TLN Top 10: Leafs Defencemen, 10-6

As the witty and handsome Jon Steitzer mentioned earlier this morning, we’ve successfully rounded out our All-Time Leafs team, and now have an opportunity to talk about who is better than who on these teams. To be honest, Jon had things a little bit easier than the rest of us; with thirteen forwards on the roster, he simply had to pick his ten favourite of the bunch. Defence, on the other hand? We had seven guys, and this is a top ten list. As such, we get to induct three players into the “participation ribbon” level of Leafs greats.

We’re going to do that part today. Read on to see how it goes!

10. Bryan McCabe

If you would have told me in November 2008 that six and a half years later, I would be listing McCabe as a top-ten defenceman in team history, I would have laughed in your face and gone back to attempting to publicly shame him. But, as it turns out, McCabe didn’t actually “suck” and my teenaged attempts to get attention would begin to look stupider than they already did within a few years.

McCabe was run out of town, for his high salary cap hit and his tendency to turn over the puck, but that ignored two key points – he was paid because he was a valuable member of the team, and he gave away the puck because he always had it. Between himself and Tomas Kaberle, the Leafs had one of the best blue-line pairings in the sport. The duo hit their peak in the 2005/06 season, combining for 135 points. To this day, McCabe’s 68 points in 73 games stands as the fifth best per-game rate by a defenceman in the Cap Era.

Along with his crushing hits and his “can opener” trip tactic that blurred lines in the NHL rulebook, McCabe was one of the best offensive defencemen in Leafs history. His 297 points in 523 games ranks him 6th all-time, and his 83 goals leave him tied with Kaberle for 4th. With 355 games in hand, however, I’m willing to give him the advantage. 

9. King Clancy

I almost left Clancy off this list, if only because he helped the Ottawa Senators win Stanley Cups that their modern-day fanbase still tries to claim as their own. With that said, he was an essential part of the Leafs’ defensive core in the 1930’s, consistently putting up half a point per game while intimidating enemy forwards with his speed, toughness, and willingness to throw the body. Oh, did I mention that he was 5’7, 155?!

Conn Smythe knew very early into Clancy’s career that he was a must-have for the blue and white. The Leafs traded two players (Eric Pettinger and Art Smith) to the Senators in exchange for Clancy, and to seal the deal, threw in $35,000 in cash. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $550,000, but given the state of the NHL at the time (star players made about $5,000 per year), it was the equivalent of giving the modern day Sens $40,000,000 for Erik Karlsson. The sale was made to keep the Senators from going bankrupt, which, now that I think about it, means that the Leafs should totally offer Eugene Melnyk $40,000,000 for Erik Karlsson..

8. Carl Brewer

Bryan McCabe was pretty great, but Carl Brewer was the original McCabe. Vintage Leaf Memories hypothesized that Brewer was the original inventor of the previously mentioned “can opener”, and used it more vigorously in an era where you could get away with pretty much anything.

Beyond that, though, Brewer did just about anything you wanted him to and did it well. Compared to his peers, he was a strong skater, very positionally sound, and wasn’t afraid to take down his opponents in any way possible. This lead to some pretty fantastic results – he put up relative respectable point totals throughout the cup-crazy early sixties, was a first or second team all star four times between 1962 and 1965, and while he never managed to pick up a Norris Trophy, received votes in the same years, finishing second to Pierre Pilote in 1963.

Personal issues (read: a lack of enjoyment and inconsolable struggles with Punch Imlach) lead Brewer to retire at the age of just twenty-six, though he eventually found his way back into professional hockey. He retired again at the age of 35, and came back once more to play the final twenty games of his career with the Leafs in 1979/80, at the age of 41.

7. Al Iafrate

Iafrate is the weakest link out of the players who made the team, if only because his best years were the ones that immediately followed his Toronto tenure. That’s not to discount his contributes to the blue and white, however; he managed to use that absolute bullet of a slapshot to put twenty pucks in the net in both 1987/88 and 1989/90, coincidentally representing the Leafs as an NHL All-Star in both years.

You really wonder what he could have done if the Leafs were both a little more patient with his development and a little less awful throughout his entire tenure with the team. It’s hard to set players up for stretch passes when most of them are incapable of holding their stick the right away, and you’re not going to score if nobody is able to set you up. On the plus side, he got to practice his defence all the time, seeing as the team never really left that zone.

All the same, he was still able to climb up the all-time goals and points list for Leafs defencemen, and that miracle alone is enough to include him..

6. Bobby Baun

I’m a big believer that the best defencemen are the ones who manage to keep the puck way the hell away from the defensive zone, and for that reason, the benchmark to be on this list is typically “be an above average offensive defenceman in your era”, which was a pathetically rare occurrence for the Leafs over the past century.

Baun, on the other hand, doesn’t match this description at all. His career high was eight goals, and that year was the only time that he cracked five. He never picked up more than twenty points in a season and his famous “broken leg” goal was the last of just three playoff tallies in his entire playoff career.

But man, if it isn’t “the” moment in Leafs history. It pushed the Leafs that much closer to their second-most-recent Stanley Cup (sigh) and was a great example of how the Leafs have always looked to physically and mentally tough players to lead by example. Baun was physically imposing, and when paired with the previously mentioned Carl Brewer, allowed for him to make his rushes without worrying about errors. 

Baun eventually left the team after being claimed in the 1967 Expansion Draft by the Oakland Seals, but made his way back to the Leafs in 1970 to make them one of the best defensive teams in hockey once again. This allowed for him to retire as a Leaf, in typical Baun fashion – reluctantly, after trying to brush off the damages that a skate to the neck had done to the amount of blood in his body.

They don’t make guys like him anymore, that’s for sure.