The 1964-65 season for the Toronto Maple Leafs marked the first time in three years that the team was unable to defend its Stanley Cup Championship. The Leafs finished a disappointing fourth in the regular season standings, and were summarily dismissed by the Montreal Canadiens in the semi-finals.
Age was a factor
As the season wore on, many observers, even those who predicted prior to the season that the Leafs would finish atop the standings, expressed doubt that the Leafs would be successful in winning a fourth straight Stanley Cup. The main source of concern was that many of the normally dependable Toronto veterans began to show signs of their advanced ages. Only four players managed to suit up for all 70 games this season – Red Kelly, Tim Horton, Bob Baun and Carl Brewer.
Kelly’s durability in being available for every game is a testament to the man’s character. He successfully balanced his duties as the Member of Parliament for York West with the rigours of the NHL schedule, no mean feat indeed.
No mid-season deals
Another issue was the fact that general manager – coach Punch Imlach was unable to add significant talent to his club during the season. In years gone by, when it became clear that the Leafs had holes to fill, Imlach went out and acquired serviceable veterans, and even superstars like Andy Bathgate, to put the team over the top. This time around, Punch pulled out all the stops to bring in high-end veteran help, but he was rebuffed by potential trade partners at every turn. He thought that he had a deal with Boston just before the deadline for making trades. However, at the last minute,the Bruins backed out of a transaction that would have seen Boston mainstay Johnny Bucyk come to the Leafs.
The one area that was on no concern for Imlach was in goal. Picking up the great Terry Sawchuk from Detroit during last summer’s draft proved to be a master stroke by the wily Toronto manager. Imlach surprised the Red Wings by selecting Sawchuk when he was dropped from the Wings’ protected list when they drafted young George Gardner from Boston. Gardner ended up spending the entire 1964-65 season with Memphis of the Central Professional Hockey League.
Sawchuk, 35, teamed wonderfully with the Leafs’ other veteran netminder, Johnny Bower. Bower, whose age has been subject of speculation for years, is at least 40, but has the reflexes and athletic ability of a much younger athlete. He welcomed the presence of the former Detroit goalie, with the accompanying rest helping both their games.
The pair split the schedule almost evenly, with Sawchuk getting into 36 games to Bower’s 34. They were so effective that the pair’s combined work resulted in the best goals-against average in the league, just a couple of goals better than Detroit’s outstanding rookie, Roger Crozier. As the goalkeeper who played the most games for the team with the best average, the NHL designated Sawchuk as the league’s Vezina Trophy winner.
For his part, Sawchuk said he would not accept the award unless Bower’s name was included on the trophy as well.
In the playoffs, Bower put on a heroic performance. He was almost solely responsible for the two games Toronto managed to take from Montreal during their series.
Defence showed signs of age
Toronto’s vaunted defensive unit began to show signs of their collective advanced age this past season. Durable Tim Horton, Bob Baun and 25-year-old Carl Brewer were available for every game, with both Horton and Brewer putting in all-star-worthy seasons. Brewer especially seems to be developing into a genuine star, displaying sound defensive play with offensive flair. Horton was not only Toronto’s best defender, but he doubled for more than a few games as a right-winger with very good results.
The rest of the blueliners left a bit to be desired. Kent Douglas showed good offensive instincts, but his work in his own end was woefully inconsistent. He saw lots of action on the power play, but was noticeably absent late in close games when the team was protecting a lead.
Baun, 27, had spent the past few years almost exclusively paired with Brewer. He is your quintessential stay-at-home defenceman, a fact emphasized by his scoring totals this season (0 goals, 18 assists). He is known as one of the fiercest bodycheckers in the NHL, and was responsible for many foes’ trips to the injured list. Bobby Hull’s record-setting season was curtailed by a Baun body-check. Baun’s value was diminished by inconsistency, especially later in the season and the playoffs.
Even though he played every game, Baun was slowed by a variety of minor ailments and was also paired from time to time with veteran Allan Stanley. Their unfamiliarity with each other led to some loose defensive zone play.
Stanley, now 38, was the defender who seems to be most affected by his advanced years. He has slowed considerably, and at times seemed incapable of keeping up with the play. He missed only six games with injury, but spent more time on the bench as Imlach lost faith in him. He is expected to call it quits this summer, as he is rumoured to be being considered for a number of minor-league coaching spots.
Injuries decimated the offence
Toronto’s most significant problem area was extended time missed by several key forwards. Superstar left-winger Frank Mahovlich was out for over 10 games with a mystery illness which the team refused to identify. He still ended up with 51 points and was the Leafs’ leading scorer. Dave Keon missed only five games, but was slowed for at least that many with a pesky groin injury that lingered for much of the year.
Andy Bathgate, with whom Imlach had placed a great deal of trust when he acquired him from New York in February of 1964, missed 15 games with a broken thumb, and was ineffective when he did play. He was critical of Imlach’s spartan training methods and has been traded to Detroit. His 16 goals was the lowest total of his NHL career.
Rookie Ron Ellis was a god-send. He was second in the rookie-of-the-year voting and posted 23 goals. He is gifted offensively, while also playing a strong defensive game. Stardom for Ellis is not far down the road. The only down side for the 20-year-old was that he missed eight games with a concussion.
Don McKenney, the other player acquired with Bathgate from New York, was a huge disappointment. After a strong showing in the 1964 playoffs, he was expected to provide offence from the left side. Instead, he scored only six times in 52 games, and found himself banished to Rochester of the AHL for much of the season. He is not likely to be back next year.
Imlach was pleased with the play of Bob Pulford. A versatile centre who can also play wing, he emerged as possibly the best two-way forward in the league and was the object of every trade pitch Imlach received. He missed the 20-goal mark by only one, and would surely have exceeded it if he had been completely healthy all season.
Other disappointments up front included Jim Pappin, Eddie Shack, Billy Harris and Ron Stewart. Stewart started out well, but faded in the second half of the season and will likely find a new home before next year. Jim Pappin seemed to clash with Imlach repeatedly, and he also found himself with Rochester after scoring nine times in 44 games with the big club. Harris, who always looked to be on the cusp of forging a regular spot, regressed this season and was sent to Rochester as well after netting only one goal in 48 games. Harris often never made it off the bench in many of those games, and was dealt to the Red Wings last week.
Shack continues to be an enigma for Leaf fans. His helter-skelter skating style and take-no-prisoners attitude have endeared him to the Maple Leaf faithful. However, he is erratic and weak defensively, and Punch is uneasy with the idea that he never really knows what is going to happen when he sends Shack out there. There is talk that he will be sent to Rochester to boost the farm club’s crowds when they play for an extended period at Maple Leaf Gardens while the Rochester rink is unavailable next season. Imlach figures that Shack’s meagre production (5 goals in 67 games) isn’t worth the headaches Eddie brings along.
Future is bright
Despite the team’s slide this past season, there are a good number of up-and-coming youngsters who give Leaf fans reason for optimism. On the big club, Ellis is a sure star, and he was joined p[art-way through the season by big Peter Stemkowski. Stemkowski started the year with Rochester after graduating from the Leafs’ OHA junior A Marlboro team. He was used infrequently by Imlach, but showed a bit of a scoring touch and was effective defensively.
At Rochester, the Leafs’ AHL team was a veteran unit, with the exception of one key youngster. Goalie Gerry Cheevers, 24, was the best goalkeeper in the American League. He led the Amerks to the league championship and looks to be ready for full-time NHL employment. Imlach will have a difficult decision at next week’s NHL meetings, as he can protect only two goalkeepers, and it will be a difficult decision to drop either of the incumbents Bower or Sawchuk.
The Leafs’ CPHL farm club, the Tulsa Oilers, boasted a number of high-potential youngsters. Topping the list is centre Mike Walton. The 20-year-old Walton decided to forego his final year of junior hockey to play with the pros, and had a stellar season, scoring 40 goals and 44 assists. Whenever Imlach talked swap with other clubs, Walton’s name was constantly discussed. He may be ready as soon as next season.
Walton’s line mates, Nick Harbaruk and Andre Champagne, are also thought to be sure-fire NHL’ers. Harbaruk, 21, was especially impressive, with one prominent scout saying that he is a better prospect than the high-scoring Walton. He is a hard-nosed winger who is unafraid to mix it up in the corners. He showed a bit of a scoring touch, notching 27 goals as Walton’s right-winger. Champagne doesn’t quite have the high ceiling of his line mates, but he did score 24 times as a 20-year-old. He might need another year of seasoning.
At the Junior A level, the Marlboros had another strong season and made the OHA Junior A Series final before being ousted by eventual Memorial Cup-winning Niagara Falls. That club is chock-full of players with NHL potential, and some of them could find their way to the Leafs as soon as next season.
At the top of the Marlie prospect list is winger Brit Selby. He had a cup of coffee with the big team this season and did not look out of place. He is a swift skater with a great scoring touch, having netted 45 goals and 43 assists for the Marlies. Line mates Mike Corrigan and Paul Laurent are highly regarded as well. Laurent was the Marlies’ leading scorer with 43 goals and 57 assists. He could be a solid big-league forward if he can improve his skating.
Big Wayne Carleton is the most-hyped Marlie hopeful. His style is reminiscent of Frank Mahovlich, as he is a tall, rangy winger with a big shot. He missed most the season with knee woes, but it’s thought he will be healthy next season. In only 15 games, he put up 13 goals and added 10 assists. At 18, he has some development time ahead.
On defence, 17-year-old Jim McKenney is being tabbed as a no-doubt prospect. He has even drawn favourable comparisons to Oshawa’s wunderkind Bobby Orr. While he doesn’t have Orr’s offensive flair, he is a heady player with great skating ability.
The business of off-season changes started early for the Leafs, with Imlach engineering that eight-player deal with Detroit last week. Defenceman Marcel Pronovost was the key player brought in, ostensibly to replace the likely departing Allan Stanley. None of Bathgate, Harris or Gary Jarrett will be missed, and their replacements, especially Larry Jeffrey and Eddie Joyal, are already proven NHL regulars.
Imlach’s most crucial decision will be what he chooses to do with his goalkeepers. Despite strong lobbying by Leaf president Stafford Smythe, teams are allowed to protect only two goaltenders in this year’s draft. That means that if Imlach wishes to keep young Gerry Cheevers, he will have to expose one of Terry Sawchuk or Johnny Bower. the betting is that Sawchuk’s run with Toronto will end after one season, as it seems to be a foolhardy plan to hope Cheevers won’t be claimed. Boston GM Hap Emms has already said he will be grabbing the goalie left unprotected by the Leafs. Imlach may be better off trying to deal a goalie, and not lose a player for only the $30,000 draft fee.
Concerning further trades, Imlach’s strong prospect contingent gives him the latitude to choose carefully what deals he considers. Ron Stewart is the one veteran that is an odds-on favourite to be traded, with both Boston and New York interested. Pappin is a young forward who was nearly dealt to Boston in that scuttled deal for John Bucyk, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Emms revisits that barter again.
The Leafs, while aging, have a plethora of youngsters ready to advance. If Imlach can find a way to trust the young players, something he has shown he is uncomfortable with in the past, Toronto’s future looks to be in good hands. The down side is, if he continues his overdependence on veterans long in the tooth, the Leafs’ slide could continue to even greater depths.