1964-65 Preview – The Toronto Maple Leafs

The final instalment in our series of 1964-65 team previews covers the Stanley Cup Champion Toronto Maple Leafs.  The Leafs skated to their third consecutive Cup win last spring thanks mainly to a late-season trade by GM-coach Punch Imlach that brought veterans Andy Bathgate and Don McKenney to Toronto.  The deal upped the average age of a team already staffed with men with a high level of seniority, so the question now becomes, “Are the Leafs  too old to continue to reside among the NHL’s elite?

Last season

The 63-64 season was a strange one in Toronto.  The Maple Leafs muddled through a mediocre regular season with a pedestrian performance that belied the playoff success that laid ahead. The offence was almost non-existent at times, with numerous notables performing far below expectations.  While the defence and goaltending was solid, the Leafs couldn’t seem to put the puck into the net with enough regularity to warrant contender status, and it didn’t take long for Imlach to come to the conclusion that something had to be done.

At the last possible moment that trades were allowed by the league, on the afternoon of February 22  just before a game that night against  New York, Imlach pulled the trigger on a major exchange with the Rangers, a deal that shook the hockey world.  Punch sent out one of the all-time Leaf fan favourites Dick Duff, young Bob Nevin and three youngsters with almost no NHL time in a calculated risk to bring in experienced and highly skilled scoring expertise.  Coming back to Toronto were forwards Andy Bathgate, the Ranger captain, and smooth skating Don McKenney, who had captained the Boston Bruins only a year previously.  Imlach had been trying to acquire Bathgate for years but until this moment, the Broadway Blueshirts had always resisted his overtures.

Imlach, a subscriber to the “what have you done for me lately” school of thought, reasoned that surrendering pieces of the future for immediate help was the only way his team could retain their grip on Lord Stanley’s legendary mug. And for this time, it worked.

For the first time, Andy Bathgate got a close-up look at hockey’s Holy Grail.

Bathgate integrated himself into the Toronto lineup seamlessly, scoring 18 points in 15 games.  Although he managed only 3 goals, he blended beautifully with Frank Mahovlich and amassed 15 assists.  McKenney contributed mightily as well, earning 15 points in a like number of games while taking Duff’s spot.  He was even better in the playoffs, counting 12 points in 12 twelve games, outscoring even Bathgate.

The trade essentially defined the Toronto season.  But there were other notable factors that led the Leafs to their final destination.  Davey Keon, just 23 and already maturing into one of the best two-way forwards in hockey, led the team in scoring.  The Big M, Frank Mahovlich, scored 26 goals which was below  his projected totals, but he caught fire in the playoffs with 15 points.  The only other Maple Leaf to hit the 20 goal plateau was captain George Armstrong, who netted 20 right on.  Rookie winger Jim Pappin scored 11 times in only 50 games, promoted from Rochester after a hot start there. His presence allowed Imlach to include Nevin in the big trade.

The defence for the Leafs was, as usual, superb.  Tim Horton and Allan Stanley both played every one of the 70 game schedule, and off-nights were a rarity.  Carl Brewer and hard-rock Bobby Baun were very good, but they missed significant time with  injuries. During their absences they were ably replaced by Larry Hillman and Kent Douglas.

In goal, Johnny Bower had a spectacular season, but as he approached what is believed to be his 40th birthday (and some say that is a kind estimate), injuries began to have a lengthier  recovery time.  Johnny played in 51 games and compliled a microscopic 2.11 goals-aganst average.   He was capably backed up by Don Simmons, the left-handed puckstopper from Port Colborne, Ontario (Teeder Kennedy’s hometown).  The man they call Dippy gave up over a goal per game more than Bower in 21 appearances.

The Leafs survived two seven-game series to win the Cup tournament, thanks to two key factors.  The enhanced offence brought in by their new acquisitions enabled them to outscore the opposition on most nights. This was seen by many as the principle factor in the Leafs Cup win.  Just as critical was the team’s overall  good health when the post season rolled around.  Brewer, Baun and Bower had all missed time with various ailments, but in the playoffs, only Brewer experienced any down time, and that was for just two games.  Imlach had made his trade (some call it his deal with the devil) and he reaped the desired reward.

Off-season acquistions

Like the New York Rangers, two of Toronto’s key acquisitions were the late-season additions via the trade route.  The Leafs feel that having Andy Bathgate and Don McKenney for a full season will boost an offence whose productio, until the deal, was lagging behind the rest of the NHL .  Imlach is counting on Bathgate to maintain his usual pace, and for McKenney to build on his fine playoff performance.

Don McKenney – Imlach expects big things from him in his first full Leaf season.

Punch wasn’t satisfied, though, with bringing in just a couple of veterans and during the summer he went out and picked up two even older players.  This was done via the intra-league draft at the annual league meetings held in Montreal.

In the days leading up to the gathering, rumours abounded that Toronto wanted to grab left-winger Dickie Moore from Montreal. The Leafs knew that Montreal was not going to protectthe former all-star and NHL leading scorer in the draft, mainly because he sat out the 63-64 season due to bad knees.  Moore had let it be known that he missed the game and was interested in coming back.  Imlach has never seen an aging veteran he didn’t like and figured that Moore was the tonic the Leafs would need to make it four Stanley Cups in succession.

Another rumour had Toronto interested in goaltender Gump Worsley, also slated to be made available by Montreal.  Word around the NHL was that with Johnny Bower at or already past the 40 year old milestone, Imlach wanted a solid backup plan and the Gumper was the best NHL-tested man available. Habs’ new GM Sam Pollock attempted to entice Imlach into trading for Worsley, but the Toronto GM was well aware of Montreal’s draft plans and knew he could grab Gump for the $20,000 draft fee and not have to give up a live body.  So no barter was arranged.

On draft day, Imlach did the expected and claimed Moore from Montreal in the first round.   In round two,  the Leafs wanted to pick up Worsley but realized that doing so would have to result in dropping young Jerry Cheevers from their protected list in order to add another veteran goalie. Armed with the knowledge that Detroit was looking for another young netminder, Imlach and Leafs’ president Stafford Smythe decided to make no selection in the second round and instead waited to see what Detroit would do in the third and final round.

The Red Wings did not disappoint and with their final selection, they took young goalie George Gardner from Boston.  Seeing that Toronto had passed on Worsley in the second round, the Wings incorrectly assumed that the Leafs were no longer interested in another goaltending greybeard and dropped 33-year-old Terry Sawchuk from their list.  The words were barely out of Detroit GM Sid Abel’s mouth before Imlach announced that Sawchuk would now be a Maple Leaf.

Terry Sawchuk, acquired in a surprise intra-league draft move by Imlach.

The only other summer transaction saw the Leafs engage in a minor-league transaction with their favourite trading partner of late, the Rangers.  Rochester’s Lou Angotti became Ranger property while defencman Duane Rupp transferred to the Toronto organization.  Angotti might make the Rangers this year while Rupp has shown to be a solid defender so far in training camp but still rates as a long shot to see time with the big club this year.

Rookies to watch

Going into training camp it was thought that with such a veteran crew on hand, Toronto wouldn’t have much room for rookies to break into the lineup.  However during the pre-season workout period, two graduates of the Leafs’ Toronto Marlboro Junior A club have made quite an impression and it appears that one of them will break camp with the big club, while the other may not be far behind.

Nineteen-year-old Ron Ellis made a one-game appearance with the Leafs last season during a year in which he scored 46 goals for the Marlboros. He is a swift right winger with a hard, accurate shot.  He has fit in surprisingly well on a line with Mahovlich and Bathgate and should be in the lineup on opening night.  Imlach’s able assistant King Clancy is very high on Ellis and believes he has the stuff to make a solid contribution right now.

Marlie grad Ron Ellis should stick with the Leafs this year.

The other Marlboro grad who is deemed just about ready to make the jump to the big league is Peter Stemkowski, 21.  Stemkowski is a tall, rangy centre who also had a brief cup of coffee with Toronto last season.  He had a whopping 103 points in Junior A last season, 42 of them goals.  Once he gets his NHL bearings, he is expected to give the Leafs that big presence down the middle they have been lacking.  He is expected to start the year with Rochester, but if he gets off to a good start, a promotion to the Leafs is not out of the question.

Goalie Jerry Cheevers is the other prized youngster expected to make the big club at some point in the near future.  Cheevers, who is from nearby St. Catharines, had a fine season in the American League last year with Rochester.  Imlach thought enough of the kid to avoid leaving him unprotected in the draft, choosing instead to make the veteran backup Simmons available. Although he is a very good prospect, young Mr. Cheevers had better be very patient as incumbents Bower and Sawchuk don’t quite look ready to give up the goal just yet.

How they’ll do

Opinions on how the Leafs will fare this season vary depending on who you talk to around the NHL.  Most observers feel that the Stanley Cup champs will at least be contenders for a playoff spot this season, while some feel they are a shoe-in for another championship.  Even the Chicago Black Hawks brain trust is on the Toronto bandwagon.  Both GM Tommy Ivan and coach Billy Reay pick the Leafs to finish first by at least ten points.

The Maple Leafs do have abundant strength going into the season.  It’s hard to imagine a defence unit constructed of Horton, Stanley, Baun and Brewer having anything but success over the course of a season.  With Bathgate and McKenney on board from the start, the Toronto offence should be better than it was for most of  63-64.  And Terry Sawchuk is now on board to spell Johnny Bower and the added rest for the venerable puckstopper has to give him a boost late in the season and into the playoffs.  Sawchuk is a major upgrade over former backup Simmons.

But the champions, like every other team, have issues with which they have to contend.  Toronto is an aging team, and if the ravages of time are more severe than anticipated, there may not be enough help in the system to enable the Leafs to play the calibre of game elite teams need to play.  Here are the key factors facing the Leafs as training camp winds down:

  • Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk must find a way for the 2-headed goaltending monster to work
  • The New York newcomers Bathgate and McKenney have to build on their playoff performances and give the Leafs the same offensive spark they brought in after the trade
  • Toronto’s Big 4 on defence have to stay healthy
  • Frank Mahovlich has to regain the form that made him one of the NHL’s elite scorers.
Carl Brewer has to be healthy for a full season this time around.

If Imlach’s charges can elude the grasp of Father Time yet again, the Leafs are going to be all right.  However, with an aging crew such as this, the longer the season goes on, the tougher it gets.  It might be too much to expect this group  of hockey’s elder statesmen  to repeat as Cup champs for a fourth consecutive year.