Toronto Maple Leafs Need a Bona Fide Superstar; Young D-Men Rise in Value

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Toronto Maple Leafs Need a Bona Fide Superstar; Young D-Men Rise in Value
Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports
Spot Toronto's Superstar

Back in the day when Randy Carlyle was a rookie, at a peculiar time in Leafs history when head coach Red Kelly used Pyramid Power to inspire his troops on the bench, the team was still tightly controlled by owner and uber-fan Harold Ballard (well, not so tightly, I suppose).

Yes, for a moment recall the mid-70s, when fans still revered rather iconic names like Davy Keon, George Armstrong and, of course, Johnny Bower, and believed another Cup was simply one player away.

After the team lost the Cup series opener in 1967, Bower came in to replace the great Terry Sawchuk between the pipes to start Game 2, before being himself injured and sitting out two games.  Beginning a new era of tandem goaltending, they led the team to its last Cup. 

Not since those brief glorious days in the mid-80s with both Ken Wregget and Allan Bester sharing duties did the Leafs have and promote such a promising tandem like Rye and Coke.

Back in '67, six teams comprised the NHL, and the average age of players on the Leafs' Cup-winning team was 31.  In fact, at the time, Bower was 42. He was eventually injured in Game 4 and had to be replaced by Sawchuck, though Bower would return for Game 7. 

According to the history books, 11 players had won all four Stanley Cups in a six-year span with Toronto in 1962, 1963, 1964, 1967: Armstrong, Keon, Bower, Bob Baun, Larry Hillman, Tim Horton, Frank Mahovlich, Bob Pulford, Eddie Shack, Allan Stanley and Kelly.  I don't think in 1967 they were the second-youngest team in the NHL.

In total, Kelly, during his playing career, won eight Stanley Cups (with two different dynasties) and seemed like an obvious selection to coach the Leafs in the '70s.  The point is, however, prior to being eventually picked by the Red Wings, a Maple Leafs scout had stated that Kelly would not last 20 games in the NHL. 

Facing expansion in the summer of 1967, Ballard, along with co-owner Stafford Smythe, decided to rebuild the team. Sawchuk was the first player selected in the expansion draft.

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Years later, apparently responding to his critics, Ballard launched a youth movement (hence Wregget and Bester, for example, scuttling expensive veterans) and was still rebuilding the team when it was sold in 1990 upon his death. 

Some might argue that the team is still being rebuilt.

Indeed, these days, fans loudly decry how mismanaged the Leafs have been under various owners and managers, but nothing compares to the '70s when hockey income was squarely in the hands of owners facing off against stand-up men like Darryl Sittler, who began to claim players actually had some rights in the game. 

Battles were very personal, subsequently, and players (and managers) quickly learned the golden rule: He who has the money makes the rules. 

Ballard was a tyrant. His 60's team was called a dynasty, and it was those great players who eventually felt his wrath when they likely thought rewards would be the order of the decade.

In interviews today, Carlyle fondly remembers coaches like Kelly and Roger Nielson and their collective impression and impact on his playing days.  Despite the tumultuous time in Toronto—the learning curve—Carlyle eventually went on the win the Norris Trophy in 1981 after being traded away to Pittsburgh.  The Leafs exchanged Carlyle and George Ferguson for Dave Burrows, who was no superstar, and neither was Carlyle, but it reminds me of one thing: The Toronto Maple Leafs need a superstar.

The Penguins ultimately ended up with superstar Mario Lemieux by being a very, very bad team.  Back in 1984, Carlyle had been traded to the Jets for a first-round pick and future considerations, which ended up being Moe Mantha.  He recorded 168 points in 232 games for the Penguins. 

Again, no superstar, but he became a critical part of the Paul Coffey trade, which (after the ’91 Cup) led to the trade that brought Kjell Samuelsson, Rick Tocchet and Ken Wregget to Pittsburgh, securing back-to-back Cups for the Pens in '91 and '92.(Yes, Wregget owns a Stanley Cup ring.)

However, Toronto does not need a superstar today like Wayne Gretzky.  Let's keep in mind that he has never done Toronto any favours, as either a player or a promoter. 

It is certain that new GM Dave Nonis has his eyes clearly on the prize and, in order to win the Cup, in addition to a little luck here and there, he needs a healthy roster, one the passes and checks well and a blend of sage veterans and fearless youngsters that will be led by a proud and passionate captain, who hopefully will one day be revered as a superstar, not simply a steady and conservative player.  One who makes an impact night after night.

I believe Nonis will stick with this core of players that, when the opportunity arises, will truly step up, such as when injury strikes.  This group may not possess the superstar the team needs right now, but it does have potential key cogs in the wheel to make a line click, or continue clicking, to help the team win night after night.

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