TORONTO (Mar. 30) — So, which accomplishment is more impressive: Wendel Clark’s 34 goals in 1985–86 that stood, for more than three decades, as the rookie–season record for the Toronto Maple Leafs? Or, the 35 goals (and counting) by Auston Matthews, who surpassed Clark with a first–period tally against ex–Leaf James Reimer of the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night at the Air Canada Centre?
The question is somewhat rhetorical, for comparing eras in the National Hockey League is largely futile. We will never know how Clark would have fared today as a rookie, or how Matthews might have gotten along in the mid–80’s. But, the two eras are vastly different, which makes the exercise intriguing. And, neither accomplishment should be minimized; a player scoring in the mid–30’s has forever been notable.
That said, most Leaf individual records are rather ordinary when compared to the NHL standard. Matthews, for example, is mired in a season–long slump if measured against Teemu Selanne’s 76 goals as a rookie with the Winnipeg Jets in 1992–93. Same for Peter Ihnacak and his soon–to–fall freshman total of 66 points with the Leafs in 1982–83. Matthews (62 points) is certain to hold the mark at season’s end. Neither has made a peep compared to Selanne’s NHL record of 132 in ’92–93. Even the two Leaf records that will not likely vanish in the foreseeable future — Doug Gilmour’s 95 assists and 127 points, also in 1992–93 — are a pittance when placed beside the 163 and 215 compiled by you–know–who in 1985–86 (Wayne Gretzky for those that somehow don’t know who). As mentioned, this is why comparing eras is generally impractical.
AS IT LOOKED ON TSN AT 11:54 OF THE FIRST PERIOD TUESDAY NIGHT WHEN AUSTON MATTHEWS BEAT JAMES REIMER FOR HIS 35th GOAL OF THE SEASON, A LEAFS’ ROOKIE RECORD.
It is also harmless and rather enjoyable; in this case, even justifiable, given the Maple Leafs — for only the second time since last winning the Stanley Cup — are assembling a legitimately–good team through the draft (I recall the first–such occasion later in this blog). Determining whether Clark or Matthews encountered a higher degree of difficulty when establishing their Leaf goal–scoring records is difficult and furiously subjective. When Clark scored his 34 goals in 1985–86, goaltending equipment was much–smaller and the game, in general, more wide–open than arguably any span of NHL history. But, the league was also more physical back then, with fighting prominent in game–strategy and far–less scrutiny applied to obstruction (hooking in the neutral zone; holding in the attacking zone). Moreover, the mid–80’s featured a higher concentration of the all–time greatest players in hockey history than before, or since.
Have a look, below, at the Top 10 in scoring from the ’85–86 season:
Any of Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, Mike Bossy, Peter Stastny, Denis Savard or Dale Hawerchuk would be among the Top 3 players in the NHL today. Connor McDavid is likely to win the Art Ross Trophy this season with 95 or 96 points. As you can see in the above box, Gretzky would have bettered McDavid by 65 points with only his assist total. Lemieux and Coffey would have finished second and third this season with their assist totals. So, you’re probably thinking that Clark had a much–easier time scoring 34 goals in 1985–86 than Matthews counting 35 so far this season. Surely, Auston would have at least 50 right now, given the smaller goaltending equipment and the unparalleled flow of the mid–80’s NHL.
But, imagine Wendel, with his body–strength and laser shot, not having to fight… or contend with the stick–obstruction of that time. Would he not have scored 10 or 15 more goals for the Leafs?
And, therein lies the futility of comparing eras. For every plus, there’s a minus — and vise versa.
If Leaf observers try this exercise years from now, Matthews will likely edge Clark based on a glaring triumph: I believe — and I’m far from alone — that Matthews will become the first Toronto player since Brit Selby in 1965–66 to win the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie–of–the–year. Clark finished runner–up to Calgary defenseman Gary Suter for the Calder in ’85–86. Adding to his total this season by perhaps hitting the 40–goal mark will also work in Auston’s favor as time moves on.
YOUNG LEAFS OF 1976
Only twice since last winning the Stanley Cup in 1967 have the Maple Leafs assembled a group of young players — mostly through the draft — with profound upside. We’re watching the second example right now, led by Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Nazem Kadri. The first example took root in the early–1970’s under general manager Jim Gregory and culminated with the Maple Leafs squaring off against Montreal in the 1978 Stanley Cup semifinals. Given that no club could overcome Scotty Bowman’s dynastic Canadiens (Cup champion in 1976–77–78–79), the modest achievement by the ’78 Toronto club was a watershed for the decade. Still, the individual components proved to be marvelous and memorable.
Darryl Sittler and Errol Thompson were drafted in 1970. Lanny McDonald and Ian Turnbull in 1973. Dave (Tiger) Williams and Mike Palmateer in 1974. Borje Salming came aboard as a free agent from Sweden in 1973–74 — joining McDonald and Turnbull among an unparalleled rookie crop (McDonald and Salming are in the Hall of Fame; Turnbull still holds the NHL record of five goals in one game by a defenseman and the Leafs’ record of 79 points in a season by a blue–liner). Had there been a semblance of parity in the late–70’s NHL, the Leafs may have won a Stanley Cup. The Canadiens, however, were truly in a league of their own.
But, the mid–to–late–70’s did spawn a number of memorable events at Maple Leaf Gardens — none more–astounding than Sittler’s 10–point eruption (six goals, four assists) against Boston on Feb. 7, 1976. It remains a league standard for most points in a game, regular season or playoffs. A sample–size of the excitement generated by the young Leafs is evident here in four issues of THE HOCKEY NEWS over a one–month span in February and March 1976. Toronto was aligned in the old Adams Division with Boston, Buffalo and the defunct California Seals. Until mid–December, the club appeared destined to battle the lowly Seals for a bottom–rung playoff berth. Then, coach Red Kelly put together a forward unit of Sittler, McDonald and Thompson, which became the most prolific in modern franchise history. At the same time, Salming and Turnbull evolved into the most productive defense tandem in club history. When all five were on the ice, the Maple Leafs could match forces with any–such combination in the league.
Here, from THE HOCKEY NEWS, were some of the late–season highlights:
THE INTERNATIONAL HOCKEY WEEKLY FEATURED SITTLER’S 10–POINT GAME.
THE 10–POINT–GAME SUMMARY (TOP–LEFT). AS A RESULT OF SITTLER’S ERUPTION AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS, A FOUR–GOAL EFFORT BY VETERAN ROD GILBERT OF THE NEW YORK RANGERS AT THE DETROIT OLYMPIA (TOP–RIGHT) WAS BARELY A FOOTNOTE ON FEB. 7, 1976.
WHILE SITTLER AND THE LEAFS WERE ROUTING DON CHERRY’S BRUINS, THE TORONTO TOROS OF THE WORLD HOCKEY ASSOCIATION WERE GETTING BLASTED BY THAT LEAGUE’S NEW ENGLAND ENTRY — THE WHALERS — AT THE HARTFORD CIVIC CENTER (TOP–LEFT). ONE NIGHT LATER (FEB. 8, 1976), SITTLER WAS HELD TO A SINGLE POINT — AN ASSIST ON LANNY McDONALD’S SECOND–PERIOD GOAL — AS THE LEAFS DEFEATED THE MINNESOTA NORTH STARS, 4–1, AT THE GARDENS (TOP–RIGHT).
HOCKEY WRITER FRANK ORR OF THE TORONTO STAR FOLLOWED UP SITTLER’S 10–POINT GAME IN THE NEXT ISSUE OF THE HOCKEY NEWS (ABOVE AND BELOW).
THE LEAFS AND CALIFORNIA SEALS WERE STILL LOCKED IN A BATTLE FOR PLAYOFF POSITIONING IN MID–FEBRUARY. SUMMARIES (TOP–LEFT) FROM THE TORONTO at ATLANTA AND PITTSBURGH at CALIFORNIA GAMES OF FEB. 11; THE BOSTON at CALIFORNIA GAME OF FEB. 13 (TOP–RIGHT).
THE CALIFORNIA PLAYOFF HOPES TOOK A HARD KNOCK ON FEB. 28, 1976 (A SATURDAY NIGHT), WHEN THE SEALS WERE DOUBLED BY THE LEAFS, 4–2, AT THE GARDENS (ABOVE).
JUST PRIOR TO THAT, THE LEAFS WENT ON A TWO–GAME TEAR OVER THREE NIGHTS, WHIPPING THE ATLANTA FLAMES AND DETROIT RED WINGS AT THE GARDENS BY A COMPOSITE 15–1. THE FEB. 23 ENCOUNTER WITH ATLANTA (SUMMARY, TOP–RIGHT) TURNED OUT TO BE THE LAST GAME CALLED ON RADIO BY FOSTER HEWITT, WHO INVENTED HOCKEY BROADCASTING IN 1923. THE 8–0 ROMP OVER DETROIT ON FEB. 25 (SUMMARY BELOW) GENERATED FRANCHISE RECORDS THAT STILL EXIST FOR MOTS SHOTS–ON–GOAL IN A GAME (61) AND A PERIOD (30). THE 61–SHOT RECORD WAS MATCHED BY THE LEAFS IN A 4–3 OVERTIME LOSS TO THE NEW YORK ISLANDERS AT AIR CANADA CENTRE ON NOV. 23, 2009, BUT THE TOTAL INCLUDED SHOTS DURING THE FIVE–MINUTE EXTRA FRAME.
BORJE SALMING CAUGHT THE INTEREST OF LOS ANGELES WRITER BILL LIBBY (ABOVE), WHO WROTE ABOUT THE SWEDISH–BORN DEFENSEMAN IN HIS WEEKLY HOCKEY NEWS COLUMN.
FRANK ORR WROTE ABOUT THE PROLIFIC SITTLER–McDONALD–THOMPSON FORWARD UNIT.
THE LEAFS CONTINUED TO WIN, BEATING MINNESOTA AT THE GARDENS ON MAR. 1 (TOP–RIGHT). A NIGHT LATER, THE SEALS LOST TO THE ISLANDERS AT NASSAU COLISEUM.
SCORING STATS OF FORMER AND CURRENT TEAMS IN EARLY–MARCH 1976:
THE LEAFS PUT THE SEALS IN THE REAR–VIEW MIRROR TO STAY BY GARNERING FIVE OF SIX POINTS ON A TRIP TO ST. LOUIS, LOS ANGELES AND CALIFORNIA, MAR. 3–7, 1976. THE WILDEST GAME, BY FAR, OCCURED IN THE FINALE (BELOW) AT THE OAKLAND COLISEUM–ARENA.