In 2015, my THW colleague Andrew Forbes wrote a series of posts on the all-time best forwards in Toronto Maple Leafs history. With the 2019-20 NHL regular season now on hiatus in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed time to add my own thoughts to his. I encourage Maple Leafs fans to read his earlier post.
As I have been researching Maple Leafs history, I’ve come to my own thoughts about key players who make up that history. And, for the sake of conversation, I will place these players in an order of who I believe was the best. I grant that others will have different choices. Here’s my own take on the best wingers in Maple Leafs history.
1. George Armstrong (Right Winger)
In this 2015 post, Forbes named George Armstrong as the best right winger ever to wear a Maple Leafs’ uniform. I won’t disagree. The Maple Leafs were the only team Armstrong ever played for, and he’s one of only two right wingers to play over 1,000 regular-season games for Toronto in his 21-season career. He’s the highest-scoring right winger in Maple Leafs’ history, which gives him some bragging rights.
Armstrong wasn’t supposed to have a long NHL career. Critics found lots to dismiss about his game and he had the reputation of being a slow, awkward skater without much of a shot. But, critics couldn’t dismiss his heart. Armstrong was an overachiever and a leader extraordinaire, and is remembered as one of the all-time great Maple Leafs captains. He’s a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
He was universally known as Chief because of his mother’s proud heritage. In 1,187 regular-season Leafs games, Armstrong scored 713 points (296 goals, 417 assists). He also helped the team win four Stanley Cups and was a seven-time NHL All-Star. In 2015, Armstrong’s statue was erected on Legends Row.
2. Frank Mahovlich (Left Winger)
Forbes’ 2015 post named Frank Mahovlich as the Maple Leafs’ all-time best left winger. Again, I have no disagreement. He started quickly with the team, and after a 20-goal and 36-point season, he won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 1957-58. He was simply known as “The Big M.”
Although Mahovlich also played four seasons each with the Detroit Red Wings and the Montreal Canadiens, during his career with the Maple Leafs — he played 11 full seasons in Toronto — the team enjoyed great success during the 1960s. He helped lead them to four Stanley Cup championships. At 6-foot-1, Mahovlich was a big man in his day and possessed a long, powerful skating stride that powered him through the opposition. In addition, he was a great stick-handler with an overpowering shot. In many ways, he was the team’s Auston Matthews in his day — both being darn good hockey players.
Mahovlich played 720 regular-season games with the team and scored 597 points (296 goals, 301 assists). He led the Maple Leafs to the playoffs nine times and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1981.
3. Lanny McDonald (Right Winger)
In 1973, the Maple Leafs chose Lanny McDonald with their first-round selection (fourth overall). From southern Alberta, he had just completed a great junior career with the Medicine Hat Tigers and his skillset and intensity helped him jump right from the juniors to the NHL.
However, it took a few seasons before he became the NHL star he was predicted to be. His breakout season came in 1975-76 when he scored 37 goals and 93 points under then-coach Red Kelly, who stuck with McDonald through his first tough seasons. But, his game really took off when the innovative Roger Nielson became coach in 1976-77.
Nielson partnered McDonald with Darryl Sittler on his top line permanently, and McDonald prospered. He also became a Maple Leafs’ fan favorite. Although he only played seven seasons with the team, he became one of the most recognizable players in the team’s history. Teammate Ron Ellis called McDonald “probably one of the best two-way players of all time.”
McDonald ranks fourth on the Maple Leafs all-time right wingers list with 459 regular-season points (219 goals, 240 assists). He went on to find even greater success in Calgary, but his time in Toronto was the beginning of a Hall of Fame career.
4. Mitch Marner (Right Winger)
When my colleague Forbes wrote his 2015 post, Mitch Marner was only 17 years old. Marner obviously was on the team’s radar when, during the 2014-15 season, he scored 126 points (44 goals and 82 assists) in 63 OHL games with the London Knights. The Maple Leafs drafted him fourth overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft (after Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, and Dylan Strome). Still, no one knew how good he would become.
Marner is an amazing young player. Last season, in 82 games he scored 94 points, which is 12 points over a point-a-game pace. With the 2019-20 season now suspended, he’s maintained that pace with 67 points in 59 games. In his four seasons with the team, he has skated in exactly 300 games, with 83 goals and 208 assists (291 points).
Although he won’t be 23 years old until May, Marner’s really good now. He has a strong personal skill set — he’s fast, moves on the ice without wasted effort, rivals McDonald as a great two-way player, and has the necessary skills to make game-changing decisions. As a team player, he sees the ice, looks for teammates, and senses what it takes to score.
Marner is young, but in my mind, even after only four seasons with the team, he’s quickly rising to the top of the pecking order in Maple Leafs history as far as wingers go. In fact, although my evaluation might be premature, I believe he should be considered.
5. Wendel Clark (Left Winger)
In February, I read a post that called Wendel Clark catnip to Maple Leafs fans. In truth, few players ever captured the hearts of fans like Clark did. He wasn’t the most talented, but he wore his heart on his jersey right beside the Blue and White Maple Leafs crest. His worth was measured far beyond goals and assists.
Wendel Clark was drafted first overall by the Maple Leafs in 1985. It was a time when the Maple Leafs were a circus led by ring leader Harold Ballard. When Clark, a farm boy from Saskatchewan, arrived in Toronto he took the city and the NHL by storm. He had been a successful defenseman in junior hockey, but the team needed help on left wing; although Clark had played only 20 games on the wing in junior, coach Dan Maloney moved him there.
The rest is history. Described by King Clancy as the best Maple Leafs rookie in 50 years, Clark was exactly the tough and abrasive player the team needed. He could control a game both offensively and physically and gave the team a measure of respect in a time when other players simply refused to play in Toronto.
When Clark arrived, he brought in an era of hope to long-suffering Maple Leafs fans. He reminded fans of his day of the hustling Tiger Williams and he reminded older fans of the team’s history of success with Armstrong as the leader.
Clark was the team’s captain from 1991 to 1994. In 608 regular-season games, he scored 260 goals, added 181 assists, and helped lead the Maple Leafs to seven playoff seasons. He didn’t have the greatest skill set; however, in my book, he’s the fifth-best Maple Leafs winger of all time.
The Maple Leafs Current Young Stars
In my time writing about the Maple Leafs, I’ve been fortunate to watch really strong teams. As I look at this current team, I’m convinced players on this roster will have opportunities to one day become the best Maple Leafs players in the team’s history.
Specifically, Auston Matthews is already among the best centers of all time. Morgan Rielly is a great young defenseman. However, to become one of the all-time best players on any NHL franchise, it takes productive longevity over a career that spans several seasons.
Sadly, for Maple Leafs fans, perhaps only a few current Maple Leafs players will have a chance to play a career with a single team. The NHL’s salary-cap rules simply don’t encourage that any longer. But, the talent is there for really productive careers for these young players.
Matthews and Rielly are fantastic players, but might not stay with the Maple Leafs for a long time. Already there are rumors Matthews will jump to Arizona when his current contract expires. Still, if they continue their career paths as they have been proceeding so far, there is a chance these two will also one day rank high on the list of all-time best Maple Leafs’ players.