Worst Leafs Team: 1982 or Today?

TORONTO (Feb. 27) — Lou Lamoriello has two days to answer, unequivocally, the question posed here; to further deplete what could be the most impotent club in the 99–year history of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Honestly? I like his chances.

Though it is nearly impossible to compare eras in professional sport — and the Maple Leafs have many bad teams from which to choose in the nearly half–a–century since 1967 — I’ll put this year’s club against the 1981–82 ensemble and give you the rest. The lone difference, of course, between now and then is that the Leafs weren’t trying to stumble 34 years ago. It just came naturally in the infant leg of the “lost decade” under Harold Ballard, and continued beyond his death in April 1990. The current Toronto club was built last summer to be torn down before Monday’s National Hockey League trade deadline. Eyebrows elevated when Mike Babcock’s motley crew went 14–7–5 in 26 games between Nov. 6 and Jan. 6. Flag–wavers in the mainstream media began convincing themselves (and readers; viewers; listeners) of playoff potential.

Then, reality hit. Two wins in their past three games have “lifted” the Leafs to a 4–13–3 record since Jan. 7. Precisely what the so–called “Shanaplan” called for. It enabled Lamoriello, the veteran GM, to strip the roster without any form of guilt. Lost for the season with injury were James van Riemsdyk and Joffrey Lupul. Re–locating via trade were Nick Spaling, Shawn Matthias, Dion Phaneuf, Roman Polak and James Reimer (dealt today to the San Jose Sharks). P.A. Parenteau, Brad Boyes, Michael Grabner and Jonathan Bernier could be on the move before Monday’s 3 p.m. deadline. Which suggests the Maple Leafs — compelled to participate in their final 23 games — will resemble a beer–league outfit for March and April.

Toronto’s leading scorer (Leo Komarov) as February becomes March has 35 points. Parenteau, appearing in all 59 games this season, has 32 points. There was a time when Wayne Gretzky would compile such totals by early–November. A healthy van Riemsdyk may have garnered 60 points to easily pace the Blue and White. As it stands, 45 points could be the high–water mark this season. For a perverse comparison, consider that Harvey (Busher) Jackson put up 53 points to lead the club in 1931–32 — the year Maple Leaf Gardens opened. In a 48–game schedule. It was way back in 1956–57 that a Leafs player topped the team with less than 45 points. George Armstrong had 44 in a 70–game schedule (appearing in 54 games). Even the club with the fewest points in modern Leafs history had five players with more than 45 points. Rick Vaive (68), John Anderson (63), Bill Derlago (62), Miroslav Frycer (55) and Dan Daoust (54) topped the 1984–85 edition that placed dead–last in the NHL with 48 points. So, we’re talking historic ineptitude this season.

Earlier this month, it’s quite possible the Leafs put forth the worst single–game line–up in club history. Somehow, they prevailed that night in Vancouver, humiliating the Canucks, 5–2. Here was the roster:

VISITOR
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS 5
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Game 54 Away Game 31
Club Playing Roster
 
 
Saturday, February 13, 2016
Attendance 18,570 at Rogers Arena
Start 4:15 PST; End 6:45 PST
Game 0830
Final
HOME
2 VANCOUVER CANUCKS
VANCOUVER CANUCKS
Game 55 Home Game 25

 

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS VANCOUVER CANUCKS
# Pos Name
2 D MATT HUNWICK (A)
15 R PIERRE-ALEXANDRE PARENTEAU
16 C NICK SPALING
20 D FRANK CORRADO
24 C PETER HOLLAND
25 L RICH CLUNE
26 C DANIEL WINNIK
28 R BRAD BOYES
33 R MARK ARCOBELLO
38 C COLIN GREENING
40 R MICHAEL GRABNER
44 D MORGAN RIELLY
46 D ROMAN POLAK (A)
47 C LEO KOMAROV (A)
49 L BRENDAN LEIPSIC
51 D JAKE GARDINER
52 D MARTIN MARINCIN
56 C BYRON FROESE
34 G JAMES REIMER
45 G JONATHAN BERNIER
# Pos Name
2 D DAN HAMHUIS (A)
5 D LUCA SBISA
6 D YANNICK WEBER
7 R LINDEN VEY
8 D CHRISTOPHER TANEV
14 L ALEXANDRE BURROWS
15 R DEREK DORSETT
17 R RADIM VRBATA
18 R JAKE VIRTANEN
22 L DANIEL SEDIN (A)
26 R EMERSON ETEM
27 D BEN HUTTON
33 C HENRIK SEDIN (C)
36 R JANNIK HANSEN
44 D MATT BARTKOWSKI
47 L SVEN BAERTSCHI
53 C BO HORVAT
91 C JARED MCCANN
25 G JACOB MARKSTROM
30 G RYAN MILLER
 
Scratches
# Pos Name
23 C SHAWN MATTHIAS
39 L JEREMY MORIN
43 C NAZEM KADRI
# Pos Name
24 R ADAM CRACKNELL
55 D ALEX BIEGA
56 C ALEX FRIESEN
 
Head Coaches
MIKE BABCOCK
WILLIE DESJARDINS
 
Officials
Referee Linesman
#31 Trevor Hanson
#15 Jean Hebert
#79 Kiel Murchison
#73 Vaughan Rody
Standby Standby
   
 

16-leafs-canuckseditedTHE SEVERELY UNDER–MANNED LEAFS EMBARRASSED RYAN MILLER AND THE CANUCKS ON FEB. 13.

During the first period of the Hockey Night In Canada telecast that Saturday evening, a stunning graphic appeared on–screen. It showed that the 12 Toronto forwards dressed for the match had combined to score 56 goals this season. Four players — Colin Greening, Rich Clune, Spaling and Brandon Leipsic — did not have a single tally. Byron Froese had one. Exactly how this Maple Leafs team erupted for five goals could be the enduring mystery of the 2015–16 schedule. It also clearly ranks among the most shameful performances in the Canucks 46–year history (Vancouver wore its mid–90’s throwback uniform).

So, where in time do we venture for a Toronto club that rivaled the visiting roster in Vancouver on Feb. 13? It’s sort of like isolating a noodle in your favorite Chinese lo mein dish. There are so many from which to choose. After careful consideration, however, I vehemently favor the team left behind by the trade of Darryl Sittler to Philadelphia in January 1982. It compiled a nifty 5–24–4 record in 33 games between Jan. 20 and Apr. 4 of the 1981–82 schedule. The final record of 20–44–16 wasn’t quite as ghastly as the 20–52–8 Leafs of 1984–85 which yielded Wendel Clark No. 1 in the draft. But — trust me — that 33–game portion of the 1981–82 season can stand alongside any Toronto Maple Leafs team for sheer and utter incompetence.

You may wonder, parenthetically, where I rank the malingerers of last season that quit on interim coach Peter Horachek. Quite high, but not as lofty as the 1982 bunch. Last year’s team still had a nucleus of personnel, with Phil Kessel, van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, Morgan Rielly and Phaneuf. Given how it laid down and died after mid–December, it is clearly the most disreputable Leafs team in memory. But, not the least–talented. That honor goes to the current club… and the late–season version of 1981–82.

While looking through my collection, I came upon a program from Halloween of 1981 when Toronto hosted Winnipeg at Maple Leaf Gardens. This line–up, shallow as it was, still had Sittler playing every night:

RSCN0619edited-XRSCN0630edited-XSittler was traded to Philadelphia on Jan. 20, 1982 for someone named Rich Costello, who played 12 games with the Blue and White, erupting for four points. Even as Vaive motored toward the first 50–goal season in franchise history, the January–April 1982 Leafs were the mirror image of the current American Hockey League–caliber outfit; primarily because of defense and goaltending… or, lack thereof. The roster was razor–thin. After Sittler went to Philadelphia, the Maple Leafs relied on such middling or over–the–hill players as John Gibson, Billy Harris (drafted No. 1 by the New York Islanders in 1972), Gary Yaremchuk, Barry Melrose, Ron Zanussi, Don Luce, Bob McGill, Stewart Gavin, Fred Boimistruck, Norm Aubin, Rene Robert, Terry Martin and Bob Manno. Chances are, young Leaf followers haven’t heard of many listed here.

Melrose — later to coach Los Angeles and Tampa Bay while becoming a hockey analyst with ESPN — is the worst Leafs defenseman I’ve ever seen; rivaled, this year, by Martin Marincin (though, to be fair, Marincin is merely plugging a roster hole). Melrose was a poor skater; an atrocious defender, and he had virtually no ability to maneuver the puck. Joining him on that Maple Leafs roster were rookie blue–liners McGill, Boimistruck and Jim Benning (drafted sixth overall from Portland of the Western Hockey League) — all of whom were imprudently hurried into the NHL with predictable results. Goaltending was split between the late Michel (Bunny) Larocque (a lifetime back–up beforehand in Montreal) and run–of–the–mill, 1979 draft pick Vincent Tremblay. Larocque’s goals–against average in 50 appearances was 4.69; Tremblay’s 4.52 in 40 games. The wondrous Bob Parent started two games and yielded 13 goals for a 6.50 GAA… not exactly imitating another B. Parent the Maple Leafs once had and is now in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

RSCN0661edited-XBARRY MELROSE: HARDLY A STIRRING BIO IN THE MAPLE LEAFS 1982–83 MEDIA GUIDE (ABOVE). MELROSE (BELOW) AS HE APPEARS TODAY WHILE A GOOD HOCKEY ANALYST WITH ESPN.

16-melroseedited-XIt must again be stated that the Maple Leafs incompetence of the 1980’s was never part of a bigger plan. It simply trickled downward — naturally and relentlessly — from the ownership suite. Harold Ballard wanted to win but had neither the economic inclination (he was dirt–cheap) nor the wisdom to make it happen. The current Toronto brass appears to be more sophisticated. After interminable years of clawing, scratching and failing to merely sneak into the playoffs, Brendan Shanahan obtained the blessing of owners Bell Canada Enterprises, Rogers Communications and Kilmer Group (Larry Tanenbaum) to tear down whatever existed and re–build in a manner compatible with the salary cap era (which began in 2005). As such, we have the current Toronto club — a blundering bridge to what possibly foretells a brighter future.

The Leafs go into Montreal tonight one measly point ahead of Edmonton for last place in the NHL and the best percentage–odds of landing the first overall pick in the 2016 amateur draft. Lamoriello has 48 hours in which to practically assure the club will stand alone beneath all others once the schedule concludes. At the moment, however, and in my subjective view, the Leafs remain in a dead–heat with the late–season club of 1981–82 for worst in franchise history.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM 

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