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Morgan Rielly and so many young Leaf defensemen with potential, which triggers a memory: how good could Bryan Berard have been?

One of the enjoyable things about being a hockey fan (or having a rooting interest in a team in any sport, really) is following the emergence of young “prospects”.  At times over the past several decades, that “hope springs eternal” thing has been one of the few saving graces of being a Leaf supporter.  It’s not as though we were exactly winning championships every few years.

We've needed something to hold on to.

But whether players are drafted right out of college and immediately step into a role at the major-league level (like in the NFL or NBA) or like baseball and hockey, usually take years of development to reach that level, watching a kid develop is fun for fans. Again, it’s the hope thing, especially if your team has been struggling in recent years.

Here in Leaf town, we are at a point in the recent metamorphosis of the franchise where the team actually has a number of emerging young players stockpiled in the system, most notably a truckload of defensemen who may be either within weeks—or a couple of years at most—from earning a Leaf jersey on a full-time basis.

We all know that Morgan Rielly heads the list, for reasons I don’t need to cite in detail.  I’ll just say that what I’ve seen of him indicates he has poise beyond his years and a head for the game.  His on-ice vision makes him special and his wheels don’t hurt what we see on the canvas, either. (I'd still like to see him play out his junior career before joining the big club, but that's Carlyle's call, it seems.)

The thing is—and this may be, for once, not simply a case of we Leaf fans being unrealistic and over the top in pumping our team’s tires when it comes to the pipeline—Rielly is not alone.  I’m nowhere near as qualified to speak on this subject as those who cover the up and coming Leafs (PPP, Maple Leaf Hot Stove, Blue ChipProspects, TML FansHope in the Big Smoke, Leaf Nation, Five Minutes for Fighting, etc.) on a regular basis, but I do know there are a host of young D-men who could form a pretty impressive kiddie-corps blueline if the Leafs chose to go that route.  (They should at least be impressive in the upcoming prospect tournaments…)

You likely all know the names better than I do:  Finn, Leivo, Blacker, Granberg, Nillson, Percy and of course the aforementioned Rielly. (Feel free to job my memory with regards to other young defenders that are on the verge of being Leafs some day.)

Now, it’s not certain that all of these will make it, of course.  Some won't.  Some may be stars, others may ultimately fall into the category of high-end minor-leaguers or simply serviceable NHL’ers.  It’s rare that all of a team’s young prospects became impact players.  In fact, I can’t recall that it has ever really happened for any team.  There are always hits and misses when to comes to prospects.

That said, I can’t help but think back to a situation that still stands out as terribly unfortunate when it comes to memories of  promising young Leaf defense prospects.  The guy I’m thinking about today is Bryan Berard.

Here is a young man who played, what, maybe a hundred games with the Leafs during what turned out to be a twelve-year NHL career.  Yet I remember him almost exclusively as a Maple Leaf.  He still stands out for me in that category of “what could have been”. He was that good.

Just as we have hope that some of the youngsters I mentioned in this post today will become solid Leafs (maybe even better than that), Berard had massive amounts of potential.  He really was in the Rielly category, if you will. I’m trying to recall if he was a first overall pick in the draft ('96?), but he was a very high first-round pick, I know that much.  Despite his early prowess with the Islanders (40 assists as a rookie defensemen as a 19 year-old) the Leafs somehow lured him away from the Isles in a deal that sent one-time Leaf netminding hero Felix Potvin, right, the other way. (We didn’t need Potvin any more with the arrival of Curtis Joseph, but Felix remains a very popular former Leaf to this day.)

Those of you who were around at the time will recall that the Leafs were building a very good team under then new coach Pat Quinn.  Berard’s arrival spurred the team to even greater heights, and he was a big part of the Leafs getting through to the third round of the playoffs in the spring of ’99 after not having even made the spring dance the two seasons prior. He was all of 21 at the time.  He could skate and move the puck.  He saw the ice so well.  He was not Scott Stevens in terms of a physical game but he was a wonderful complement to some of the rugged Leaf defenders we had at the time.  (Markov and Yushkevich come to mind, if I am remembering correctly…)

A lot of us still remember that awful game in March of 2000 when an Ottawa player’s stick came up and hit Berard in the eye.  He would subsequently lose vision in the eye.  While he fought courageously to make a comeback and play on (and he really did have a remarkable career in the end, despite playing with such an obvious limitation, right through to the end of the 2007-’08 NHL season.) Bu sadly,  he had played his last game for the Leafs.

What could he have been? And what could the Leafs have become with a brilliant young defenseman like Berard quarterbacking their offensive game, including their power play, as he gained NHL experience over the years.  Remember what we accomplished in 2002?  What if we had had Berard?

Again, Berard played hard and well after his amazing come back. And while he certainly still scored goals and put up points through his time with the Rangers, Bruins, Hawks and Blue Jackets, he was never a ‘plus’ player again (a somewhat limited stat, I realize), as he had been in his last year with the Leafs. (Those weren’t very good teams at the time, as I look back, but he was still largely an effective player, to his credit.)

So as I sit here and think about the future, I can’t help but also think that, as with life in general, nothing is certain.  By all means we should enjoy the idea that the Leafs have some promising young players.  As I mentioned earlier, some of them may go on and do great things here or elsewhere. We fans need something to latch on to.

Regardless, just like the players themselves probably should (and I'm guessing some do), maybe we just need to appreciate the time they share their talents with us, because it can be gone in an instant.


  1. The Berard injury was one of the most horrifying of my Leaf fandom. It was so clearly a serious injury and I was fearful for him and the devastation of such a life/career altering injury. I winced along with millions of viewers, hoped for the best but expected far worse.

    When I started thinking about my Leafs without the hope that came along with the trade for Bryan (along with the high cost of Felix's departure - even if I was happy about Cujo coming on board), I remember being incredibly 'sad'. It was all just so unfortunate.

    When I think about Reilly, I'm thankful he has recovered so well from his major knee surgery. I'm thankful he had a full year to put a year at that level back on his knee. I'm hopeful that he has a bit more time to continue 'adjusting upward' through the World Juniors (at least) before we even think about him as a Leaf (though I hope he has a playoff run in Junior or the AHL again, before challenging for a spot next year.

    In the meantime, as long as Franson gets signed before the temptation to see Morgan (for 9 games) rears its ugly head, I think it would be in his long term best interest to continue his strength and conditioning while focused upon his defensive game.

    I can think of another defenseman who made it to the NHL at 18 only to have a career shortened by multiple knee injuries (that may have something to do with excelling while playing above your physical maturity). Of course, I'm not saying that Morgan is another Bobby Orr, but if it can happen to Orr, it can happen to any gifted skater... Gardiner didn't expect to be in a position to be concussed in the AHL, either, yet young players sometimes open themselves to injuries because they are so skilled...

    Sometimes 'stuff just happens' like with Berard. Hopefully, Bryan filled up that quota for years to come.

  2. We all want to see Rielly in Toronto. Some of us would just prefer that it be when he is fully "cooked", InTimeFor62. As you say, time with Team Canada would be perfect...

  3. Maybe I take this stuff too seriously but it still upsets me now that you have reminded me of what a player Berard was and he was the #1 overall pick by the Sens who he did not want to play for. I remember Berard having amazing speed and making rink length rushes he was such a good skater which reminds of how good he was skating in Battle of the Blades two years ago. By the way Battle of the Blades is back this year an is definitely worth watching. I skipped the first season because I am not into figure skating but my wife loved it and got me to watch a show in the 2nd season. One show and I was hooked, I'm still not into figure skating but I had to admit the show was pretty decent. Anyway Gardiner makes rink length rushes now that remind me of Berard and it would really be nice if Rielly turns out to be another Berard. Two Berards on one team would be amazing! Berard's injury probably cost the Leafs a Cup as the Leafs were close to 1st overall at the time and they were a team built for the playoffs. But losing the Cup is still nothing compared to a life changing injury to a star player or anyone for that matter. The new visor rule will definitely prevent future eye injuries. Right now I am just thinking about that night watching that game in March 2000 and how upset I was for Berard and I know never want to see that ever happen to another player.

    1. I don't like to bring up this kind of "memory" either, Alton. We're on the same page. Such a talented guy. He should still be a star in this league.

      I haven't paid attention to Battle of the Blades but I will check it out now that you have suggested it.

      And yes, Rielly and Gardiner are clearly talented young players. Some have said they play too much of the same game to be effective on the same team, but I think we can live with that kind of skill, as long as we have some physical guys who play well in their own end to complement them. Thanks Alton.

  4. Hey Michael,

    it's sad to hear about berard (Hockey/the leafs were not available to me @ that time as I was not in the country yet) - he could have had an even greater career than he did and it could have helped the leafs perhaps too - but some things just have to be let go.

    I can think of another leaf who has come back from adversity that has only excelled further - Phil Kessel. I am so glad to know his cancer was caught early - imagine if it had spread - we/hockey/the Kessel family could have lost a gem from the game or even from existence.

    Reimer - came back and slayed the demon - so to say.

    Lupul - came back from the brink of retirement and perhaps serious health risks.

    I think one of the things that we should also keep in mind is the strength of character that most of these current leafs possess to fight and come back to the sport and excel.

    Somebody who was really brave yet couldn't survive in the market - "the Monster". He lost both parents and had heart related health issues - yet - almost made it into a starter position in his final year - before the epic collapse that swept him out of T.O. for good.

    Lets hope that some of the same character to fight is in these emerging leafs defencemen - regardless of whether they stay in Toronto or not. It always great to see a comeback as a fan.

    Anon from Scarborough

    1. Great stuff, Scarborough Anon. Glad you mentioned Gustavsson. I still pull for him, in part for the reasons you cited.

      Comebacks can make wonderful stories, for sure. You mentioned some excellent examples with the Leafs.

  5. What an excellent topic, Michael.

    I remember talking about this very subject a couple of years ago and the general consensus was that had Berard not suffered the traumatic eye injury and allowed to continued developing, the Leafs very likely would have won the Stanley Cup at some point before the 2005 lockout.

    Thinking back on those teams, one thing the Leafs lacked was a push-rusher who could change the complexion of the game on both sides of the ice. Sure, we had Kaberle, but had Berard been playing and developing over the years, we might have never paid the absurd price paid for Leetch. Perhaps we might have had McCabe playing on the second pairing.

    There are so many unknowns. But knowing that Berard was very close to reaching his upside and becoming one of the league's best defenders makes it easy to presume that the Leafs would have been that much deeper and more dangerous for a deeper Cup run.

    1. Agreed, Chris. The Leafs were close, and a player like Berard could well have been the difference. All teams suffer "injuries", but this was different. Just tough, real tough. Thanks for posting.

  6. As an Islanders fan, Berard was one of my favorite players when I younger. If the Leafs were looking for a player to latch on to, think about the Islanders. Any other team would have built around him. But Mike Milbury's Islanders weren't just any team. Unfortunately.

    Lighthouse Hockey (where I'm a contributor) has a series called the Lost Milbury Files and the entry on Berard sheds some light on his trade to Toronto.

    1. Thanks for sharing that link, Dan. The story sheds some light on how the Leafs ended up with a prized young player.

  7. What an awful moment! I think it was Hossa's stick, wasn't it, when he played for the Senators? A slightly reckless (perhaps) swing of the stick. I felt so bad for Berard - and always followed him after he left the Leafs. I agree with those who think his loss seriously damaged the Leafs march to a Cup final. We had a heck of a team then, with two of my favorites (as well as yours, I gather) Yushkevich and Markov to add the muscle needed with a skill player like Berard quarterbacking from the blueline. His potential was superstar level, I thought at the time, and it's one of the tragedies of sport that he never got the chance to really fulfill it.

    1. I'm trying to remember the name of the excellent junior player back in the '70s who suffered a similar (but in his case career-ending) eye injury- was it Greg Neeld? Maybe someone can confirm that for me.

      Yes, an awful injury for Berard and for the franchise. Thanks Gerund O'.

    2. It was Greg Neeld and I still remember when he lost his eye and his legal battle to play in the NHL there were a lot of news stories back then about it which I vaguely remember. This story from the Star just last July fills in the details and because of the Neeld injury Jr A players were required to wear visors.

      But I id a seach and it apparently was the NHL all the stiries - I r - long time ago but it seems to me the NHL would not let him play for safety reasons and potential law suits. The Star had a story on Neeld just a while ago.

      e afraid he he coul losesee him lose his other eye and sue there was quite the legal battle (my memory is not that good , I can remember a lot of news stoies . battle to hearing about him losing his eye years ago.s

    3. Yes - I seem to remember that Greg Neeld had his NHL career derailed because of an eye injury. I believe he was the first player to wear an eye shield after that incident, and continued playing in the minors, but the NHL had some kind of rule about sight in both eyes - or something - that prevented him from playing with whoever drafted him.

    4. Thank you Alton, and Gerund as well. That was the name that sprung to mind, but I wasn't sure...

  8. Just as a heads up, Leivo is a forward in our system. Cheers!

    1. Thanks I said, the prospect side is not my area of "expertise"!

  9. I remember the 1999-2000 season as one that began for Leaf fans with feelings of justified optimism. They were solid in goal with CuJo. They had a wonderful blend of youth and experience and skill and toughness on defense with Berard, Yushkevich, Markov, Kaberle, Cross and one of my favorites, the tough veteran Alexander Karpovtsev. They had 20+ goal scorers in Berezin, Hoglund, Korolrv, Sundin and another of my favorites, Steve Thomas.

    I can't help but feel that something intangible was lost along with the remarkable skills that he brought when Berard was injured. I know I lost some of my enthusiasm for the games after the terrible injury. I agree with you and many of the commenters that if the injury had not occurred they could very well have won the cup.

    1. hi Pete Cam- I know we Leaf people too often speak in terms of "what if" (e.g. '93) but I think you are absolutely correct. We had a very good team in the early 2000s. Every year we had a shot at something special. How much of a difference would a healthy Berard have made? We can only speculate, but common sense suggests he would have meant a great deal. (I loved Steve Thomas as well, by the way. I wish he had had a third crack at the Leaf lineup a few years ago...) Thanks Pete.