(Ed. Note: Welcome to the Puck Daddy 2013 summer project, the National Hockey League of Nations. We’ve recruited 30 writers/blogs to identify the best player in their favorite team’s history for each major nationality that creates the fabric of our beloved NHL: Canada, USA, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, Finland and The Rest of The World. It’s their criteria, as long as they can justify it. Read, debate and enjoy! If you want to do so on Twitter, it's #NHLoN.)
Canada: Dave Keon
Dave Keon was a wonderful Maple Leaf for 15 seasons but may have been, if not the “best”, certainly the most complete all-around player in the NHL for a five-year period in the 1960s.
I would argue that between 1962 and 1967, no other player did more things well than the diminutive Leaf center. He was arguably the fastest skater in the league, and a peerless penalty-killer. Remarkably, he virtually never took a penalty himself, averaging maybe two minors a season throughout most of his career. He was strong on face-offs, but perhaps most importantly was often tasked with shutting down the best center on the opposing teams, a job he handled splendidly.
While not primarily a goal-scorer, his trademark was nonetheless scoring huge goals, including at playoff time. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy in the spring of ’67 when the underdog Leafs last won a Cup, but it’s difficult to imagine he would not have won it more often had that trophy been in existence when the Leafs ruled the NHL between 1962 and 1964. He was a relentless forechecker and while not known as a physical player in the conventional sense, he used angles so expertly that he led his team in ‘take-outs’ — whereby he eliminated the man who just had the puck from the play entirely — every season.
While I have many vivid memories of individual plays and moments involving Keon (his ‘hat trick’ in Game 7 of the 1964 semi-finals in Montreal, when the Leafs won 3-1 jumps to mind, along with his clinching markers in the last game of the ’63 and ’64 Cup finals against the Red Wings), what stands out most for me, even after all these years, was his consistency. Virtually every game was, for Keon, a carbon copy of the game that preceded it. He was that consistent in terms of quality, effort and determination. Having said that, I would still make the case that in big games and key moments, especially come playoff time, he somehow found an even higher gear.
How good was Keon? I will always recall listening (on the radio this night, not television) to the legendary broadcaster Foster Hewitt calling a late-season Leaf game at Maple Leaf Gardens toward the end of the 1972-’73 NHL schedule. After losing several key young players to the fledgling World Hockey Association before that season began, the Leafs struggled mightily that year. Yet Keon had another standout season, causing Hewitt to remark that evening, “Where would this Maple Leaf team be without Dave Keon?”
Indeed. One line said it all.
There have been many other Canadians who wore the Leaf crest with pride and distinction, and I would not argue if any one of them were named the greatest “Canadian-born” Maple Leaf. But as good and important as all those players were, my guess is few, if any, would take umbrage with the notion of Keon standing at the top of this list.
- Michael Langlois, Vintage Leaf Memories
Finland: Niklas Hagman
If you want to gain an understanding of where the Leafs have gone wrong in the past couple of decades, you should look no further than the list of Finnish Maple Leaf players. Every mistake this franchise has made be represented with a Finnish player.
The Leafs attempting to get the last drop of blood out of an aging veteran: Jyrki Lumme.
Taking a chance on a player who might need a change of scenery: Aki Berg.
Giving up a high draft pick for a backup goaltender: the pile of flaming hot garbage that is Vesa Toskala.
That leaves one Finn that Toronto fans haven’t tried to erase from our memories: Niklas Hagman. Nik was brought in to the Leafs organization in that magical time after the firing of John Ferguson Jr. and before the hiring of Brian Burke when Leafs fans thought anything was possible. Cliff Fletcher was temporarily in charge and was going to right the ship by building a foundation for success in Toronto.
One of his first moves was bringing in Hagman as a free agent. Hagman would deliver two 20-goal seasons and would be one of the few penalty killers who didn’t make our eyes bleed on those teams, but really he’s memorable for three reasons:
2. This goal
3. And being enough of an asset that he could be bundled with Jamal Mayers, Ian White and Matt Stajan to bring Dion Phaneuf to Toronto, giving us one of the greatest message board threads of all time.
Kudos to Niklas Hagman, but a solemn honourable mention goes to Tuukka Rask. He was robbed of his opportunity of becoming the greatest Finnish Maple Leaf of all time and will have to settle for that recognition with a lesser franchise. And best of luck to Christopher Gibson (great Finnish name). Breaking Toronto's Finnish goaltending curse now rests on you.
USA: Phil Kessel
When Wendel Clark was traded for Mats Sundin, one thought at the time that there would never be a more polarizing trade for fans of the Maple Leafs.
In September of 2009, a challenger emerged.
Phil Kessel arrived in Toronto with the stigma of being part of a trade in which the Leafs were viewed as getting absolutely hosed: A 2nd overall pick (Tyler Pig-Pen Seguin), a 2nd round pick (Jared Knight) and a 1st round pick (7th overall) the following year (Dougie Hamilton).
It couldn’t have looked worse as the Leafs stumbled to consecutive lottery pick finishes, but time has a funny way of changing the way you view hockey trades. As of the past two seasons, it’s started to slide into Toronto’s favour as Kessel continues to stake his claim as one of the most talented players to suit up for an almost 100-year-old franchise.
His speed, his shot and his release make him one of those rare combinations every team looks for in a winger. You could argue that while he is not the best Leaf of all time, he is in the conversation for the most talented. The last few seasons have seen Kessel develop into more than just the one-dimensional scoring winger he was often pigeon holed as in his Boston and early Leaf days; he’s equally elite at playmaking as he is finishing.
Since 2010-11, Kessel has become a dominant player in the NHL. 5th in goals scored, 7th in points – all done without having a No. 1 centerman to play with. Playoffs? Small samples sizes, sure, but he was 2nd in the league for goals per game in the playoffs against a team that isn’t known for given up many goals.
Knocks about being a bad teammate from his NHL combine days were far off the mark. In fact, the opposite is true—he is widely lauded as being one of the most popular players in the room. It’s definitely true that Kessel will never be a natural in front of the camera, which is more hilarious than legitimate grounds for criticizing a hockey player. As it stands, he looks likely to break into the top-25 Leafs of all time this season for goals and bust into the top 30 for points, ahead of Doug Gilmour. He’s still just 25 years of age.
Fans should be hoping that Kessel signs long-term for the Leafs (he becomes a UFA next summer), and his contract will most likely make him one of the highest paid players in the league. He deserves it. His regular season and post-season play have been fantastic, he’s the most offensively-gifted player on the team and, while he lacks a true #1 centerman by his side, he continues to pile up point-a-game numbers and sit among the league leaders in the most important categories.
- Declan Kerin
Sweden: Mats Sundin
Let's get the runner up's super-worthy honourable mention out of the way: Börje Salming delivered an amazing combination of skill and toughness in a black-and-blue-hued era of the NHL, breaking ground for every European player that followed. One of those players - and the one we have to go with for best Swede - is Mats Sundin. The hockey player's...uh, Swedish Army knife: a complete package of ability, leadership, and integrity. A big-bodied first line centre and longtime captain whose legendary backhand helped cement him atop the Leafs' all-time scoring list with 987 points. His Torontonian tenure is marred only by its lack of a Stanley Cup - a failure that was far from being his own, given that his services and legacy stand up alongside any other man privileged to have worn the Leafs' "C".
- Matt Mistele
Russia: Alex Mogilny
The Leafs have had some success with Russian hockey players in the past two and half decades. Naming the best one presents a bit of a challenge. There were two solid defenders who certainly deserve a salute. Danil Markov, and especially Dmitri Yushkevich were largely responsible for the last few seasons the Leafs honestly could call their blue line “intimidating.” Sergei Berezin, Nikolai Kulemin, and Nikolai Borschevsky have all been “unbeeleelaba” and each managed 30-goal seasons in Toronto, though the player who seems to be the narrow favourite of the Russian Leafs is Alexander Mogilny.
Mogilny’s greatest contribution the Leafs is in the following conversation:
“The Leafs would have been a decent team if they ever found someone to play on Sundin’s wing.”
“What about Mogilny?”
“Oh yeah, he was good.”
The numbers that back that up came during 2002-03, his best season in Toronto. Alex Mogilny put up 33 goals and 79 points in a 73 game stretch, winning the Lady Byng, which may be the last major game play related award won by a Leaf until the NHL adopts their own version of the Razzies (Jason Blake did win the Masterton in 2008). The most memorable stretch of hockey played by Mogilny as a Leaf was when Sundin was down for the 2003 playoffs and Alex put up 5 goals in six games in a futile effort. Not exactly on par with Borschevsky’s OT winner against Detroit, but I guess as time marches on first round playoff victories in the early 90s don’t mean as much as the raw talent of Alexander Mogilny, who provided us with a tease of what the Leafs could have been if they ever dressed two high-end forwards on the same line.
- Jon Steitzer
Slovakia: Peter Ihnacak
Unfortunately, Ihnacak played with the Leafs in the 1980s (it’s nice to know this wasn’t enough to discourage him from working with the Leafs in the scouting capacity later on in life). While he never matched his 1983-’83 rookie season (he was already in his mid-20s by then, however) in terms of offensive production, when he netted 66 points, he played the game with flair and creativity. A fine skater who had excellent on-ice vision and a great feel for the game, Ihnacak was a heady center.
While hardly a physical presence, he was a nifty playmaker for the Leafs during the high-scoring ‘80s. He played his last games for Toronto during the 1989-’90 season. In just over 400 NHL games with Toronto, he finished with 267 regular-season career points, and 14 more in 28 lifetime playoff games.
- Michael Langlois, Vintage Leaf Memories
Czech Republic: Tomas Kaberle
When looking at Leafs all time leaders, he is eighth in games played, fifth in assists, and eleventh in points. When you compare him to other defensemen, he’s only behind Salming for points and assists and only Salming, Horton and Turnbull for goals. He also holds the NHL career record for number of assholes yelling “SHOOT!” at him while quarterbacking a power play. Of course, I’m talking about the one and only Tomas Kaberle, who is the no-brainer choice for Top Czech (sorry, Slava Duris).
Besides the Kaberle shooting myth, Tomas was also known for being involved in every trade rumour involving the Leafs following the first lockout, with the favourites being a deadline deal for Jeff Carter and the draft day deal for Phil Kessel that died due to miscommunication over a first round pick. When Kaberle was eventually traded he kept his loyalty to the Leafs by making sure he added absolutely no value to the Bruins, a practice that he would then carry forward with the Hurricanes and Canadiens as well.
Focusing more on what he did while he was a Leaf, Kaberle used his skating ability combined with his accuracy to be one of the league’s top offensive defensemen and a four time All-Star. Unfortunately possession hockey was banished from the Greater Toronto Area in 2012 so it’s unlikely we’ll see another player like Kaberle anytime soon. (I assume Carlyle has Colton Orr mentoring Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly).
Presently unemployed, odds aren’t great that Kaberle will be continuing his NHL career, but it’s debatable that his numbers are good enough that he could be the next player to have his number honoured by the Leafs, becoming only the third European player in Toronto’s history to have his number in the rafters. If that is the case, I hope he brings along these guys.
- Jon Steitzer
REST OF THE WORLD CATEGORY
Steve Thomas (England)
With all due respect to the Polish Prince Mariusz Czerkawski, it wasn’t too difficult to come up with a name for the Best of Rest. That player is Steve “Stumpy” Thomas from jolly ol’ England.
There have been 18 players in Maple Leafs history that come from outside the big seven hockey countries including the hockey hotbeds of Estonia, Ireland and the Bahamas, but of those players Thomas leads the group in points, points per game, and seasons suffered under Harold Ballard. Nikolai Antropov has Thomas beat on goals by seven, but that came over the course of 132 more games for the Leafs.
While Thomas’ best seasons came on Long Island, he had a couple of notable ones in Toronto both on the raise and decline of his career in the NHL. In 1986-87, Thomas had a 35-goal season which set off the alarm in Toronto that they needed to rid themselves of this good young player immediately. When he eventually returned to Toronto in the 98-99 season, he put up 73 points after only managing 24 the previous season in New Jersey.
Thomas also spent part of his time in Toronto as an extra in Youngblood, famously getting towel snapped by Patrick Swayze, which thanks to Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky is only the second strangest video by players in this grouping.
Here’s the hard working Thomas dismantling the Sens in the 2000 playoffs (please note the rare Sergei Berezin pass on the OT winner).