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Which Maple Leafs on this roster really deserve to be Leafs?

I guess what I’m really getting at in the “headline” question today is simply this: who are the players, in your estimation, that bleed blue and white and that you absolutely want to see on this team going forward?

My question is not intended to bring forward a discussion about analytics, or the cap (i.e. who we can afford, etc.), or whether management has been right or wrong about its many decisions over the past couple of years—or decade, for that matter. I’m more interested in going back to the hockey basics. In my world, that means: what is the kind of hockey player I like (speed, skill, knows where to be on the ice, heart, grit, etc.) and the kind of individual I like to see representing the Toronto Maple Leafs on—and off—the ice.

I’m probably too focused on Leaf history and what I think of as the Leaf “legacy”. I’ve written about it regularly here at VLM over the years and in the eBook that I wrote a while back. But I do think that stuff matters.  And while we all acknowledge that the Leafs have not been “winners” in, well, an awfully long time, I still believe there is a Maple Leaf standard here we should care about.

When I think about names like Allan Stanley (pictured at right in late 1950s action against Jean Beliveau), Bob Baun, Bob Pulford, Dick Duff, Ron Ellis, Dave Keon, George Armstrong, Darryl Sittler, Wendel Clark, Todd Gill, Doug Gilmour and many others, I know this: whether those guys won Cups here or not, they cared about the team and by and large, played their guts out every night for themselves, their teammates and us as fans, in good times and bad.

Yes, we tend to overdo it when it comes to glorifying the players of the past. Hey, they all had flaws and weren’t always at their best.  But they brought something really important to the table: they generally had a combination of skill and grit, and were real “Leafs”. They maybe started their career here (like Duff, Pulford, Keon, Sittler and others mentioned above) or joined the blue and white later in their career, like Stanley and Gilmour. But they were Leafs, bottom line, who played with heart and pride.

Looking at the current Leaf roster, what I’m getting at is this:  which individuals play with pride every night?  Who are the players you look at and say, “boy, I’m glad this individual is a Maple Leaf”.

Let me know who fits the bill for you. It’s easy to fill in names when the team is playing well and we think just about everyone should be here and be part of the future.

But right now, things aren’t going well and I sense this team will look very different in ten months (heck, maybe in six weeks, by the trading deadline). So who do we absolutely need to keep? 

Who are, for you, the true blue Maple Leafs on this roster, guys you want representing the crest in the years ahead?


  1. That's a hard question to answer, based on ignoring Cap issues and logistics of moving contracts, Michael, but a good one. My short list of players doesn't echo any of greats you mentioned, so I'll re-tool the question a little bit, and just go for the best of the bunch.

    I think we're destined for rebuild mode firstly, and there's nothing wrong with that. Based on that assumption, I'll ignore some of the more mature players that I like, as they won't be relevant by the time this team becomes relevant again. My list would be: Nazem Kadri, Peter Holland, Morgan Rielly, and one of the two goalies. Mike Santorelli would be on my list, but I think he's really useful in trade talks right now, and after all, we're talking about the future here, not the present.

    The rest of this pack has been part of the problem over the past few years, and if we can build a healthy stock of draft picks out of the group, then so be it. It's odd, as I usually have a decent emotional attachment to the Leafs roster, but not these days. I'd put JVR maybe as a bubble player on my short list, but there's a level of indifference to his game, that can really bother me on some nights.

    I realize that my list isn't exactly ripe with 'heart and soul' types (Keon, Sittler, Salming, Clark, etc...), but they at the very least are young guys that seem to take some pride in their game. I think Kadri has navigated an over-hyped mine field since he was drafted 5 years ago by the Leafs. Publicly ridiculed by multiple coaches (we know their names) as a young man, while also dealing with the massive spotlight that being an Ontario born, Leafs high draft pick offers. I think he's already survived that particular war, and it would be misguided to give up on him now. He doesn't get injured a whole bunch, has a flair for the dramatic, and most importantly, can be a bit of a prick on the ice as well. I just love having a player that other teams can't stand.

    I look forward to seeing everyone's lists, as it's an interesting comment on how loyal we are to the current roster. The game is getting more and more youth driven these days, with the lack of obstruction dictating the need for speed that younger players offer. Let's fill the bank with draft picks, and move on.

    1. Thanks Russ- I'm glad you mentioned Salming...lots of deserving names who have worn the Leaf sweater.

      We'll see how others respond to the question!

  2. Michael,

    Great question. I have to echo Russ's sentiment that it is indeed a difficult one. The team is, in all honesty, a garbage fire. Who projects to be around in five years when the players we have just drafted, and are going to during the inevitable(hopefully) rebuild?

    Is it worth it to keep Santorelli, and pay him the going rate for the things he brings? I have said many times how much I like his game. Honestly, he doesn't fit with where the franchise needs to go, so I would try and trade him. Even though he is in many ways the best example on the team of a player who plays the game I enjoy watching the most.

    Others I like, but would try to trade. Dion Phaneuf, he really cares and even though he rubs some the wrong way, I like the way he competes. He surely isn't a perfect player, but I do like a lot of the things he brings to the team. He is someone I would take on my team.

    Roman Polak, at 28 he will clearly be on the downside by the time we are ready to challenge for the Cup. Sad to see him go, but I would try and trade him. We learned all we needed when he came back to the bench after the puck to the face. What a competitor he is, I really like his game.

    I would write a lot about Winnick, but he just seems so much like other replaceable veteran NHL'ers. A professional hockey player in every sense of the word, but I would trade him.

    The guys whom I like the way they play and would try my best to make certain they stay. Kadri, despite my reservations about him. I really do think this is all he is going to be.

    JVR, someone on the team going forward has to score, as well as get paid to get to the salary cap floor. Maybe he will play harder with different linemates.

    Reimer, he's a little younger than Bernier, and I still don't see much to separate them when you consider the entire scope of their careers. I think you can get more in trade for Bernier, so Reimer stays. Besides all of that, I love how hard he plays, and the fact that he is willing to battle back from adversity. You did ask us for players who play the right way.

    Franson, he has gotten better since we got him, and I like his game. For me, he's right there on the fence with JVR. Great offer for him, I would trade him. Other than that someone has to put on the sweater and play the games. He is very adept on the power play too. Keep him, but listen to offers.

    I almost forgot about Komarov, he can stay. I like his moxie. He bleeds the Blue and White.

    Lupul is a guy that in my opinion plays the way I am most appreciative of. Sadly, he just can't find a way to stay in the lineup for any period of time. If there is a deal to be made for him, trade him.

    I would put Robidas in this category too. I like the way he plays, and I think would be a good mentor for the younger players. He can't do that from the press box, or the trainers room. If he was healthy, I might just be persuaded to keep him for the next two years.

    There are others on the team that I really like as players, but sadly very few of them seem to bleed Blue and White. In this boat, I put guys like Rielly, Kessel, Gardiner in this category. Trade them if you can, if we are keeping them, fine. They all could use a lot more animosity in their demeanour.

    There are also players who I would personally drive to the airport to make sure they make their flights out of town. Hello David Clarkson. The Mimico boy has to go. I'm sure that he is going to be a Leaf for the entire length of his contract, primarily as a reminder to management not to do stupid things.

    I would also like to include Dave Nonis here. Dave, I hear Calgary is nice this time of year. Do you happen to know anyone there that could help you out. I can't believe we are paying Tim Gleason $2 million a season until 2018.

    I am also tired of Bozak. I can't watch this guy not play defence any more. He's not Phil Kessel, they are not inseparable. Bozak is so soft I call him Stay Puft, marshmallow man. Has he ever won a puck battle?

    1. Thanks Jim- some interesting names on both sides of the equation, including Rielly.

  3. It's a tough question, but pehaps it has a simple answer.

    The Leafs are bad enough tht they won't win anything for 4 years. Everybody over 25 will be past their prime and can be traded. Give an extra year for the goailes who age better and have long careers.

    Who do you have left? Bernier, Reimer,JVR, Kadri, Morgan Reilly, Peter Holland, Richard Panik, Gardiner, Kozun, Leivo, Percy, Ashton, and Sam Carrick.

    That doesn't sound that bad,if they keep progressing over the next 2-3 years.

    Then add in the maturing draft picks and Marlie guys: William Nylander, Connor Brown (AHL all-star in this, his rookie year) Andreas Johnson (Swedish rookie of the year, last year) Greg McKegg, Victor Loov, Petter Granberg,Tom Nilson, Frederick Gauthier (World Junior defensive forward) and Antoine Bibeau. Add in Jamie Devane on the 4th line to protect the small skilled guys.

    Sounds better still...

    Now take trade Kessel, Phaneuf, Bozak, Franson, Lupul, Clarkson, Polak, Booth and Robidas to good teams for the best picks and prospects ages 20-24. I think you get some world class first round and second round draft picks in a deep draft...and 2 nice young prospects.

    Maybe you keep the most character guys: Komorov, Winnik and Santorelli. Holzer won't get you muchin trade so you keep him too.

    That folks is your 2016 Maple Leafs, a young likeable group of guys just like the current Marlies. Maybe they don't have a winning record, but neither do these guys and the future looks so much brighter.

    1. I'd have a much smaller list of guys who have really proven they are proud Leafs, DP, but I like your positive thinking.

  4. This is hard. There are some players that just play hard no matter what team they represent.(Winnick, Polak, Santorelli) , some players with a great deal of skill (Kessel, JVR, Lupul etc) and we can surely use more of them. Then there is our workhorse, Phaneuf.

    I'm going with homegrown here, Michael. We're short on homegrown talent and I'd hate to lose any one of them. ( two we lost last summer-Gunnarson, Kulemin)

    James Reimer, Nazem Kadri, Leo Komorov, Morgan Rielly.

    One the Leafs let walk away for a year, and then re-signed. Two have been in trade rumours on and off for quite some time. A small group but, on the whole, a pretty strong one. All but Reilly, who's never been mentioned in a trade rumour, have expressed their desire to stay with the Leafs. It's very sad that one will probably be gone in the summer.

    Honourable Mention: Peter Holland and Cody Franson--both Leaf fans who want to stay
    And Phil Kessel--who for some reason also wants to be in Toronto

    There, Michael. Four players. I did my best.

  5. I could have further shortened it down to one, Michael. The one Leaf who, through adversity of every sort imaginable, has given it his all from the very beginning, James Reimer. Period.

    1. hmmm... i can't believe i forgot about reimer! good call colleen! lots of (subdued/in-check) pride. :-D

  6. Rielly, Gardiner, Franson, Kadri, Kessel, JVR, Holland, Panik, Komarov, Winnik, Santorelli.

    Everyone else I couldn't care less.

  7. In terms of guys that are indispensable: Rielly, Kadri...(+Nylander) that's it ...

  8. Hi Michael,

    which individuals play with pride every night?

    The lack of pride is one of the big problems this team has.

    So who do we absolutely need to keep?

    Kessel (top ten in the league)

    Rielly ( big part for the future)

    JvR (the only contract with top value for the Leafs)

    Who are, for you, the true blue Maple Leafs on this roster, guys you want representing the crest in the years ahead?

    Connor Brown, Stuart Percy

  9. And Peter Holland. Forgot him.

  10. who plays with pride every night? wow, that's a great question. komorov seems to take pride in his game... it shows in his effort. heck, even clarkson shows some pride when he's willing to drop the gloves to help motivate his team. maybe a lot of the other guys play with pride but i dunno michael... maybe it's just because they're losing, but i feel like i get a bit of a lackadaisical feel from most of the players... kind of a 'well darnit we lost. oh well, we'll try harder next time.' repeat repeat repeat. they're not really inspiring me with much confidence.

    1. Losing breeds losing in sports, it seems, Alex. That has to impact individual attitudes over time, but the guys who fight through all that and keep battling are usually keepers.

  11. There are five players I see on this team that really seem to be giving it all they have on pretty much every shift. Sadly, "all they have" is collectively not a great deal, but if everyone on the team worked as hard to play to their potential, the Leafs wouldn't be in this mess,
    They are:
    LEO KOMAROV--not a coincidence that the team's fortunes nosedived when he got hurt. This guy, honestly, I'd keep if at all possible. He doesn't have Clark's skill, or Clark's fists, but he does have Clark's heart.
    MIKE SANTORELLI: Man, I love his work ethic, possibly the strongest on the team. If he comes affordably, I would try to keep him too, just to have that example around.
    DANIEL WINNIK: His work on the PK should be noticed and rewarded. That said, he won't be a contender when the Leafs are (the same could be said of Santorelli)
    ROMAN POLAK: Our best D-man for consistency on most nights. You need to keep one vet around in the forward corps and D-corps to properly mentor the up and comers. Santo would be my forward pick and Polak my D-pick.
    NAZEM KADRI--I'm a bit torn on him, and have been since he got here. Initially he bothered me quite a bit--he had a swagger he hadn't earned. But he has improved quite a bit. I'm not sure he will ever be a 1C but he makes a solid 2C and PP option, and he definitely does have the requisite heart. When he plays bigger than he is, I love the guy. Again, if he can be afforded, he's a piece you keep.
    In terms of young players, I keep Rielly over Gardiner and beyond that, make me an offer. I may laugh in your face at your offer, but make it anyway.

    1. Komarov seems to be a universal choice here, Ken. And people here certainly appreciate what Santorelli has brought to the Leafs. Kadri is a lightning rod guy but seems to play hard most nights. Hard not to like Polak. Thanks Ken.

  12. Mine is a short list. Reilly, Bernier and Komorov.

    I love Winnik and Santo but they are replaceable parts in the long term. Nylander perhaps and even whomever top 10 pick they get this year maybe.

    Polok has been a great addition but at his age how many more years does he really have? Lots of wear and tear on that body the way he plays. Wish we had him 4 years ago.

    Kessel wants to win no doubt but to me he isn't what you want as a "pride in the Leafs" player. He is a pride in himself player. He hangs his head every time something doesn't go perfect for him and pouts. you can see it on the bench all the time. I want a guy who gets pissed and uses it as a positive and not drop into an Eeyore impression instead. Think Tavares/Toews/etc. Plus he is a part you add to a good team that already has main parts that are built around the middle. There are a good number of centres i would take over him in the league.

    JVR is an interesting one. He looked soooo good at the start of last season. Skating hard and using his big body. It looked like he was learning to be a very good power forward. This year it is almost like he went to the Kessel school of hockey and is on the periphery all the time. When he goes to the net and works the front he is hard to beat. When he doesn't he is simple to beat. He is just on the outside of my list but could jump into it.

    Reilly is a potential stud dman. A no brainer to keep for me.

    You can talk stats between Reimer and Bernier all you want at this point but Bernier has a much better overall skillset and will be the better goalie over the length of their careers. That isn't a knock on Reimer as he is very likable.

    And Komorov because you HAVE to have guys like him to help lead a team. This team WAS somewhat different on the ice before he got hurt after his cough incidental cough contact with Ovechkin. Every line he was on was better with him on it.

    1. I appreciate your input on this one, Pep. Kessel seems to be a difficult decision for a lot of people here.

    2. I somehow missed Kadri. 2 years ago I was in the might have to move camp. I am now on the fence. He is physically stronger and when he skates and uses his strength at both ends of the ice he looks like a great 2c or a possible good 1c. Need to keep him for now and see how it goes. He cares but does he care for the crest on the front or... a bit more time will tell.

  13. A difficult question, and lots of great responses from the VLMers! When I think of the kind of player we need, I think of guys like Bert Olmstead, George Armstrong, Alan Stanley/Tim Horton/Bob Baun - almost all of the players from the 60's teams, really, not to mention the late 70's teams, the early 90's teams, and the Sundin/Roberts teams. There was no lack of fighting spirit and determination to win on those teams!
    Why the Leafs of the past decade or so, and more particularly the past 4 years, don't seem to share this "fire" is baffling. But when someone fires a puck directly at your Captain and no-one - NO-ONE! - responds, well, there's the problem in a nutshell.
    The problem with assessing our players is that so often they seem like square pegs in round holes - being asked to play systems most aren't suited for. Currently, it seems as if the entire team has forgotten how to play hockey at the NHL level. Hopefully, we'll see a turnaround of sorts. But I'm not expecting we'll be on the ice come playoff time.
    So, after that long-winded preamble, the Leafs I'd keep are: Rielly.
    That's it. His potential - that old Leaf word - looks tremendous.
    Otherwise, I'd jettison anyone if the deal was good enough!
    Don't get me wrong - I like a lot of our current players, and I think they're really trying out there. I think Phaneuf is unfairly maligned, as is Kessel, but the reality is that this team isn't functioning. I like Komarov and Franson, Polak, Winnick etc, but no-one's irreplaceable on this squad.
    Simply put, we need to get bigger, smarter, faster players. Our D are slow, and our top 6 forwards are small (not counting JvR, but he's become invisible anyway). Neither of our goalies is currently playing at a championship level. Phew!
    We need to stop acquiring small, speedy guys, and veterans who are coming off injuries. And while we're at it, we can remove our GM as well. He's made far too many disastrous deals. As for the coach - well, it's a bit unfair to judge him yet. He had to hold training camp while we played the west coast teams. But has he done or said anything that instills you with confidence that he's the right man for the job?
    I'm afraid the O'Malley glass is nowhere near even half-full these days. Heck, even the bottle is nowhere near half-full! Mainly because I have to drain a few snifters just to get through a game.
    Oh well... wait till next year!

    1. Thanks Gerund O'- we're used to waiting for next year!

  14. Completely unrelated to the topic, but here I am....again. I thought that Kessel stuff was all sorts of fun last night at the All-Star draft. Whether it was staged or not, it was all sorts of fun, and Phil handled it really well. Toews stating that he picked Phil because he's "very coachable" was just ridiculously funny, and they way the crowd laughed shows that the attention on the Leafs is league wide, not just Toronto-centric. Then they one-upped it with that Seguin trade, complete with Foligno offering up stereotypical GM verbage, and Toews posturing about how these trades really weigh heavily on management. Comments yesterday and today, from Seguin, Toews and others shows how respected Phil's skill set is around the league, and it seemed that they were throwing some brotherly love his way, based on the whipping boy status he's been relegated to these days.

    The game will be a meaningless snore-fest, but regardless, it's refreshing to see Kessel getting a bit of a shoutout from his peers. It might make the Toronto media retract their claws a little bit....but probably not.

  15. Hi Michael

    I've had a think about this and came with a list a lot like Colleen's, but maybe for slightly different reasons. I'm going to say Komarov, Rielly, Kadri and Franson.

    Komarov makes it because I think he will give his maximum every night. Now maybe he'd do that for whichever team has him contracted at the time, but that makes him no different to any on your list of historical Leafs who to us from afar.

    Rielly is in because he has the potential to be our franchise captain for a good long stretch. The kid is smart, learns quickly and is in here contemporaneously with Shanahan's (no doubt lengthy) tenure. If we are destined for a rebuild, he;s my captain once we're done.

    Kadri, as I've mentioned here before, has impressed me enormously this year insofar as he has actively tried to adjust his game to better suit his role on the team. His defence has improved enormously, his faceoffs are getting better, he's looking to pass as often skate... Basically, he's trying to turn himself into a true NHL 1C. Not there yet, but he's so plainly trying, I respect him a lot for that.

    Lastly, probably my least popular selection given the comments above, I also pick Franson. Not because of the quality of his game every night but because of the qualities within his game every night. When you look at top point scorers amongst Dmen in the league, and then look to see how many blocks and hits those top guys have, Franson is right up there. I think he's our poor man's Shea Weber and I love him for it. If he gets even meaner as he ages, even better.

    Cheers for the topic, Michael.

    1. We all have our own reasons for liking certain players. In this instance, our challenge was identifying guys who we believed really deserve to be here. I can understand why all the names mentioned were brought forward, including Franson. Thanks KiwiLeaf.