History #24 - Back When the Leafs Were Great

A while ago, back in the days when #3 was worn by Garnet Exelby and the Leafs were staring down the barrel of three games against New Jersey, John Fischer of In Lou We Trust had the following exchange with PPP:

Q. You guys are top of your division. Again. No matter what happens the Devils keep near the top of the NHL. Why is that?

A. The answer is simple: Lou.  Management starts from the top and Lou Lamoriello has established a set philosophy for the team, he keeps close tabs on what the roster does and does not need, and he has high standards for everyone involved.  Whereas other GMs in the league tend to follow trends, staying the course and building the roster around the principles of defensively responsible, transition-based hockey has made it such that the team is always competitive and therefore a desired place for players to play.  If someone can fit in, then where they developed, how big they are, or other such metrics aren't so important.  Likewise, if you're not willing to adapt to the Devils, then you will not last in New Jersey.  While not every decision he makes or deal he signs is perfect, few can honestly say they have a good of a grasp on what the team needs both in the short-term and long-term.

I grabbed that and saved it right away. 


Because if you take that statement and backdate it anywhere from 40 to 70 years ago, that is as eloquent and succinct a description of the championship Leafs teams as anything I've seen.  By and large, if you get what John is saying about the Devils, then you basically understand the Leafs.  (It also ties a little bit with why I feel Burke is actually building the classic Leaf team, but that's a post for another day.)

I have often heard the lack of individual awards in the Leaf trophy cabinet used as a strike against the team.  To me, the people who make this argument are completely missing the point and really don't understand the team they're talking about.  The best Leaf teams simply didn't play that way.  Regular-season awards have always been tied to point production, and that's not the game the Leafs played.  That's not how they spread their minutes and that's not how they set up their lines.

The Leafs had no shortage of great players, but the best teams were built up of players who would give up a portion of their offensive potential for the chance to win it all.

There is no better player than Teeder Kennedy to talk about how the Leafs worked, so let's let him do it for the moment.  He gets a little bit into Hap Day at about the 3:30 mark, but really talks to the Leaf mentality at about 6:30:


"This is what it's all about - to win the Stanley Cup.  This is what the Leaf organization concentrated on was (sic) the Stanley Cup - not having players on the All-Star team, not having leading goal scorers.  It was a team effort and to win the Stanley Cup was strictly the ultimate goal.

Now, having said that, the Leaf organization - I'm talking now Hap Day and Connie Smythe - if you won the scoring championship, or if you were chosen on the First All-Star team, they would be very, very happy and proud, but that wasn't the ultimate goal.  The ultimate goal was the team concept and the team, the success of the team - not the individual." -- Teeder Kennedy

The Leafs, under coach Hap Day, were the first to really institute a five-man defensive system.  The focus was on preventing goals.  Howie Meeker (interviewed by Batten) described it like this - Hap's thought was that the opposition should never score more than a single goal on their own merits.  You'd give them another through your own dumb mistakes and bad officiating or other things would give them another half a goal.  You'd then get your three to win it.

That became the Leaf focus - keeping the puck out.  The Leafs would really begin battening down the hatches in about February so as to be ready for the start of the playoffs.

The driver behind this philosophy was Hap Day.  He had been a star defenseman for the St. Pats and early Maple Leafs, playing on and captain of perhaps the most star-laden teams the Leafs ever had - with bright lights like Charlie Conacher, Joe Primeau, Busher Jackson, Ace Bailey, King Clancy and Red Horner.  Those players were like movie stars and they lit up the NHL like a Christmas tree - and year after year they'd lose in the Stanley Cup Final.

Day came to recognize that championships were won with team defense.  When he became Leaf coach in 1940, he changed the way the team played and he changed the type of player who would become a Leaf.  The team concept Kennedy describes above is very much the message that Hap Day brought.

Rather than deploy his players as scoring lines or checking lines, Day made sure that no matter what the combination was on the ice, he had at least one talented offensive player out there.  Everyone, including the best offensive players, was expected to play at both ends of the ice at all times.  If you didn't, you'd either play with the Pittsburgh Hornets or with another organization.

Players who couldn't fit into this system - typically offensive-minded players - didn't stick around for long.  Both Gordie Drillon, the last Leaf to win the scoring title, and Gaye Stewart, the last Leaf to lead the league in goals, were shipped out of town.  Drillon's last Leaf moment came when he was pulled from the lineup with the Leafs down 3-0 to the Wings in the 1942 Final.  Don Metz, later known as one of the Leafs' top penalty-killers, took Drillon's spot on the top line and was huge in the comeback.  (Metz, for that series, though, scored 7 points in 4 games - the best production of his career.)

I don't think there's any question that the type of game the Leafs played cost their players points.  They took a guy like Max Bentley, the two-time defending Art Ross winner, and stuck him between a pair of penalty-killers on what was more or less the third unit  (Apps and Kennedy had the other two lines).  He was told not to worry, he'd get his points on the power play.  That was how the Leaf system worked - no really dominant unit, no really weak unit - just a series of lines that could check you to death and turn the puck up ice in a hurry if you made a mistake.  Bentley took to this and gave the Leafs a depth at centre that nobody could match.

Under Hap Day, the Leafs won Cups in 1942, 1945, 1947, 1948 and 1949.  Coach Joe Primeau got another Cup for them in 1951, effectively using the Day system.  Throughout the 1950s, the team was in transition but still were always near the top defensively (aside from 1956-58, when the wheels really fell off). 

When Punch Imlach took over the reigns in 1958-59, the basic principles of the game didn't change.  His teams were all built around an outstanding defense corps and excellent two-way forwards.  The Leafs could score, but their real talent was shutting things down.  They'd draw a top offensive team like Chicago and choke the life out of them.  When they'd acquire a top-notch offensive player, Andy Bathgate for example, he'd be slotted into a role somewhere and expected to fit in rather than freelance and put points on the board.  He bought into this and made it work.

It was the Leaf way of doing things.

This is also really why a guy like Frank Mahovlich suddenly exploded when he left town.  He was a gifted offensive winger but never really fit with the Leafs checking system.  Put on an offensive line with Howe and Delvecchio in Detroit, it should come as a surprise to nobody that he thrived.  He played a lot of excellent hockey in Toronto, but his game was best suited to a different style.

This post is sort of a preamble to where I want to go with the next history series, though it'll probably be a while before I get into it in depth.  I think the experiences of the 1930s Leafs had a lot to do with the transformation of the Leafs under Day.  Those '40s teams were arguably the best we ever had and we almost never hear of them anymore. 

Time to revisit that.

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