Despite finishing eighth overall with 100 points last season, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ front office decided to shake things up, leading to huge roster changes. With several notable trades, signings, and internal promotions (plus injuries), only seven players who suited up for the Maple Leafs on opening night in 2018 played in the 2019-20 season opener against the Ottawa Senators.
With so much roster turnover comes an opportunity for the new Maple Leafs to make a name for themselves; first impressions are crucial. Alexander Kerfoot, Ilya Mikheyev, and Dmytro Timashov made their debuts for the Maple Leafs at forward, while Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci, and Rasmus Sandin played their first regular season games on defense in the blue and white.
That said, let’s look back at some of the most memorable debuts in Maple Leafs history.
In 2016, Auston Matthews made not only the greatest debut in franchise history, but perhaps the most memorable NHL debut ever. The 19-year-old scored four goals against the Senators, becoming the first player to score four times in his NHL debut since the beginning of the modern era in 1943. His performance put the league on notice: Matthews was legit, and so too were the Maple Leafs.
The American sniper went on to set two more franchise records, scoring 40 goals and 69 points in his rookie season. Meanwhile the Maple Leafs shocked the hockey world, going from last place the season prior to making the playoffs for the first time since 2012-13.
Although Garret Sparks had a relatively short and rocky tenure in Toronto, spread over two seasons (2015-16 and 2018-19), he had a debut for the ages. During the infamous “tank year,” when defence was optional for the last-place Maple Leafs (who gave up nearly three goals per game), Sparks shutout the Edmonton Oilers en route to a 3-0 win on Nov. 30, 2015. He became the first goaltender in franchise history to register a shutout in his first NHL game. The netminder was understandably emotional in front of the home crowd after his achievement.
The historic debut turned out to be the highlight of Sparks’ career with the Maple Leafs as he was dealt to the Vegas Golden Knights in July.
On Jan. 2, 1992, general manager Cliff Fletcher made perhaps the greatest trade in team history, acquiring Doug Gilmour from the Calgary Flames in a 10-player swap. Gilmour tallied a goal and assist against the Detroit Red Wings in his first game for Toronto on Jan. 3. He finished the second half of the 1991-92 season with 49 points in 40 games with the Maple Leafs.
In 1992-93, his first full season with the club, Gilmour came into his own. He scored 32 goals and a franchise-high 127 points before adding another 35 points during the Maple Leafs’ magical playoff run (but we won’t talk about how that one ended).
In 1985 the Maple Leafs selected Wendel Clark first overall in the NHL Entry Draft, making him the franchise’s highest draft pick ever (and only first overall pick until Matthews in 2016). Although Clark was held pointless in his first two NHL games, it was clear early on that he would be an impact player.
His first two goals came in his third game on Oct. 13, 1985 against the Chicago Blackhawks, and that was just the start of a magnificent rookie campaign. The 19-year-old scored 34 goals and 45 points in 64 games that season, while also leading the Maple Leafs with 227 penalty minutes. His physicality and scoring touch made him a legend, and as of 2017, his statue is part of Legend’s Row outside Scotiabank Arena.
After earning the nickname “Wendel Clarkson” before playing a game for the Maple Leafs, expectations were high for David Clarkson, who signed a seven-year, $36.75 million contract with Toronto in the summer of 2013. But unlike his idol, Clarkson never lived up to those lofty expectations, registering just 26 points in 118 games before being traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
His regular season debut (or lack thereof) should have been the first sign of disappointing things to come. In a preseason game on Sep. 22 against the Buffalo Sabres, Clarkson illegally left the bench to join an altercation after John Scott attempted to start a fight with star winger Phil Kessel. Although his intentions may have been noble, Clarkson was handed an automatic 10-game suspension to start the season, and he never bounced back after that.
Player stats from https://www.hockey-reference.com/
Chris Faria is a contributor for The Hockey Writers with a focus on the Toronto Maple Leafs. A hockey player and self-proclaimed analytics nerd, his work aims to combine both stats and a deep knowledge of the game. He is currently pursuing a graduate diploma in sports journalism at Centennial College in Toronto.