Toronto Maple Leafs: The Best Drafts Ever, Part II

Josh LewisSenior Analyst IJuly 15, 2008

It's time to take a look at the better half.

No, not your wife. I mean part two of my series on the top 10 draft classes in Toronto Maple Leafs history.

Friday's glance at classes six through 10 revealed such gems as Felix Potvin, Vincent Damphousse, and Brandon... er, never mind. Moving on.

Today we rank the Leafs' top five drafts ever. And no, it's not possible for the Leafs to bring back their scouts from the 1970s. Why? Most of them are probably dead.

5. 1975

Don Ashby, sixth overall; Doug Jarvis, 24th; Bruce Boudreau, 42nd; Ron Wilson, 132nd; Ken Holland, 188th.

First, let's deal with the obvious. If these guys had been as good at playing as they are at coaching and building teams, the Leafs would have broken up the Oiler dynasty of the 1980s. To draft two future top-notch NHL coaches and the league's best general manager, on top of an assistant coach (Doug Jarvis), all in one year is simply remarkable―regardless of where they went as players.

Interesting trivia aside, the Leafs got some solid players out of this draft, the most notable being Jarvis. You should know him as the NHL's all-time ironman—and if you don't, you need to brush up on your hockey history. Jarvis, a centre, did not miss a single game during his entire 12-year career, an incredible feat that will never be surpassed.

The catch? Jarvis never played a game for Toronto. The same summer he was drafted, the steady defensive centre was traded to the Habs for defenseman Greg Hubick, who played a grand total of 77 games in the NHL. Currently an assistant coach to Guy Carbonneau, Jarvis put up more than 400 points over his 964-game career with Montreal, Washington, and Hartford.

Ashby didn't live up to expectations, but he was a decent player while it lasted. The centre played 188 games over six seasons, putting up 40 goals and 96 points with the Leafs, Colorado Rockies and Edmonton Oilers.

Another example of former players coming home to roost in Toronto (Pat Quinn is another), defenseman Ron Wilson played 177 NHL games over seven seasons with the Leafs and North Stars. His career high was 41 points in 65 games with Minnesota in 1986-87.

Boudreau posted similar totals, scoring 28 goals and 70 points in 141 career games with Toronto and Chicago. His professional career spanned 17 seasons in the NHL and the minors, including one season in Germany. Holland, a goalie, played four NHL games.

4. 1974

Jack Valiquette, 13th overall; Tiger Williams, 31st; Mike Palmateer, 85th.

Now we're getting into names that every Leafs fan from the Harold Ballard era should recognize. This draft landed the Leafs two big parts of the burgeoning young squad that would be dismantled by Ballard before reaching its potential.

Dave "Tiger" Williams needs little introduction. He's the NHL's all-time penalty minute leader, coming in at 3,966 minutes, and one of the most intimidating figures ever to step on the ice. But many forget that Tiger could play, too.

He racked up 241 goals and 513 points over his 962-game career with Toronto, Vancouver, Detroit, Los Angeles and Hartford. He tallied a career-high 35 goals and 62 points with the Canucks in 1980-81, and among his six seasons of 300 penalty minutes or more, his best was a staggering 358 in 1986-87.

After five-plus strong seasons in Toronto, Williams was traded to Vancouver midway through the 1979-80 season in a deal that brought dangerous young forwards Rick Vaive and Bill Derlago to the Leafs. The trade hurt Leaf fans at the moment, but it ended up a winner. Vaive became the Leafs' next captain and one of the greatest players ever to lace up for the Buds, while Derlago averaged 31 goals and 63 points over his five seasons with Toronto.

Mike Palmateer of the Toronto Marlboros was regarded as the next big thing between the Leafs' pipes. And along with Tiger, Borje Salming, and three other players we'll get to, he would form the nucleus of a young Leafs team that was expected to go faruntil it was vindictively stripped by Ballard and company in the late 1970s.

The owner's desire to stick it to Darryl Sittler, along with apparent attitude problems of Palmateer, meant that his time with Toronto was cut short after just four seasons when he was traded to Washington in 1980.

After two seasons with the Caps, Palmateer returned to Toronto in 1982 to play two more. He played 356 games over his eight-year career. His best year was 1977-78, when he posted a record of 34-19-9 with a 2.74 goals-against average and took the Leafs to the second round of the playoffs.

Valiquette has been largely forgotten with the passage of time, but he also put together a respectable career, short-lived as it was. In six NHL seasons, half with the Leafs and half with the Rockies, Valiquette scored 84 goals and totaled 218 points. Some saw him as the next Jean Beliveau, but his skating held him back and he was traded to Don Cherry's Rockies in 1978.

3. 1982  

Gary Nylund, third overall; Gary Leeman, 24th; Peter Ihnacak, 25th; Ken Wregget, 45th; Vladimir Ruzicka, 73rd.

It's almost unheard of for a team to get five significant NHL careers out of one draft, but that's what the Leafs did in 1982. None of these players suited up for more than 700 games, but all had respectable careers. Toronto also drafted Peter Ihnacak's brother, Miroslav, in the ninth round. He would go on to play 56 games in the big league.

The most recognizable name from the 1982 draft is Gary Leeman. Widely remembered as the centrepiece of the deal that brought Doug Gilmour to Toronto, Leeman laced up the skates for 667 NHL games over 12 seasons with the Leafs, Flames, Habs, Canucks, and Blues. He scored 199 goals and 466 points over that stretch, including a career-best 51 goals and 95 points with Toronto in 1989-90.  

Leeman's career went straight downhill after that year, however, as he failed to post more than 32 points in any season afterward. The Flames got only 59 games out of him—meanwhile, Gilmour was making a case for the Hart Trophy.

Leeman bounced around with the Habs, Canucks and Blues before fading into oblivion, ending his career in Germany in the late 1990s.    Nylund didn't quite live up to expectations as the third overall pick, but he did play over 600 games during a big-league career with Toronto, Chicago, and the Islanders. A knee injury during his rookie season forced him into a role as a steady stay-at-home defenseman rather than a two-way star. He retired in 1993, with 32 goals and 171 points to his credit.

Wregget, who played nearly 600 games between the pipes, was the ultimate tweener. He never established himself as a true NHL starter, but he was clearly more than a backup. During a 16-year career with the Leafs, Flyers, Penguins, Flames, and Wings, it was common to see Wregget play in the ballpark of 40-55 games, splitting time with whoever happened to be the team's other goalie.

Wregget is likely best remembered for his time in Pittsburgh, where he spent six-plus seasons during the 1990s. He appeared in 56 games with the Leafs in back-to-back years from 1986 to 1988, the most he would ever play in a season.

Toronto also picked two notable Europeans in 1982. Peter Ihnacak played 417 NHL games, all with the Leafs, in a career that spanned eight seasons. The Slovak, who defected to North America in 1982, set a Leafs rookie record with 66 points in 1982-83, a mark that still stands.

But Ihnacak would never match that total again. After the 1989-90 season, which he spent mostly in the AHL, Ihnacak decided to play in the German league. He would spend seven more seasons there and in Switzerland.

Vladimir Ruzicka, meanwhile, never played a game for the Leafs. It was seven years before he finally made it to North America, in 1989. He lit it up with the Bruins in 1991-92, racking up 39 goals and 75 points, but that was the closest he would get to NHL stardom.

He did suit up for 233 matches with the Oilers, Bruins, and Senators over five seasons before returning to the Czech Republic.

2. 1973

Lanny McDonald, fourth overall; Bob Neely, 10th; Ian Turnbull, 15th.

What this draft lacked in depth, it made up for in quality, and in a big way. MacDonald and Turnbull were big parts of what would be known as the Leafs' "Big Six"—the others being Palmateer, Salming, Williams and Darryl Sittler.

Lanny McDonald was one of the most popular players in Toronto Maple Leafs history, and one of the best ones too. In a career that spanned over 1,100 games with the Leafs, Rockies and Flames, Lanny scored exactly 500 goals and more than 1,000 points.

Known for his bushy red mustache (to this day, the best in NHL history) and his colourful wit, McDonald was a fan favourite everywhere he went.   In Toronto, Lanny was Sittler's right-hand man and best friend. After a brief time in purgatory with the Rockies, the punishment doled out by Ballard for being so close to Sittler, McDonald found a new home with the Calgary Flames and became one of the most revered players in that franchise's history.

And he went out on top, winning a Cup with the Flames in 1989 before hanging up the skates.

A goal-scorer of the first degree, McDonald recorded a career-best 66 markers with Calgary in 1982-83. His 98 points that year were also a high.

Many feel that his trade to Colorado in 1979 (for Pat Hickey and Wilf Paiement) was the beginning of the end for the promising Leafs squad of the late '70s, and the start of the decade of discontent Leaf followers were forced to endure in the 1980s.

Ian Turnbull is truly one of the underrated blueliners of Leafs history. Gifted with tremendous offensive talent, Turnbull spent virtually his entire career with Toronto before playing brief stints with the Kings and Penguins.

In 628 games, Turnbull scored 128 goals and added 317 assists, including an astounding 22 goals and 79 points in 1976-77.

An incredible puckhandler who loved to lead the rush, Turnbull was the perfect complement to Salming's defensive prowess—though Salming was equally skilled with the puck, make no mistake.

A serious knee injury in 1974 may have prevented Turnbull from being something much, much more, though his cavalier attitude also held him back from reaching his full potential.

Regardless, Turnbull was one of the best rear-guards in Leafs history. To this day, he is the only defenseman to score five goals in an NHL game, a feat he accomplished on Feb. 2, 1977, against the Detroit Red Wings.

Defenseman Bob Neely didn't reach the lofty heights of McDonald or Turnbull, but he did play nearly 300 games with the Leafs and Rockies. A physical blueliner with some offensive skill, Neely totaled 39 goals and 98 points over a six-year career.

1. 1970

Darryl Sittler, eighth overall; Errol Thompson, 22nd; Gerry O'Flaherty, 36th; Ron Low, 103rd.

Clearly, something was in the drinking water of Leafs' scouts during the 1970s, as they drafted at a success rate not seen from the team since. At the pinnacle of this scouting proficiency was the draft of 1970, which landed the Leafs one of the best players in franchise history, among others.

Some say Darryl Sittler is the best player ever to don the blue and white of the Toronto Maple Leafs. At worst, he is in the top three. He is one of only nine Maple Leafs to wear the 'C', and it is difficult to imagine anyone carrying it with more class or dignity than Sittler.

He was the consummate professional, despite Leafs management treating him like dirt throughout his career—a trend that continued in Philadelphia when new GM Bobby Clarke (Clarke and dirt, now there's a good fit if I've ever seen one) traded him to Detroit, without telling him, on the day he was to be unveiled as the Flyers' new captain.

Aside from the Summit Series, which took place after his sophomore campaign, take a look at many of the biggest hockey moments of the 1970s and you will find Darryl Sittler in the middle of the action.

Whether it's his league-record 10 points in a single game, accomplished against the Bruins on Feb. 7, 1976, his five goals in a playoff game, which tied the all-time mark, or his 1976 Canada Cup-winning goal against the Czechs, Darryl Sittler simply dominated the 1970s.

Sittler was the first Leaf to score 100 points in a season. He sits second all-time on the Leafs in goals (389) and points (916), both totals being surpassed by Mats Sundin only recently. He was just the 17th player in league history to crack the 1,000 point barrier.

When the dust settled on his career, Darryl Sittler had scored 484 goals and 1,121 points. He was a role model, a Hall of Famer, and maybe the best player in Maple Leafs' history.

But Sittler wasn't the only excellent player the Leafs picked in 1970. With their second-round pick, they took P.E.I. left winger Errol Thompson, who spent much of his career on a high-octane line with Sittler and McDonald. And the speedy, tough-nosed Thompson didn't look out of place, gradually improving his production before breaking out for a career-best 43 goals and 80 points in 1975-76.

The next year, a broken arm limited him to 41 games, and he would never reach those heights again. He was traded to Detroit in 1978, spending over three seasons there before ending his career with Pittsburgh in 1981.

Thompson had six seasons of 20 goals or more. In his 600-game career, he lit the lamp 208 times and added 185 assists. He became a sales rep for Labatt in retirement, and 25 years later, his thighs are still huge.

With their eighth-round pick in 1970, the Leafs found a sleeper in goalie Ron Low. Another Leafs draft pick who went on to coach in the NHL, Low played nearly 400 games with the Leafs, Caps, Wings, Nordiques, Oilers, and Devils. He was another tweener, spending much of his career as a backup but playing 40 or more games in five different seasons.

Low had the misfortune of spending most of his days on bad teams, with the exception of his three-plus seasons as a backup with the Oilers of the early 1980s.

Finally, Gerry O'Flaherty played 438 NHL games as a right winger. Most of his eight-year career—in fact, all but three games—was spent with the Vancouver Canucks, where he posted career-best totals of 25 goals and 42 points in 1974-75. O'Flaherty retired in 1979, having totaled 99 goals and 194 points.

Looks like the Leafs' drafting history isn't so bad after all!

Remember when Josh said this was a two-part series? Well, he lied. Check in tomorrow for five drafts that could wind up on this list in the near future.