Today, we continue to count down the ten best defencemen in Leafs history. Unlike Jon, who had to explain why he cut Rick Vaive, Phil Kessel, and Babe Dye, I don’t have any cuts to explain. I will, however, tell you why I didn’t include point-per-game leader Harry Cameron on my list. While one looks at his totals and screams “this dude was Karlsson and Green combined, what the hell?!”, he played in an era where teams often had one defensive pairing and a rover. Points/60 wasn’t a thing back then, but if it was, he’d probably be in Frazer McLaren territory. So, no Cameron.
Anyway, the top five.
5. Red Horner
We finished the first half of this list by talking about how tough Bobby Baun was, but I’m not sure if any player in Leafs history was tougher than Red Horner. He played in an era before staged fights and goons, but managed to average over two and a half penalty minutes a game, while still contributing decent offensive numbers when he managed to stay out of the penalty box.
Horner could knock you out with a single punch, check out into another time zone, or whip a snapshot past your stand-up goaltender. He played so hard that he had to retire at the age of 31. While his hockey life ended earlier than most, he lived a long and adventurous life, eventually passing in 2004 at the age of 95 (!!).
4. Ian Turnbull
At his peak, Turnbull may have been the best pure offensive defenceman that the Leafs have ever seen. He could rush like few others, had a heck of a shot that he used frequently, and set the record for most goals in a game by a defenceman while wearing the blue and white. As a native of Montreal, some Habs fans may claim that he was one of the few to “get away”, but in reality, that team had enough blessings in the 70s. Turnbull was one of the consistent rays of light in a wildly inconsistent decade.
3. Tim Horton
If a player who makes a brief appearance in the NHL can describe the moment as a “cup of coffee”, Tim Horton can, fittingly, describe his time as an entire coffee shop. Horton spent more time playing defence for the Leafs than any other player, sticking around for an absurd 1184 games.
Horton was the type of player that came at you in a few ways. He had a booming, accurate shot, and was relentless in his efforts to shut down his opponents. He’d throw the body if they were in a vulnerable position, or he’d use a good old fashioned bear hug to slow them down in the corners. Despite being a very modest 5’10, he played a very Zdeno Chara-esque game, and did so for years and years and years in the blue and white.
Tomas Kaberle is undoubtedly the best draft pick in Leafs history. No if, ands, or buts about it. Somehow, they managed to turn an eighth-round pick in one of the worst drafts in the modern era (Chris Phillips was taken 203 spots higher, first overall) into a perennial all-star.
Kaberle had one of the best first passes in hockey, made anybody that he was paired with better, and anchored a consistently solid powerplay. In the one full decade that he spent with the Leafs, he picked up the fifth-most points of any defencemen; two of which are top 20 at their position of all-time. He was a lot calmer than many of the others on this list, but because of that, he stayed out of trouble and managed to put up insane numbers. It allowed him to show off a different approach to the position; fewer blocked shots and big hits, and more plays with the puck that players who do the former tend to be lacking.
All of these guys are great, but our top selection was a slam dunk. Salming was a bit of everything that made the prior players great. He was a diamond in the rough – scouted by accident while the Leafs had their eyes on Inge Hammerstrom. He was tough as nails – he used his body as if it were a tool, and rarely missed games due to injury. He was fantastic with the puck, and in his prime years trailed only Denis Potvin, who anchored the point for a dynasty in the making, in point production. He stayed with the team forever, ranking third all-time in games played. He has just about every all-time record for Leafs defencemen available to him.
For all of these reasons, he’s the best the team has ever had. Nobody was so well-rounded, and quite frankly, it’s one of the great hockey tragedies that his talents were wasted on the 70’s and 80’s Leafs. He would no doubt be discussed as a top-10 defenceman of all time if he got to play in a different era, or for a different team in the same era. At the very least, he’ll be remembered as a trailblazer – the first European to cross the pond at the start of his career and become a superstar.