A look at the Toronto Maple Leafs’ All-Decade team for the 1980s
This is part of a series detailing the all-decade team for every NHL franchise for the 1980s. The all-time teams were compiled using a mix of skill, longevity and statistics; it is not necessarily the best, most memorably or most talented players. Instead, this is the list of players by each position who had the best numbers over a prolonged period (i.e. at least three full seasons between 1980-81 and 1989-90) during the regular season. A complete list is available here.
Team: Toronto Maple Leafs (1980-81 to 1989-90)
266-441-93, .391 WIN PCT, 2,935 GF vs. 3,572 GA, -637 Diff, 6/10 Playoff Appearances, 0 Stanley Cups
Toronto only had two bright spots during the 1980s: the fact that they played with some very weak teams meant they somehow made the playoffs six times (including twice with their season’s point total in the 50s), and they somehow managed to be marginally better than the New Jersey Devils/Colorado Rockies. I knew Toronto was bad during the decade when I started this list, but I was ill-prepared for just how bad they were. They had ONE season at .500 (38-38-4 in ’89-90), all the rest were below. They had six seasons with a win percentage below .400, eight consecutive seasons of 40 losses or more (topping out at 52 in ’84-85), and eight seasons with fewer than 30 wins. They never allowed fewer than 319 goals against, and only scored more than 300 four times. The net result? Their overall win percentage of 39.1% ranked 20th out of 21 teams (ahead of NJ/COL). Their pitiful offense scored 3.67 goals per game, ranking them 17th. Their defense was bar none the worst in the NHL, allowing 4.47 goals per game. They allowed 181 more goals than 20th-ranked NJ/COL. Naturally this translated into a truly terrible goal differential of -637, which ranked 20th by virtue of New Jersey not being able to score any goals for most of the decade (Toronto had 247 more goals for than NJ/COL). And yet somehow Toronto managed to make the playoffs six times, never missing more than two years in a row. And they even managed to win two series, with first-round victories in 1986 and 1987. It’s no wonder Cliff Fletcher, Pat Burns and Doug Gilmour were treated like gods in Toronto in ’92-93; they didn’t just rescue the franchise, they resuscitated it.
Left Wing: Wendel Clark (227 GP, 108-57-165, -64, 760 PIM, 8 GWG)
Before anyone starts screaming “Bias!”, there really wasn’t much to choose from on the left wing in the 1980s. Clark had 34-goal, 45-point rookie season, and followed that up with a 37-goal, 60-point campaign. He started getting close to point-per-game status, but unfortunately his style of play (while popular) proved to be hard on his body: he only played 81 games over the next three seasons, although he did score 37 goals and 60 points. So condensing his calendar, he had three 30-goal seasons. He was also (naturally) a physical player, twice clearing 200 PIM (and getting another 262 over his three partial seasons). He became a fixture on the powerplay, scoring 15 PPG in ’86-87 and 33 overall during the 80s. There weren’t a lot of game-winning goals being scored by Leafs players, but he managed to chip in 8 (7% of his total). His +/- wasn’t much to write home about at first, but he did improve (-50 in his first two seasons, -14 in the next three partial campaigns). It’s too bad he couldn’t stay in the lineup, because he was a popular and productive player whom the team sorely missed when he was sidelined.
Centre: Bill Derlago (355 GP, 153-164-317, -48, 166 PIM, 13 GWG)
Derlago was a solid offensive player for Toronto. He had four seasons of 30+ goals and 60+ points, including a high of 40 goals in ’83-84 and 84 points in ’81-82. His +/- certainly wasn’t great, but it was respectable; he achieved a +5 rating (somehow) in ’81-82, and had another with a decent (for the Leafs) -8 rating in ’83-84. He wasn’t overly involved in the physical play, maxing out at 50 PIM. But he chipped in 13 game-winning goals (8% of his total), and scored 5-8 powerplay goals per season over a five year span. Plus Toronto was able to deal him to Boston for Tom Fergus, who was a solid offensive player for a few years. Solid contributions from Derlago.
Right Wing: Rick Vaive (512 GP, 290-231-521, -62, 863 PIM, 30 GWG)
Honourable Mention to Ed (Eddie) Olczyk
Olcyzk was one of the few strong trade acquisitions the Leafs made during the decade. He had three seasons where he scored 32-42 goals and 75-90 points. He even managed to have an even +/0 rating for two seasons, while chipping in 11 game-winning goals. But Rick Vaive was by far the best Leafs forward of the decade, and the closest thing to a superstar in Toronto between the Sittler and Gilmour/Sundin eras. Vaive spent seven seasons in Toronto before being shipped to Chicago in the deal that made Olczyk a Maple Leaf. During that time, Vaive had three seasons of 50+ goals and four others of 30+. He scored 60+ points each season, maxing out at 93 points in ’83-84 (he also had 89 in ’81-82). While his +/- was usually bad (five season of -12 or worse), he did manage two seasons with +12 ratings. He was also chippy, recording 100+ PIM five times. His play became more disciplined over time, dropping from a high of 229 in his first season with Toronto to 61 in his final season. A healthy 10% of his goal total (30) were game-winners, no small feat considering Toronto only won 179 games during that span (meaning 1-in-6 Leaf victories from ’80-81 to ’86-87 were the result of a Rick Vaive goal). He was also the Captain for much of his tenure in Toronto. While he doesn’t seem to get much love and respect (Vaive is overshadowed by Sittler, Clark, Gilmour and Salming), he was far and away the best forward on the team during a very trying decade.
Defense: Borje Salming (577 GP, 51-286-337, -35, 854 PIM, 3 GWG)
The only way I can think to summarize Salming’s career in Toronto is this: we were blessed to have him, and he deserved better. He watched at the team that had so much promise in the late 70s was undermined and dismantled around him, yet he continued to play (and perform at a high level) for the team almost until the end of the decade. He had two brutal seasons +/- wise, going -34 and -26 in ’83-84 and ‘-84-85 respectively. In the other seven seasons he played though, he was no worse than -7 and was as high as +17. Pretty solid figures considering the horrible goal differential of the team during the decade (and the fact that the only season he wasn’t in Toronto was their lone .500 season). His production did slow as injuries and age took their toll. He opened the decade with a 66-point season. His point totals dropped into the 50s, 40s, 30s and then the 20s. Still, he had five seasons of 39+ points and 33+ assists, and managed a 12-goal season in ’81-82. He was a classy player who played a clean style, yet he wasn’t afraid to get physical; he had three 100+ PIM seasons, and four others in the 76-92 PIM range. There hasn’t been anyone like him on the Toronto blueline since, and he is one of the greatest Leafs of all-time.
Defense: Al Iafrate (430 GP, 78-154-232, -69, 433 PIM, 12 GWG)
Al Iafrate was rushed to the NHL well before he was ready; he struggled through his first three seasons, posting 21-33 points per year and having a +/- rating in the -10 to -19 range. But everything clicked in ’87-88, when he exploded for 22 goals and 55 points (although he still had a -21 rating). He tightened up his defensive game and relied more on his cannon of a shot. While he dropped to 33 points the following year, he managed a +3 rating. And in the final season of the decade (’89-90) he recorded 21 goals, 63 points and a -4 rating. He also developed more of an edge to his game; after 40-55 PIM per year in his first three seasons, he recorded 80, 72 and 135 over the next three. He didn’t get a ton of powerplay goals (16) or game-winners (12), but I’m not sure who the Leafs would have trusted on the powerplay over him in the late 1980s besides Salming. He was turning into a quality player and All-Star candidate, one of the few homegrown Toronto prospects for whom that was the case.
Goalie: Allan Bester (199 GP, 69-87-16, 7 SO, 4.05 GAA, 0.883 PCT)
Allan Bester managed the incredible feat of being tantalizingly close to the .500 mark in several seasons. After an extended look in ’83-84, Bester played just 16 games over the next two seasons. He made the Leafs again in ’86-87, and was either the #1 or #1A option for the rest of the decade. He had four seasons of 30+ games, winning 10 or more games four times. Yes, sadly, that is a highlight among Toronto goaltenders. His best season (Win-Loss wise) was a 20-16-0 record in 42 games during ’89-90. He managed to have a goals-against average in the 3.65-3.81 range from ’86-87 to ’88-89, but the rest of his time he was well above 4.20. His save percentage hovered in the .883-.890 range most of the time, although he did have two seasons in.872-.874 territory. In the end, he had a 4.05 GAA that was ONLY respectable because it was better than the team’s average overall, and he had a bad-but-not-awful .883 save percentage. But there simply wasn’t much else to choose from among Toronto goaltenders. The Leafs went through #1 goalies like crazy before settling on Belfour; Jiri Crha (who???), Bunny Larocque, Mike Palmateer, Tim Bernhardt, Don Edwards and Ken Wregget all took kicks at the can before the Leafs flipped Wregget to Philadelphia and made Bester their go-to guy… for two whole seasons. Then came Peter Ing, Grant Fuhr, and FINALLY Felix Potvin. Seriously though… no one maintained their role as the Leafs’ #1 goalie for at three consecutive seasons from Mike Palmateer (’76-77 to ’79-80) until Felix Potvin (’92-93 to ’97-98). But Bester made his mark and, despite his less-than-stellar stats, is still fondly remembered by fans to this day.