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Penguins' Tale Humbling For Leafs

May 19, 2008, 1:56 AM ET [ Comments]
Howard Berger
Toronto Maple Leafs Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
PITTSBURGH (May 19) -- The scene inside Mellon Arena on Sunday afternoon as the Penguins were clobbering the Philadelphia Flyers was typical of any environment in which the home team is advancing to the Stanley Cup final. The 6-0 romp allowed the celebration to begin early and there was almost non-stop noise in the NHL's oldest building. Taunting chants of "Maaaarty! Maaaarty!" were aimed at Flyers' goalie Martin Biron, while "Go Home Flyers!" was aimed at the entire Philadelphia team. In the second intermission, the video/scoreboard above center-ice showed a series of live text-messages sent by fans in the arena, and they were no less biting. "Hey, look on the bright side Flyers, at least you can shave tomorrow!" offered one spectator.

The atmosphere outside the arena -- and in the immediate downtown area -- paled in comparison to what we'd see in a Canadian city. Perhaps that's a bit of patriotic bias on my part, but I've also witnessed, first-hand, the tumult of late-round playoff victories in recent years in both Calgary and Edmonton. Here, yesterday, a lot of horn-honking on the streets outside Mellon Arena drowned out the cheers of roughly 500 people that lined the players exit-ramp after the game. Two blocks from the rink, it was as if nothing had happened. In the Cup final runs of 2004 and 2006 in Alberta, you couldn't go anywhere without realizing the magnitude of the event. That's the big difference between NHL teams in Canada and the U.S. The passion here is just as intense, but far more localized. In Canada, it envelopes an entire city for days on end.

Fans of the Maple Leafs can only imagine what Sunday's accomplishment would do to the city of Toronto. Though it's become difficult to remember, victories by the Leafs early in the first round of the playoffs are almost enough to close Yonge Street in both directions. A Cup semifinal match on the Victoria Day weekend six years ago prompted roughly 7,000 Torontotonians to make the nine-hour drive to Raleigh, N.C. during the Leafs/Hurricanes series. A post-game celebration here yesterday that was over and done with in 45 minutes would have lasted into the following day north of the border.

Which allows me to segue into the primary reason why the Leafs and their fans have not experienced such unfettered joy in more than four decades. There has been a singular lack of player development in Toronto that dates to the advent of the universal draft in 1970. This is clearly not news to learned fans of the Blue & White, but it is nothing short of mind-boggling to review the quality of talent Leaf scouts have overlooked. In saying that, we can make a fairly similar argument about any team by doing a year-by-year perusal of draft picks as opposed to draft passes. All clubs have made bad decisions. But, the Maple Leafs have been utterly spectacular in erring at the draft table during much of the past 38 years years... when they have actually held on to their early-round selections. Had Toronto scouts been more on the ball, some of the greatest players to pass through the NHL would have worn the blue and white, and we likely would not be talking about a 41-year Stanley Cup drought.

The evidence is numbing, so grab a coffee and swallow this...

1969: Perhaps the greatest Leafs boo-boo of all time prompted the club to select Estevan junior Ernie Moser ninth overall -- eight picks ahead of a diabetic youngster by the name of Bobby Clarke. Moser never played a minute in the NHL. Clarke, of course, ignored his supposed medical handicap and led the Philadelphia Flyers to a pair of Stanley Cups in the mid-'70s on his way to a hall of fame career. To be fair, most teams wanted no part of Clarke, who was coming off a brilliant junior career in Flin Flon, Manitoba. The diabetes scared away NHL scouts and even the Flyers wasted their first pick of the '69 draft on a nobody named Bob Currier. But, they sure struck gold with their second choice.

1970: A rarity that saw the Leafs scoop the opposition. They took London junior Darryl Sittler eighth overall, and he developed into one of the top half-dozen players in franchise history. Marginal players Chuck Lefley and Greg Polis were chosen ahead of Sittler, and Montreal -- with the league's most prolific scouting staff -- selected no-name Ray Martyniuk fifth overall. The Leafs also drafted winger Errol Thompson in 1970, and he would form a nifty combination with Sittler later in the decade.

1971: The Leafs did not have a first-round pick. They chose Hamilton junior Rick Kehoe 22nd overall then traded him to Pittsburgh three years later for Blaine Stoughton. Kehoe would go on to a prolific scoring career with the Penguins, notching 55 goals in the 1980-81 season.

1972: This is the year the draft mis-reads began to hurt the Leafs. They chose Toronto Marlies centre George Ferguson 11th overall, and Ferguson had an underwhelming career in blue and white. The Leafs overlooked players like Bob Nystrom (four Stanley Cups with the Islanders); Jimmy Watson (two Cups on defence with Philadelphia), and Peter McNab, a high-scoring centre (363 career goals) with Buffalo and Boston.

1973: After finishing with the worst regular-season mark to that point in franchise history during the '72-73 season, the Leafs had three first-round draft picks and they made excellent use of two of them. Scoring winger Lanny McDonald was chosen fourth overall and puck-moving defenceman Ian Turnbull came 15th. In between the Leafs blew it by taking Peterborough winger Bob Neely 10th. They could have had Rick Middleton, who went to the Rangers one pick before Turnbull. Middleton scored 448 NHL goals; Neely 39. Still, one of the best Leaf draft years ever.

1974: Oy oy oy. The Leafs took Sault Ste. Marie centre Jack Valiquette 13th overall. Jack was a useful player on the good Sittler-McDonald-Salming teams of the mid-to-late-'70s, but look who the Leafs passed on that year: Bryan Trottier went 22nd to the Islanders and became one of the greatest players in NHL history (524 goals, 1,425 points and six Stanley Cups with the Isles and Penguins). Defenceman Mark Howe was taken from right under the Leafs' noses by Boston (25th overall). Howe played in Toronto for the junior Marlies and would go on to a splendid career in the WHA and NHL. Gordie Howe's son played 929 NHL games with Hartford, Philadelphia and Detroit and he compiled 742 points. Buffalo chose winger Danny Gare (354 NHL goals) 29th overall. Charlie Simmer -- he of the famed "Triple Crown" line in Los Angeles with Marcel Dionne and Dave Taylor -- went to the California Seals 39th overall. Simmer would score 342 NHL goals. And Ron Greschner, an excellent offensive defenceman chosen by the Rangers, went 32nd in that draft. Greschner had 610 points in a 16-year NHL career.

1975: A lousy first-round crop yielded the Leafs Calgary junior Don Ashby sixth overall. Ashby was a third-line player and was tragically killed a few years later in a car accident. Toronto could have chosen Pierre Mondou (456 points with the great Canadiens' teams of the late'70s); Tim Young (536 NHL points); Dennis Maruk (356 goals, 878 points in 14 seasons) or "Triple Crown" winger Taylor, who went ridiculously low (210th overall) to the Kings and scored 431 NHL goals.

1976: Again, Leafs traded their first-round pick. They chose Sudbury defenceman Randy Carlyle 30th overall and traded him to Pittsburgh one season before he won the Norris Trophy. Available when the Leafs took Carlyle was Swedish-born centre Kent Nilsson, who Fletcher grabbed in Atlanta and would go on to NHL totals of 264 goals and 686 points, mostly with the Calgary Flames. Another Swede, centre Thomas Gradin (593 points with Vancouver and Boston), was also available to the Leafs.

1977: Another "Oy vay!" The Leafs took Marlies juniors John Anderson and Trevor Johansen 11th and 12th overall, overlooking Laval winger Mike Bossy, who went 15th to the Islanders, and merely scored 573 goals in 10 seasons. Future Norris trophy winner Rod Langway (with Washington) was also available to the Leafs, as he went 36th to Montreal.

1978: First-rounder, again, donated via trade. Leafs took Windsor defenceman Joel Quennville 21st overall. They could have had winger Tony McKegney (320 NHL goals), who went 32nd to Buffalo.

1979: "Oy vay!" number three. Selecting ninth, the Leafs took Brandon centre Laurie Boschman, who went on to a good NHL career, mostly elsewhere. Available to Toronto at the time was Quebec junior Michel Goulet (548 NHL goals); stalwart defenceman Kevin Lowe (six Stanley Cups, five in Edmonton); combative forward Dale Hunter (1,020 NHL points); Minnesota-Duluth centre Neal Broten (923 NHL points); and, yes, another couple of wayward future Oilers: Mark Messier (48th overall) and Glenn Anderson (69th). Those two combined for 1,192 NHL goals and 1,794 points. Ouch!

1980: No first-rounder. No notable selection.

1981: Oh my God. Leafs took Portland defenceman Jim Benning sixth overall, even though Benning couldn't skate to NHL standards (he has since become an excellent talent scout, now with Boston). Instead of struggling in goal throughout the '80s, Toronto could have chosen Victoria netminder Grant Fuhr, who went eighth to Edmonton. Defenceman Al MacInnis -- he of perhaps the hardest slapshot in NHL history -- was taken 15th by Calgary and would go on to a hall of fame career (340 goals, 1,274 points). Blueliner Chris Chelios, still playing well for Detroit 27 years later, went 40th overall to Montreal.

1982: This was a bad luck year for the Leafs. Mammoth defenceman Gary Nylund of the Portland Winter Hawks was a consensus top-three pick and Toronto chose him third. Sadly, Nylund's career was all but ruined by a serious knee injury in his first NHL season. Imagine if the Leafs had, instead, chosen Kitchener defenceman Scott Stevens (fifth overall to Washington) or Minnesota high-schooler Phil Housley (sixth to Buffalo).

1983: Another ouch! Selecting seventh, Leafs took Victoria centre Russ Courtnall, who was a good offensive player and an excellent skater. But, hardly a hall of fame type. Three picks later, Vancouver chose Portland winger Cam Neely, who went on to score 395 NHL goals. Also available were Claude Lemieux, Bob Probert, Esa Tikanen, Petr Klima and Rick Tocchet (combined 1,539 NHL goals). Or, how about little-known Czech goalie Dominik Hasek, who went 207th to Chicago? Oh yeah, Courtnall was traded to Montreal for John Kordic, in case you've forgotten.

1984: Gulp! Defenceman Al Iafrate, the human highlight reel, went to the Leafs with the No. 4 pick. Which is a tragedy. Leafs would have been better off with Ottawa winger Gary Roberts (12th overall to Calgary). Or, there was this slightly impressive trio: Patrick Roy (NHL record 551 regular-season wins among goalies); wingers Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille (combined 1,409 NHL goals). Just another day at the draft table for the Blue & White.

1985: The only year the Leafs chose first overall and they made a good pick. Saskatoon winger Wendel Clark became one of the most beloved players in franchise history. So, we won't point out that Cornell centre Joe Nieuwendyk was also available. The Leafs had a nice taste of him... 18 years too late.

1986: Lock up your pistol. The Leafs chose Laval junior Vincent Damphousse sixth overall, taking a pass on American high-schooler Brian Leetch, who the Rangers grabbed ninth. Again, the Leafs had a brief fling with Leetch... 17 years in the future.

1987: I'm almost ready to barf. Good old Luke Richardson became a Leaf in the No. 7 slot. Luke was still playing the game this season in Ottawa. But, how about that other guy still playing for Colorado? Yeah... Joe Sakic. He went 15th to the Quebec Nordiques.

1988: Pass the rat-poison, Charlie. The entire Leaf scouting staff should have been fired, and then sued, after this draft. Toronto selected Kingston winger Scott Pearson seventh overall. He went on to average 5.6 goals a season over 10 years in the NHL. Still available to the Leafs -- and chosen in the eighth, ninth and 10th spots -- were Jeremy Roenick, Rod Brind'Amour and Teemu Selanne. Leafs made it all up, of course, by grabbing Tie Domi 27th. Huh? When they chose the Tie-man, they could have had any of Mark Recchi, Tony Amonte or Alexander Mogilny. What were the Toronto scouts looking at during the 1987-88 season? Better yet, what medication were they on?

1989: The infamous Belleville draft. The Leafs took three Bulls juniors, including the celebrated Scott Thornton third overall. Toronto's lack of European scouting in the Harold Ballard ownership era really shone through this year. Still available after drafting Thornton, Rob Pearson and Steve Bancroft (!) were these little nuggets: Nick Lidstrom went to Detroit 53rd overall; Sergei Fedorov to the Red Wings 74th, and Pavel Bure to Vancouver 113th. My oh my oh my.

1990: Thank-you Drake Berehowsky. We're not sure for what. But, you were chosen by the Leafs, 10th overall. Might Toronto hockey fans rather have had goalie Martin Brodeur, selected 20th by New Jersey? Or, maybe Winnipeg's selection, 19th overall, Keith Tkachuk? Sergei Zubov, Doug Weight and Petr Bondra were also still up for grabs. At least Ballard had the courtesy to die a few months before this dog's breakfast.

1991: Famous not for who the Leafs took, but who they could have had. GM Floyd Smith traded what turned out to be the third overall pick in a deal for journeyman defenceman Tom Kurvers. With that No. 3 selection, New Jersey took Kamloops rearguard Scott Niedermayer. But, the Leafs would have passed on him anyway, right?

1992: Remember Brandon Convery? Yes, I know you wanted to forget the Leafs' first pick, eighth overall. You might also want to erase from your mind that Sergei Gonchar, Martin Straka and Michael Peca were still available.

1993: I'll never forget the swealtering heat in the Quebec City Colisee during this draft -- a Minnesota scout passed out and had to be revived. The Leafs took Swedish defenceman Kenny Jonsson 12th overall. But, that wasn't as bad as Ottawa taking Alexandre Daigle with the No. 1 pick ahead of Chris Pronger and Paul Kariya. Toronto could have done better, as well. And, as usual. Saku Koivu, Todd Bertuzzi and Pavol Demitra were all still up for grabs.

1994: Leafs figured they had solved their goaltending issues for at least a decade by choosing Chicoutimi junior Eric Fichaud 16th overall. It's possible, of course, they could have been better off with any of Patrik Elias, Chris Drury, Marty Turco, Daniel Alfredsson, or Evgeni Nabokov. But, why nit-pick?

1995: Another waste. Assistant GM Bill Watters convinced the Leafs to take family friend Jeff Ware, 15th overall. Leaf fans are still asking: "Ware for art thou, Jeff?" Toronto could have had Petr Sykora (in the Cup final with Pittsburgh), Marc Savard (Boston's leading scorer), or Calgary goalie Mikka Kiprusoff.

1996: No early picks, but the Leafs found a late gem in Tomas Kaberle, 204th overall.

1997: Early picks again traded away. Leafs took Jeff Farkas, 57th overall. Still available were forward Maxim Afinogenov and defenceman Brian Campbell.

1998: Leafs surprised everyone by drafting little-known centre Nik Antropov from Kazakstan 10th overall. It took Nik a decade to have a decent season in Toronto. Still up for grabs that day in Buffalo were Alex Tanguay, Robyn Regehr, Simon Gagne, Scott Gomez, Jonathan Cheechoo, Mike Fisher, Brad Richards, Erik Cole and... Pavel Datsyuk. Would you trade big Nik stright-up for any of these?

1999: The infamous Luca Cereda went 24th overall to Toronto. A heart condition ended his NHL career before it started. If it was going to start. Among those Leafs could have taken were Ryan Malone and Henrik Zetterberg. The pain of it all.

2000: Leafs made a good pick here, but traded him away. Brad Boyes, a 40-goal shooter in St. Louis this season, went to Toronto, 24th overall.

2001: Defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo went 17th overall to the Leafs, and who knows how good this kid might have been if a black cloud hadn't followed him to the NHL? Turns out, Leafs passed up better options. Again. Like Derek Roy and Mike Cammalleri.

2002: The jury is still out on Alex Steen, taken 24th overall. One pick ahead of goalie Cam Ward.

2003: The forgettable John Doherty (who??) was taken 57th overall. Good forwards Maxim Lapierre (Montreal) and Lee Stempniak (St. Louis) were still available.

2004: Nothing, again, 'til 90th overall, when goalie Justin Pogge was chosen. Let's see how this one turns out.

2005: Andrew Raycroft... uh, I mean Tukka Rask went to the Leafs, 21st overall. Paul Stastny was still available, and chosen 44th by Colorado.

2006: Jiri Tlusty (13th overall) could be a keeper. Then again, Milan Lucic was chosen 50th by Boston. We'll see in a few years.

2007: After the trade for Vesa Toskala, Leafs had nothing until the third round and chose Oshawa junior Dale Mitchell, 74th overall. Too early to judge this draft.

So, just to review... had scouting been a bit more of a priority for the Leafs, any of these hockey legends could have landed in a Toronto uniform: Bobby Clarke; Bryan Trottier; Mike Bossy; Michel Goulet; Mark Messier; Glenn Anderson; Grant Fuhr; Al MacInnis; Chris Chelios; Scott Stevens; Cam Neely; Dominik Hasek; Patrick Roy; Brett Hull; Luke Robitaille; Brian Leetch; Joe Sakic; Nick Lidstrom, and Martin Brodeur.

Have a good day.

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