It’s All There For Matthews To Be Best Leaf Ever. Yes. I Said It.

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Photo Credit: Marc DesRosiers/USA TODAY SPORTS

It’s what could be considered some form of “synchronicity” (no, not just the Police’s 2nd best album of all-time behind “Ghost In The Machine”, but events that can be considered “meaningful coincidences”), Auston Matthews became the first-ever NHL player to score four goals in his first game, followed 48 hours later by the Maple Leafs introducing their Top 100 All-Time Maple Leafs list, which of course, as it’s supposed to do, sparked debate, discussion, and even mild controversy.

No, Matthews isn’t on the list already.  But it’s truly all there for the taking.  Yes, number ONE is available, if Matthews plays 15 years of All-Star level hockey and accomplishes the mere task of adding any sort of hardware to the Leafs’ collection.  

See, you might paint that instantaneously as a ridiculous statement, but you’ll search deep (some are more capable than others) and realize it’s far from that.  We all know the Leafs haven’t won (or participated in) a Stanley Cup Final since 1967, when, teams, in essence, had a 33.3 percent chance of getting there in a six team league.  But outside of Doug Gilmour’s well-deserved Selke Trophy for the league’s best defensive forward, they haven’t won a major award in ages.

The last Hart Trophy winner?  Ted Kennedy in 1954-55, the year before Montreal’s brilliant Jean Beliveau won his first.  Vezina?  Shared by Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk in 1964-65 and never since.  The Norris for best defenceman?  It was created in the 1953-54 season and a Maple Leaf has never won it.  Calder for the top rookie?  No one since Brit Selby in 1965-66. Bobby Orr won it the following season. 50 years, 50 rookies, no Leafs.

So, whether you like it or not, I’m giving you facts and they do sting rather hard.  But again, if Auston Matthews in his career wins the Calder this season (quite possible, really), a Hart Trophy at some point in time, and is even a moderate part (though he’d likely be one of the most crucial) of a Stanley Cup Champion in Toronto before, say, 2034, isn’t he the greatest Leaf of all-time?  Yes, he sure is.

So I’ve heard some knocking of Dave Keon as the top Leaf ever and I do grasp where the criticism comes from.  Would he have been my choice?  No.  Everyone has their own way of assessing how to mix peak talent with longevity, and effectiveness with fan popularity, but my Top 10 is as follows:

  1. Borje Salming
  2. Ted Kennedy
  3. Darryl Sittler
  4. Dave Keon
  5. Mats Sundin
  6. Syl Apps
  7. Johnny Bower
  8. Frank Mahovlich
  9. Tim Horton
  10. Doug Gilmour

I won’t waste too much time explaining the rankings, but Salming was one of the best 3-5 defencemen in the NHL for 8-10 seasons, and I cant possibly describe how incredibly hard it was to win a Norris Trophy in his era.  With Bobby Orr near the end of his career, Denis Potvin in his prime, Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, and Guy Lapointe all on one team, and somehow in 1980-81, former Leaf Randy Carlyle putting it all together for an 81-point season, beating Salming out of a Norris (likely 2nd in voting) given Borje was 2nd in scoring that season amongst NHL blueliners.

There would have been an outcry about Salming being named the best Leaf ever, but he also should receive credit for how he transitioned to a brutally rough league at a time when it wasn’t safe to have a non-North American passport and the influence he had on how we perceived European players, letting those of us who aren’t three strides out of the tree, evolve our opinions and perspectives to welcome other skilled (and occasionally tough) European players who followed.  I just don’t think, with apologies to Sittler and Sundin, who deserve their absolutely beloved statuses in Leafs’ lore, either of those centres could claim to have been as consistently great at their ultra-competitive positions as Salming was.  I could keep going, but you’ll agree or you won’t.

But let’s get to Keon — this is an oddity, but it’s honestly very “Leafs-esque”, isn’t it?  The perceived “greatest” Maple Leaf of all-time isn’t lacking for statistical impact or longevity in the franchise, that’s a given.

  • Games Played – 4th (1062, behind only Armstrong, Horton, Salming)
  • Goals – 3rd (365, behind Sundin, Sittler)
  • Assists – 4th (493, behind Salming, Sundin, Sittler)
  • Points – 3rd (858, behind Sundin, Sittler)

No one can complain with Keon being a Hockey Hall of Famer, not in the least.  Add in the four Stanley Cup triumphs, a Conn Smythe Trophy, at age 27, the final year the Leafs won the Stanley Cup, and he’s a legend.  No one questions that.

But, again, in a rather insular bubble of only looking at Maple Leafs players and Maple Leafs history, he doesn’t scream all-time great, or transcendent ice hockey legend, does he?

He never finished Top 5 in the NHL in ANY of his seasons for goals, assists, or points.  He finished his storied career with 11 20+ goal seasons, and actually bucked the trend of declining numbers in his 30’s (but give the league expanding from 6-12 teams partial credit for this).  After not scoring 30 goals in any of his excellent seasons in the 1960s, Keon topped 30 three different times in the early 1970s, peaking at 38 goals in 1970-71.  But, do note, NHL goaltenders saw their collective GAA rise from 2.75 in 1967-68, to 3.23 in 1972-73.  So, you’ve got each game, in essence, featuring an extra goal more being scored over a five-year span.  Keon wasn’t the only veteran to see goal-scoring numbers spike from the Sixties to the Seventies, obviously.

Keon certainly lost out on adding to his Maple Leaf totals, simply by being a by-product of the convergence that was the World Hockey Association’s creation and the horrifying awful existence of Leafs owner Harold Ballard.  After a 59-point season at age 35, Keon’s time with Ballard’s Leafs had run its course, but Ballard put the screws to Keon by asking for ludicrously over-valued compensation back from other clubs in exchange for Keon’s rights.  Unable to make a deal with another NHL team (Keon revealed just last year the New York Islanders, soon to become an unstoppable four-Cup dynasty were the team in hottest pursuit of getting Keon to mix in with the youth and talent of Trottier, Bossy, Gillies, and Potvin), he bolted from the WHA and played four seasons in the uniforms of Indianapolis, Minnesota, and New England, before a return to the NHL in Hartford Whalers’ colours for three seasons, retiring in 1982. 

So Keon missed an opportunity to be a “lifetime Leaf”, but again, name me a star who somehow pulls it off.  Lanny McDonald was moved by Ballard in his prime, only to play another 11 NHL seasons.  Leaf fans know all-too-well that images of Borje Salming as a Red Wing, Darryl Sittler as a Red Wing or Flyer, and even Mats Sundin as a Canuck — ugh, painful, right?  But again, par for the course among the many frustrations that dedicated Maple Leafs fans have felt over five-plus decades now.

But, yes, Keon is strangely a worthy and yet underwhelming choice at the same time.  Because the Leafs don’t have a Bobby Orr, a Steve Yzerman, a Mario Lemieux, a Wayne Gretzky, or a Joe Sakic.  Imagine the Pittsburgh Penguins fanbase — who got to see Mario Lemieux deliver two Cups to Pittsburgh and only a couple years after Mario hangs them up, you’re gifted with Crosby and Malkin to keep things rolling. 

I truly believe that has to be the goal here with Auston Matthews.  And by reading all this, maybe your perspective has changed, that the table is set for there to be a new all-time greatest Maple Leaf, and I’m not saying it wouldn’t take much, because no one can legitimately sniff at how difficult winning a Calder, Hart, and Stanley Cup ring all in one career.  But are you going to bet against Matthews to do it?  

I’m not who believes in fate, or that “things happen for a reason”.  I’m a tad more practical than that.  The Leafs as an organization have deserved their misery, but their fans have not, because they’re not calling the shots, making the trades, or frittering away draft picks, and trading first-rounders like they’re Goodlife Fitness flyers you receive in the mail.  The Leafs have a Hockey Hall of Famer as their President.  A fellow Hall of Famer as their general manager (despite the poor results his last half-decade in New Jersey featured), an eventual Hall of Famer as their head coach, and maybe the most skilled forward before the age of 20 they’ve ever possessed — so you tell me, when have they been in better hands in the past 50 years?

  • Harte of a Lion

    I am a HUGE Salming fan but to choose between him and Sittler is a crap shoot. Imagine, not Lemieux, Gretzky or Crosby, not Ovechkin or Lafleur, Segin Sundin or Alfredsson ever sniffed the rarified air of 10 points in a game. Both Sittler and Salming brought class to the organization during the worst of the Ballard circus and both are deserving of the title ‘The Best Leaf Ever’
    It was hard to see Darryl Sittler in black and orange or Borje Salming skating for the Red Wings but I felt completely betrayed when Sundin refused to waive his no trade clause, retired, then unretired and went to play with his buddies in Vancouver the following season. I could accept him refusing a trade had he stayed retired however his selfish refusal and the bounty the team could have reaped set the franchise back a half decade But hey, what’s another five years?