the Leafs, even under Carlyle, will be fun to watch in the years to come.  Winning is the most important thing, yes, but fans like to be entertained as well.  Sometimes it helps to have a guy like Shack, or one of my all-time Leaf favourites, Brian Spencer, out there to stir things up and make something happen to get the team going on nights when they need a shot of adrenaline.  Guys like Shack and Spencer often provided exactly that and it can help.

I wonder who, on the current Leaf roster, will provide that kind of jolt when we need it?  Will it be Kessel, who is certainly our most dynamic offensive player?  Jake Gardiner?

Who do you anticipate will bring that dimension to the Leafs this season?


  1. Grabbo and maybe JVR...

    Carlyle likes Grabbo's defensive game so he will get lots of ice time.

    JVR will be looking for a fresh start.

  2. Thanks DP- hope someone fills the bill!

  3. I just hope there is a bill to fill.

    I could handle a couple of months of lockout, but I don't want to lose the whole season. I would rather start on time but I think that's unlikely.

  4. Well, ever hopeful I may be...

    I always liked Grabovski's game. Plays bigger than he is, has some speed and skill. He's got a little bit of Gilmour in him.

    I think Gardiner is going to be special, which I guess is the prevailing opinion. He should be someone who can spark the team with his offensive skills. Of course, he'll also cause some trepidation as he learns his craft on the blueline.

    JVR could turn into a Dave Andreychuk type I think. That's not going to be particularly 'exciting', but I hope it will be a dimension to the offence we have not had in a while.

    I look to Matt Frattin to provide more of that high-energy type of play. And if Kadri can win a spot, I hope he will bring some razzle-dazzle.

  5. Why not be hopeful, Mark! We'll have plenty of time, if and when there is a season, to converse about the gaps in our roster.

    All of those names are worthy of attention. We'll see if any provide that little something extra for fans!

    Thanks for chiming in on this one, Mark...

  6. It’s not mentioned as much as it should be, but Lupul can be extremely entertaining in the offensive zone. He’s one of the few leafs with the interest, and size to play physically in the corners and blue paint. He also possess a nifty little toe drag that he’ll often utilize near the blue line creating loads of space. When he’s in the O-zone there is no one (with the possible exception of Kessel) that I find more entertaining to watch.

  7. Good point on Lupul. I was a big fan of his years ago, Darren, and was glad to see him in form with the Leafs last season. Hopefully he'll stay healthy and can be productive and entertaining again this season. Thanks.

  8. Grabovski is always entertaining. The game he had in Boston where Chara crushed him will always stand out for me. I thought he was through for the night at least but he came back to score a spectacular goal on an end to end rush.

    Gardiner is another exciting player who has the potential to be moreso. Last year I was fortunate enough to be attending a Leaf game in Buffalo. Gardiner carried the puck end to end down the left side, then went around the net, circled above the defense and scored on a shot from the left circle...a truly beautiful goal.

    The Leafs also have, in Brad Ross and Leo Komarov, two players with Darcy Tucker entertainment value. I look forward to seeing them.

    I loved your reference to Eddie Shack. He was a true entertainer and one of the few players who could bring the staid Maple Leaf Gardens crowd to their feet. The stories about "Clear the Track" Shack abound but one incident stands out for me. Leafs were playing Detroit in MLG and Shack began one of his steamrolling head down rushes. Gordie Howe lined him up for a devastating bodycheck. Eddie looked up at the last second, leaped and flattened Howe. The referee (I think it was Frank Udvari but I may be doing him a disservice) blew his whistle and gave Shack a charging penalty. This is the first and only time I have seen a puck carrier penalized for charging. It is also one of the rare times I saw Howe on the seat of his pants.

    Shack and Bill Sweeney were 2 point a game players for the Guelph Biltmores and the Ranger's future looked solid. Sweeney only played 4 games in the NHL but had an illustrious AHL career. Shack played 141 games for the Rangers, scoring 12 goals.

    Shack was traded twice in February 1960 and both trades affected the Leafs. Shack was traded to Detroit by NY Rangers with Bill Gadsby for Red Kelly and Billy McNeill, February 5, 1960. Kelly and McNeill refused to report and the transaction was cancelled, February 7, 1960. In November Shack was traded to Toronto by NY Rangers for Pat Hannigan and Johnny Wilson. I can't imagine how the Leafs fortunes would have changed if Kelly had not refused to report to NY.

  9. Plenty of highlights in your post today, Pete Cam, in addition to your thoughts on young Ross and also Komarov.

    Your Howe/Shack story is great. Udvari was of course a well-respected referee in that era. The "play" you described was Shack, for sure.

    Thanks for the confirmation on where Shack played his junior hockey. I appreciate your reference to Sweeney as well.

    The Kelly deal, nixed as it was by the player himself, made Red a bit of a pioneer in standing up to management in those pre-union days. And as you correctly cite, it all turned to be a major blessing for Imlach and the Leafs.

    Thanks Pete Cam. Outstanding stuff.

  10. The kind of excitement Shack brought wasn't the "he's gonna score" type that Orr, Lafleur, Lemieux, Crosby, etc bring to a game. It was "now all hell's gonna break loose", like Tiger Willliams, Darcy Tucker, or Tie Domi brought to their shifts.
    I swear I remember a picture in the old Toronto Telegram or Star that showed two players... Rangers?... knocked out, each lying in a face off circle in the Leafs' zone, with Shack skating in the vicinity. In my memory, in this pre-helmet era, he'd head-butted both of them. I loved it! And he could go toe to toe with Ferguson - no small feat. His wildness meant he got the opportunity to score - reminiscent of Probert once he played with Yzerman, though Probert got way more goals I believe, being on the first line.
    I don't like pure "goon" hockey, though it used to be way more common than it is now, but I did like Shack when I was a kid. His end-to-end rushes always brought the crowd to its feet. Sometimes I think it wouldn't hurt if we had someone cast from the same mold on our bench. As it is, Gardiner may excite with his rushes, and Lupul and Kessel were truly exciting scoring threats last year, but I don't see anyone who'll provide Shack's "anything can happen" thrills!

  11. Shackie was one of a kind, for sure, Gerund O'. I think, in addition to his sometimes airborne tactics and his battles with guys like Ferguson, his ability to go end to end, as you mention, was a big part of his popularity.

    He didn't always keep the puck, but he was exciting!