Have the Leafs ever had a good right-shooting defender? Okay, Tim Horton, sure. But since then? Sometimes it feels like the answer must be no. Even when the Leafs get a bona fide, top-pairing, famous, experienced righty defender, we end up disappointed. Is it us? Is it something about Toronto? Maybe there never has been a good one in all of time.
Hockey Reference gave me 112 right-shooting defenders who have played for the Leafs, and allowing for how some of the earliest players in the NHL seem to have moved between forward and defence more easily, I’m calling that definitive enough to see how many of them are any good.
Beginning in 1917 Ken Randall, the captain of the Toronto Arenas and other forerunner teams to the Maple Leafs, played some right defence, but he was more of a forward. His teammate Harry Cameron played that position more, and Cameron not only won the Cup twice with a Toronto team, he’s also in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Harry Cameron was a strong puck carrying defenseman who could electrify the crowd with his speedy rushes up the ice, end-to-end rushes which also made him a viable goal scoring threat in the face of the opposing teams, as he was also a crafty stickhandler. During his first two seasons in the NHA with the Toronto Blueshirts Cameron made a strong defensive pairing with Jack Marshall, and even though Cameron was only of average height (5 ft 10 in) and weight (155 lb) he could still use his body on the defensive side of the puck to stop oncoming opponents. Later on, with the Toronto Arenas, he would pair with big-bodied defenseman Harry Mummery (220 lb). In the NHL Cameron had among his defensive partners Sprague Cleghorn (Ottawa Senators and Toronto St. Patricks) and Red Stuart (Toronto St. Patricks). - Wikipedia
I’m never going to hear the term “modern, puck-carrying defender” again without laughing. If only Cameron were alive today, he’d be at home in the Leafs dressing room and on the ice. Clearly the foundation for the Leafs was laid well back then, and since then... well... Since then, the results have been mixed.
First, the full list:
Toronto’s right-shooting defenders
|Mike Van Ryn||2008||2009||27||3||8||11|
Five HHOF defenders
Beyond Cameron there are four other players in the Hall on this list denoted by an asterisk after their names, so it wasn’t all bad. Tim Horton leads in both games played and points, and he’s in the Hall on the strength of his epic career in Toronto.
Red Horner played in the 30s and had a lot more penalty minutes than points, but he also won the Cup once. This from Wikipedia is interesting:
His election to the Hall of Fame [in 1965] has been controversial, as he never before his final two seasons was regarded as even the best defenceman on his own team—his contemporaries for most of his career were the Hall of Famers King Clancy and Hap Day, who were—and seems to rest more on his unprecedented and unequaled seven seasons as the NHL penalty minute leader. He retired the league’s all-time penalty minute leader, a mark he held until Ted Lindsay broke it in the late Fifties.
Horner seems more like the blueprint for a lot of the Leafs defenders in later decades, at least on the right side than Cameron. It took a long time for Leafs management to turn back the clock to the very beginning and find someone who could carry the puck. They just kept finding lefties, though.
Fern Flaman is not a household name, but he is in the HHOF as well. He played more for Boston than he did the Leafs, and his scoring came on his Bruins teams as well. He was inducted as a player, but seems to have made his mark as an NCAA coach.
Larry Murphy is the only modern Hall of Famer on the list, and while his time in Toronto was brief, but he did
win the Norris while he was here. He got some votes, but didn’t win the Norris, which sadly counts as greatness at this position.
Stephen Kraftcheck was actually named to the AHL Hall of Fame, so ignore his asterisk.
Toronto hasn’t always been known to keep their good players, and Larry Murphy isn’t the only star who was only around for a short time. Sort the list by games played and you see a different history of the Leafs. Dmitry Yushkevich is fifth, but Luke Schenn is eighth, and Roman Polak is 12th.
Surely there’s a 21st century Harry Cameron out there? But if there is, Toronto can’t find him. For all some of us complain about Tyson Barrie being not quite what we wanted, he’s still the best right-shooting defender in a very long time.
Sort the list by “To” which is the last year the player was in Toronto, and then decide who is the first one that’s better than Barrie. Timothy Liljegren might be the true inheritor of Cameron’s place on the team, but we don’t know that yet. Cody Franson will get a few votes, but I’m not sure that’s fair. Anton Stralman certainly was, but not when he was in Toronto. Dmitry Yushkevich is likely a good choice until you crawl back in time to Larry Murphy.
Maybe someday when someone writes up an all-time great Leafs team, there will be an argument about the right side defence. Maybe a Maple Leaf of the future might touch Horton’s greatness, but until then, we’ll just have to keep searching for the elusive righty of our dreams.