I am starting a series of articles on common misconceptions among many different topics. Seeing as how I wanted to start it off with a Leafs post, I might as well publish the article on here, instead of my blog.
Over the years, Leaf fans have believed certain things about the team and its players which are mostly rooted in feelings, rather than facts. The mainstream media does nothing but contribute to this, and are just as guilty as the fans themselves. This post will go through some of the more common misconceptions about the Toronto Maple Leafs, starting from 1993. I was born in 91 so my knowledge of the more historic teams is quite limited, although that isn’t really an excuse. I have followed, watched and read about the more modern times quite a bit more than their older counterparts have. Therefore, it only makes sense to write about them. If anyone has anything to offer about the teams and players pre-1990s, feel free to join in the discussion, I would love to learn more.
Phil Kessel is not a player you can build a team around. (Completely fiction)
Ever since he got here from the Seguin trade, a good number have Leaf fans have a bone to pick with Kessel. He’s not tough enough, he’s too one-dimensional, he doesn’t talk to the media, etc etc. However, the most egregious "fact" about Kessel is that he is not someone you can build a team around. The image of Kessel is one of a player who is not quite in the upper tier of the hockey elite. He isn’t an Ovechkin or a Crosby, or even a Rick Nash according to Damien Cox. The facts however, paint a much different picture. Since coming to the Leafs in 2009, Phil Kessel has the fifth most goals and the thirteenth most points since that season. More goals than Iginla, Crosby, Nash, Toews and Malkin among other. He also has more points than Zetterberg, Malkin, Toews, Tavares and Eric Staal since 2009. That is quite a feat. But hey, not really "elite" is it?
Aside from league wide stats, among the Leafs’ all-time list, Phil Kessel sits 30th in points and 26th in goals, beating out Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk for goals. He’s done all this in only five seasons, and in the 2013-2014 campaign, Phil Kessel is quietly on pace for the best seasons a Leaf has had in quite some time, yet barely anyone is saying anything. With the amount of points and goals he has scored for the Leafs, he is definitely a franchise player. Also, as an aside, he has done all of this without a #1 centre.
While Kessel may not be the most charismatic guy this team has ever had, he is certainly one of the best. He has proven time and again that he will produce under any kind of pressure, and he is far and away the best player we have had since Mats. But hey, let’s trade him for Rick Nash because Canada.
The 1993 Maple Leafs were the best team in the history of ever (Fact, well sort of).
We have all heard the same stories about that team. Potvin’s sudden emergence. Gilmour’s domination. Pat Burns’ coaching genius. Was the 93 team really that good? Or was it simply a lucky run for a half-decent team?
Let’s start with the numbers. Doug Gilmour was clearly one of the best players in the league, amassing 127 points that year. Gilmour was brought in from Calgary in a blockbuster trade a couple years back. "Killer" immediately became the franchise player Toronto desperately needed. While Wendel Clark was good, he simply was not enough. Gilmour wasn’t the only Leaf who experienced success. Felix Potvin led the league in Goals Against Average and was second in Save Percentage, behind only Curtis Joseph (whose percentage was only .001 higher). The 1992-1993 season was Potvin’s first as a regular starter, which makes those numbers all the more impressive. While the likes of Gilmour and Clark will always get more attention when talking about the 93 playoff run, Potvin's contributions seem a bit understated. He was stellar, and that allowed the team, who did not have the best defense corps that year (It was good, but not great). Nikolai Borchevsky also had a great year, putting up 74 points. Something he would never do again unfortunately.
On paper, this team was good, but it wasn’t really the most talented one. Obviously, they made it further than the 2004 squad. However, the 04 team was miles ahead in terms of talent. The 93 team also was not the only Leafs team to reach the heights they did. The 94, 99, and 2002 squads all made the conference finals. The fact remains, the 93 team did not win the Stanley Cup, yet Leaf fans treat that squad with the same kind of reverence.
Personally, while I don’t think it’s the greatest team the Leafs have ever assembled, I can understand the historical significance. The Maple Leafs of the 80s were horrific, and the start of the 90s was not any different. The 1992-1993 Leafs team brought the franchise and its fan base out of insignificance and into a turbulent time. Being able to feel good about a team after a decade of losing is something that’s a bit special, only reserved for those who stayed around when it was bad. That is what 1993 represents. Not so much the roster, just what that season meant for the fans. The quote from the movie Moneyball says it best "It’s hard not to get romantic about baseball". The same can be said about hockey.
Sundin never played with any good linemates. (Could go either way)
One of the most popular conceptions of this team has been the quality of Mats Sundin’s linemates throughout his time here. While that opinion certainly has merit, it isn’t completely true either.
Let’s start from the beginning. Sundin arrived here in the summer of 1994, a deal in which the beloved Wendel Clark was traded. In his first season, Sundin would play alongside Gilmour, Andreychuk and Mike Gartner. Although it’s more likely he didn’t play with the first two players, he certainly did not have the worst line mates in the world. Cut to a few years later, Sundin is dragging the likes of Derek King, a decent, but aged player in Steve Thomas, an inconsistent Sergei Berezin, Jonas Hoglund, Mike Johnson and Steve Sullivan. It was around this time that Leaf fans were developing the belief that the Leafs would never surround Sundin with first line talent, seeing as how Hoglund and Berezin miraculously scored over 20 goals playing with him.
That would change in the 21st century however. In short order, the Leafs acquired both Alex Mogilny and Gary Roberts. The line of Roberts-Sundin-Mogilny would become the best combination of players the Leafs have ever played on one line. While Mogilny and Roberts were both older, they were still producing a lot of points. This is probably where my fondest memories of the team lie. With this tandem of players. Whenever that line was on the ice, you know good hockey was being played. By 2005, Sundin was playing with two younger, but bigger linemates in Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky. While Antro and Poni weren’t nearly the players Roberts or Mogilny were, they still produced, and they were consistent. The cycling behind the net with those three was something to watch. Even though Antropov and Ponikarovsky weren’t stellar players, I still enjoyed watching them play with Mats.
While I consider the opinion of Sundin never having any linemates to be somewhat false, I can certainly see the other side of the argument. The late 90s were not a great time for top line talent. They had Sundin, and that was about it. The success of the 1999 playoffs had more to do with world-class goaltending and not on talent. Imagine what those teams could have done with some more first line players. So that’s why I consider this conception both true, and untrue.
Eric Lindros and Jason Allison were horrible signings. (Fiction)
Let’s get this out of the way. Jason Allison was not a bad Leaf. Slow? Absolutely. But with a team that needed cheap players who could play, he wasn’t the worst option. He averaged just about a point a game, scoring 60 points in 66 games. He was also being paid 1.5 million dollars. Now even in today’s world, a player who can score 60 points for 1.5 million is a bargain. We are paying Clarkson over five million to score four goals, and he’s still popular somehow. The case for Eric Lindros is not as simple.
Eric Lindros was perhaps, the most talented player in the 1990s. Had he not been hurt in as many games as he was, he would be considered among the best ever. After dominating the league with the Flyers in eight seasons, Lindros was then acquired by the New York Rangers. His time there was not very long, and injuries hampered his productivity. Cut to the start of the 2005-2006 season, the Leafs were looking for some help after the departure of players like Mogilny, Roberts, Nolan and Nieuwendyk. Toronto would take a chance on Lindros, paying him the same salary as Allison. Lindros still had talent, which was undeniable. But yet again, he was hurt. Forced to play only 33 games, scoring 22 points.
Leaf fans condemned the signings of both Lindros and Allison after the fact. The moves represented the backwards thinking of Leafs management in a forward moving league. They were not fast and they played a much more physical, chippy game than what the NHL was turning into. However, the moves shouldn’t be considered terrible. They were both cheap, low-risk high-reward type deals. Had Allison and Lindros played full seasons, they would have put up 75 and 55 points respectively. I understand that Lindros’ injury problems were quite predictable, at 1.5 million; you have to take the chance on him.
John Ferguson was awful at absolutely everything. (Fact, but only by a hair).
John Ferguson took over as General Manager from Pat Quinn, and it was not a popular decision. He was young and inexperienced. However, as hated as he was, he made some good moves as well.
His very first move was to sign centreman Joe Nieuwendyk to a one-year deal. While Nieuwendyk was not quite the player he used to be, he was certainly a decent addition to a playoff contending team. He then proceeds to add Ron Francis, Brian Leetch (Who played really well for Toronto in his short time here) and Chad Kilger, who was unremarkable but did fairly well as a 3rd/4th line grinder. The team only advanced to the second round of the playoffs in 2004, which incidentally were the last playoffs the Leafs appeared in until almost a decade later. After the lockout, Ferguson had to rebuild his team. Toronto was ageing, and their window was essentially closed. Instead, he signed Jason Allison, Eric Lindros, Mariusz Czerkawski and trades for Jeff O’Neill.
While O’Neill was the only one who managed to stay longer than a year (He lasted two, and considering his decent production, was certainly a good pickup), the rest were left for the free agency. Again, Ferguson had an opportunity to rebuild, but he did not. For the next two seasons, JFJ proceeded to add Pavel Kubina, Hal Gill, Michael Peca, Andrew Raycroft, Travis Green (Eww), Yannic Perreault, Vesa Toskala, Mark Bell and Jason Blake. Kubina, Gill, and Blake were good pickups despite public opinion. Blake may have been slightly overpaid; he produced a good number of points and was a positive possession player. His expectations were simply too high. Toskala and Raycroft were disasters, considering we gave up the wrong goaltending prospect to get him (We chose Pogge instead of Rask, which turned out to be an atrocious move.).
Ferguson’s tenure has always been described as a disaster. However, not every move he made was bad. He made quite a few decent to good ones. Obviously, the Raycroft deal was the worst deal Toronto has made in quite some time, but it wasn’t like that was the only move he made. His draft record is pretty solid. He was responsible for drafting Tukka Rask, Alex Steen, Nikolai Kulemin, James Reimer, Viktor Stalberg, Leo Komarov, Jiri Tlusty, Matt Frattin, and Carl Gunnarsson. I think it is safe to say Ferguson has an eye for drafting productive NHL players, which is actually rare, considering that players outside of the first round are rarely half-decent NHL’ers. So yes, he was terrible. But he was not the blundering idiot everyone made him out to be. He did a lot of good that would not be seen until Burke took over.
David Clarkson was a great addition (Fact, because he is the next Wendel Clark. Who am I kidding, its fiction).
A lot of common Leaf fans love the guy. His name is similar to Clark’s and he hits. Let’s sign him for over five million dollars for infinity. He has four goals so far this season. It’s not even one year into his insane contract and it is already a disaster. Next.
Colton Orr is a valuable member of this team (Fact, if I were a drunken UFC fan).
Colton Orr contributes absolutely nothing defensively or offensively. He is a worse skater than Dave Andreychuk and Jason Allison combined and he loses a lot of fights nowadays. He is horrible, but don’t tell the "real" Leaf fans that. He has heart and character. He cares more about winning than Phil Kessel. He cares so much that he immediately removes himself from the game with his fights. He knows that his absence means that actual hockey players can play hockey. What a team guy!