From time to time The Hockey Writers’ editors look back on old articles that generated some buzz. Today, Mar. 14, marks the anniversary of Hockey Hall of Famer Darryl Sittler becoming the all-time leading goal scorer in Toronto Maple Leafs history, we’re re-publishing this great piece by Andrew Forbes recounting the best centres in Leafs history. – originally published on Aug. 31, 2015 and recently updated
With Legends Row continuing to grow in Toronto, it only seems right to take a look back at some of the greatest players to ever don the Maple Leafs blue and white. From Bower to Sittler and Sundin to Kennedy, Toronto’s played home to numerous hockey stars over the years.
Looking back at the countless players that have suited up for the Leafs over the years, it’s understandably difficult to cut out just enough players to build one all-time roster. However, that’s exactly what we’re going to do in this five-part series. From centres to defensemen and goalies to coaches, here’s a look at the Maple Leafs all-time roster.
In part one, we’ll look up the middle at some of the greatest centres to suit up for the club. From all eras and different generations, here’s how the Leafs stack up all-time at the centre position.
1st Line: Mats Sundin (1994-2008)
He played 13 seasons for the Maple Leafs. He captained the team for a decade (1997-2008) and led them to the playoffs eight times during his tenure in Toronto. He played 981 regular season games for the blue and white averaging over a point per game. He tops the Leafs all-time list for points with 987 (420g-567a) and sits sixth all-time on regular season games played.
His 420 goals are the most by any Maple Leafs and his 567 assists are second to only the great Borje Salming. He sits atop the team’s all-time lists in powerplay goals (124), powerplay points (333), game-winning goals (79) and overtime goals (14).
While Sundin was never able to lead the Leafs to a Stanley Cup victory, he was constantly being credited with making the players around him better. But there always seemed to be something missing.
“Sundin led the Leafs to the Eastern Conference final twice under [Pat] Quinn, but could never get them any further,” wrote Sean Fitz-Gerald of the National Post in February 2012. “The problem then was similar to the one [former] general manager Brian Burke [faced] in finding a centre to play between Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel – the Leafs struggled to find elite wingers to play with Sundin.”
But Sundin did lead them to the playoffs – a rarity for the latest versions of the Toronto Maple Leafs – playing 77 games for the club over eight postseasons and adding 32 goals and 70 points.
While his leaving the Leafs happened with a sour note attached to it, his first-ballot induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012 and his announcement to fans that he wished he would’ve retired as a Leafs mended some of the broken hearts he left behind. Regardless, there’s no debating that Sundin is arguably one of the best centres to lace them up in Toronto.
2nd Line: Darryl Sittler (1970-1982)
One of the first members of Legends Row – honouring the Maple Leafs’ greats – there’s no question that Darryl Sittler finds himself among the best centres to play in Toronto. Forget for a second his record night when he scored 10 points (6g-4a) against the Boston Bruins and goaltender Dave Reece, Sittler’s game was always one that impressed those who played with him.
“Every time he stepped on the ice, you knew something was going to happen,” said former teammate Lanny McDonald regarding his 10-point night.
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But the simple respect in that quote stands for more than just the face value that folks can take from it. Sittler played 12 seasons in Toronto – 10 of which became playoff runs. And while he captained the Leafs for six seasons (1975-1981), his reign as the leader of the club may be the most important in the history of the Toronto franchise.
Caught up in the destructive paths of Harrold Ballard and Punch Imlach, Sittler stood for something more than just a leader on the ice and in the dressing room. He represented a sort of rebellion – a leader for the players of his teams – against the reign of Ballard and Imlach when the goal was to move anyone associated with Alan Eagleson.
While it wasn’t always as public as some might expect, Sittler’s voice spoke volumes for a team with an uneasy front office – a crippling management team.
But his on-ice productions also demonstrated his ability to lead and importance to the Maple Leafs. Over his 12 seasons he played 844 regular season games recording 916 points (389g-527a). He’s second to only Sundin in regular season goals, assists and points on the Leafs all-time list.
Add to that his 64 playoff games and his 65 playoff points (25g-40a) with the Leafs and his place in franchise history is easily solidified.
3rd Line: Dave Keon (1960-1975)
His rookie season in 1960-61 with the Toronto Maple Leafs landed him the Calder Memorial Trophy as the league’s top rookie when he recorded 45 points (20g-25a). From there, Dave Keon spent 15 seasons with the Leafs – wearing the ‘C’ from 1969-1975.
He won four Cups with the Leafs (1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967) and took home the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1967 as the playoff MVP – scoring eight points (3g-5a) in 12 games on the way to a Stanley Cup victory.
In 1,062 regular season games, Keon scored 365 goals and 858 points for Toronto. But it was his all-around game that earned (and continues to earn) the respect and love from Leafs Nation.
“I think Keon was the most complete hockey player,” said sports writer Dave Bidini in and interview with CBC. “Harry Neale told me that if you were down by a goal, he was the player you most wanted out on the ice to score. If you were up by a goal, he was the player you most wanted out on the ice to protect the lead. He played a very tough, fierce game, but an honourable game.”
While it took Toronto far too long to honour the former captain, he’s still recognized as one of the greatest players to ever suit up in Leafs blue and white.
4th Line: Ted ‘Teeder’ Kennedy (1942-1957)
It’s hard to imagine that Ted Kennedy would fall as low as a fourth line centre for any team, but when we’re talking about the Leafs all-time roster that’s where the former captain lands. He played 14 NHL seasons – all with the Maple Leafs.
He captained the team from 1948 to 1955 and again during the 1956-57 season. He notched 231 goals and 560 points in 696 regular season games and added 60 points (29g-31a) in 78 playoff games over 10 playoff seasons.
He led the Leafs to five Stanley Cups (1945, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1951) and he was last Leafs to take home the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s MVP in 1954-55.
For the Leafs to have honoured Kennedy as the first member of Legends Row is a telling piece of information. In a piece on the Maple Leafs website, Kennedy’s impact on the Leafs is summed up in one quote.
“He was not the most gifted athlete, the way some players were but he accomplished more than most of them, by never playing a shift where he did not give everything he had,” said Conn Smythe of his former player. “He was the greatest competitor in hockey.”
Former line-mate Howie Meeker took it one step further saying he was “tough as nails… there’s never been a harder worker. You would be ashamed if you didn’t go out and work as hard as he did. It was never I or me… it was always we… or us.”
Like the others on this list, he led the Leafs over the years and deserves the recognition as one of the greatest Leafs to play at the position – one of the greatest players to ever put on a Leafs jersey.
Four names and one position – and now you’re left with one part of the Leafs all-time roster. The centre position is an important one. And there’s no coincidence that all of the centres also wore the ‘C’ at some point for the Maple Leafs.
Like it or not, this is shaping up to be an unbelievable Maple Leafs roster filled with character and greatness. With wingers, defensemen and goaltenders still to come, be sure to have your say on who makes your all-time Maple Leafs roster.
For more, you can follow Andrew on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes or his column @Tape2TapeTHW.