As a goaltender, it’s hard to take a look at one of the oldest, most storied (and, at one point, most respected) NHL franchises and pick just five netminders to go on an all-time greatest list.
It seems wrong to create a list of all-time players that doesn’t include Jake Forbes – the first NHL player to sit out an entire season due to a contract dispute, and arguably the best goaltender in Toronto’s system during their first few years of existence as the Toronto St. Patricks – and Lorne Chabot, who holds the distinction of playing in the two longest games in NHL history (winning the one he suited up in for Toronto, losing the one he suited up in for the Montreal Maroons). If we include them, though, where do we put the newer guys? WHERE DO WE FIT ANDREW RAYCROFT?
(I’m just kidding, but you see what I’m saying).
I’ve tried to select one goaltender from each era, which means I’ve probably left out a name or two that you’ll inevitably be upset about. If I could write a book on the history of Leafs goaltending, I’d get to everyone we know deserves a nod – but for now, let’s go through the five most important faces of the franchise’s net. Feel free to pipe in with your stories about any others you loved growing up below… just remember, I can’t get to them all. Blame Justin Fisher.
1. Turk Broda (1936 – 1943, 1945 – 1952)
A lot of people were upset that we left Broda off All-Time Team this August, and that’s a fair thing to get upset about. In order to include new era goaltenders, the original franchise Leafs tendy was pushed aside a bit – but with five spots in this piece, I’ve got room to give him the nod he deserves.
Following a handful of years with a Stanley Cup-winning tandem of Lorne Chabot (very good) and Ben Grant (the early era James Reimer of Toronto), the Leafs managed to squeeze a few surprisingly successful years out of three time Vezina winner and Stanley Cup champion George Hainsworth in the mid-1930’s. Of course, he was also old as dirt by that point – like, ‘makes Johnny Bower look young’ old – so when Broda came on the scene it was probably just in the nick of time.
Uniquely enough, it was the existence of a former Toronto netminder – John Ross Roach, who carried the Leafs into the Conn Smythe Era in the late 1920’s – who would make it possible for Broda to end up in Toronto’s system. The Ukranian-descent Manitoba native was actually initially a part of the Detroit Red Wings farm system when he first went pro, but a stacked depth chart in net for the Wings (which included a much-older Roach than Leafs fans would have seen in Toronto decades prior) forced the rival team to deal him to Toronto for $7,500. He would never play for another NHL team.
When I talked about Johnny Bower being the face of Leafs netminding, I brought up that he was in net for nearly a third of Toronto’s 13 Stanley Cups; Broda was in net for 5. His success for Toronto following a stint in the Army during WWII would carry him into retirement; there aren’t many Leafs fans left who saw Broda play (his last season was the 1951-1952 campaign), but he clearly dominated at his position for the duration of his NHL career.
Broda retired with his aforementioned five Stanley Cup rings, two Vezina Trophies, Calder and Memorial Cup championships (winning the Memorial Cup as both a player and a coach), and three All Star appearances in net. He and Bower both wore #1, which has been honored by the Leafs, and he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1967. He played in 101 NHL playoff games alone – during the Original Six Era, no easy feat – and was one of the goaltenders (along with the aforementioned Forbes) who worked with the Kenesky family to develop the goalie pad as we know it today.
How did Broda play?
This took me a while to compile a reasonable way to describe Broda, because there was virtually no tape available to comb and the best description most people give of the Leafs legend is that he was ‘clutch’. Known as the fat kid on the team, Broda was more or less stuck in net because he was a poor skater and always seemed out of shape (something that he and Conn Smythe would come to find was a point of contention over the years, although ultimately worked out to be more of a team publicity stunt than anything), but he took the game seriously – and it somehow worked.
Overall, Broda’s stats were slightly above replacement level in the regular season for his era – although that was impressive in itself during a time when the Leafs were an offense-first club with mediocre defense – and his real talent was in post-season play. He claimed he was so effective in the playoffs because he ‘always needed the bonus money’, but motivation doesn’t win games alone – he clearly did something right.
2. Johnny Bower (1958-1970)
I’m biased and I don’t care – this is my favorite Toronto Maple Leafs netminder ever.
The only living member of the Leafs to have won a Stanley Cup standing in net, Bower – who would become known as the China Wall for his impenetrable style of play and, ah, distinguished age – made conservative goaltending look effective in an era where goaltenders were starting to leave their nets to play the puck. Using era-adjusted opinions, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Leafs fan who doesn’t consider Johnny Bower the greatest of all time.
I spent a little longer on Broda’s blurb above because we didn’t get a chance to cover him during our all-time team, but there’s little need for me to repeat what was already said about Bower (as much as I’d love to write another 2,000 words on his career). He took home four Stanley Cups during his time with the team, and his name is honored alongside Broda’s in team history books for wearing the #1.
Basically, this sums up why Bower deserves top honors and recognition from Leafs fans:
“By the time Bower actually hit the NHL, goaltenders were no longer staying planted in their crease as if there was an electric fence surrounding them – but Bower, who was born in 1924, still played a very in-net style of game. His most aggressive move was his iconic poke check – which is a far cry from the buffoonery we’d see out of netminders like Patrick Roy, Tim Thomas, and Ben Bishop in the most recent NHL era. Seeing Bower leave his net to play the puck was a rare and not very beautiful thing – he didn’t like doing it, and it showed.
For someone who literally never strayed beyond his posts, though, Bower was easily one of the most calm goaltenders in NHL history. He wasn’t just able to win the game – he did it with all the confidence of someone who came into the game knowing that it was his to win. There’s a reason that nearly a third of Toronto’s Stanley Cup victories came with him in net – and it’s not just that he was both fierce and stupid enough to play a shot-blocking style of goaltending without a mask.”
I’ve been asked by some of my goalie friends to talk about Bower’s poke check, which didn’t receive much of a look in the Bower-specific post we put out last month. It certainly deserves attention – goaltenders both at the NHL level and in amateur leagues still respect it today, and it served as the aggressive foil to Bower’s sheltered in-net style of play. Rather than coming out to play the puck, the China Wall used his patented poke check to fluster shooters – and that may be one of the biggest ‘lost arts’ in the game of hockey.
The best way to describe Bower’s poke check is to tell a goaltender to picture the shooting lane as a wide funnel and narrow it to one side; in order to execute the check, the goaltender must almost overcommit to his blocker side in order to completely seal off the side of the net that he wants to avoid allowing the shooter to aim for.
Once that funnel has been narrowed to one side of the net, the goaltender slides his hand quickly down the shaft of his stick until he’s holding the knob; without giving the shooter time to react, the goaltender then sends his stick out and pokes the puck away from the shooter and out of his narrowed shooting lane funnel. It’s difficult to execute correctly, but when done well it’s one of the most efficient ways to accurately prevent a shot on goal. In the age-old comparison between preventing goals and making saves, this is probably one of the best ways to execute the former; not many modern-era goalies even keep this in their arsenal, but those that do find it to be useful and frustrating for the opposition.
Like with Broda, the number of Leafs fans who remember seeing Bower play dwindles more every year. Still, he’s one of the best goaltenders to have served on the team roster, and that’s unlikely to change any time soon.
3. Felix Potvin (1991-1999)
Although not one of the Leafs’ best goaltenders statistically or style-wise, it’s important to include Felix Potvin in a Top Leafs list because of the way he won over a generation.
Following the Johnny Bower era, the Leafs went through some pretty garbage goaltending; from the 1970’s until the early 1990’s, Toronto was largely forgettable in net. I could maybeee make a case for giving Grant Fuhr, Allan Bester, or Vincent Tremblay a nod, but goaltending as a whole saw a significant decline in the 1970’s and 1980’s that was the byproduct of an explosion of growth in the league and an almost too-fast evolution of goaltending style.
Seriously, the Leafs played fifteen different netminders in the 1980’s alone. That’s a far cry from the team’s loyalty to netminders in years past.
By the 1990’s, though, things had started to settle down – good for the teams that actually won things in that era, bad for teams like the Leafs (who were still trying to operate on an offense-first system, something that they still haven’t managed to shake to this day).
Enter The Cat.
Potvin was given too much work and no adequate supporting cast during his seven seasons with the Leafs, which resulted in a lot of ‘standing on his head’ games that made millenial fans idolize the young netminder. Just ask Steve Dangle – most Leafs fans who were first introduced to hockey during the nineties hold a special place in their hearts for Potvin that they’ll probably never be able to shake.
Realistically, Potvin wasn’t one of the best goaltenders in Leafs history. What he was, though, was the backstop of a resurgent Leafs team that – while still fairly garbage compared to the Leafs backed by Bower and Broda – renewed hope for a generation of fans who didn’t remember what it was like to cheer for a team that won games. For that, he gets a nod.
4. Curtis Joseph (1998-2002, 2008-2009)
CuJo, like Potvin, is one of those netminders that millenials in Toronto grew up on; playing for the team from 1998-2002 and then finishing off his career with one final year in the GTA, Curtis Joseph is the face of the modern-day Toronto Maple Leafs in net.
Unlike Potvin, Joseph stood behind a fairly respectable (if not necessarily capable of pulling through and actually winning a championship) Toronto team; he got to see post-season action every year he played in Toronto but the very last, which came in the 2008-2009 season.
Funnily enough, Joseph would spend the first part of his career as a bitter rival of our #5 netminder, Eddie Belfour, playing for the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference. Both played a butterfly combo style game, although CuJo lacked much in the way of good lateral movement at times and relied upon well-played angles to reach his level of success.
Undrafted at the NHL level, CuJo was one of the hardest workers on the ice – although he had a bit of a temper at times – and ultimately would go on to rank fourth all-time in wins by an NHL goaltender, with 454.
CuJo’s departure from the Leafs was on a slightly sour note, as a disagreement over contract length with then-head coach Pat Quinn saw Joseph depart for the Detroit Red Wings in 2002. At the time, he made comments implying that he didn’t believe the Leafs could win it all – suggesting that the club wouldn’t bring him to a Stanley Cup – but ironically enough, he would never end up winning a championship anyway. He holds the distinction of winning the most games of any NHL netminder to never take home a Cup ring, and he only won just over 48% of all the games he played (with 352 career NHL losses, he’s also tied for second overall in the most NHL career losses). Still, he backstopped probably some of the last Toronto teams to look marginally respectable, which earns him plenty of praise in the modern era of Leafs fandom.
5. Ed Belfour (2002-2006)
It’s really hard to understand Eddie Belfour, but he’s undeniably one of the most effective goaltenders in NHL history.
Did Belfour have a problem with alcohol? HAHA WHAT A QUESTION. Seriously, I won’t get into his sordid past – but anyone who has ever cheered for a team that saw Belfour back them in net understands what I’m getting at. He was weird, he was wild, and he was probably the biggest nightmare to hit Toronto’s PR department quite possibly ever. I mean, the dude always looked like he’d rolled straight out of his bed (and like his bed was actually a pile of newspapers he found on a park bench in the rain) and wandered into the rink kind of lost – but when it came to talent in net, Belfour was one of the best.
By the time Ed Belfour broke into the National Hockey League (first with the Chicago Blackhawks, then with the Sharks, Stars, and Leafs), goaltenders were getting bigger and more athletic. Butterfly was no longer just considered a style of play – it wasn’t whether you played a butterfly game, it was how much butterfly was incorporated into your game – and as a result, a goaltender seemingly could no longer get by being small but effective at sealing his five hole with a drop and lateral spread.
Belfour bucked that logic; at 5 foot 11, the Manitoba native was a nightmare to try and go five hole against.
He wasn’t just an effective butterfly netminder, of course; Belfour’s game was fast and multi-faceted. He seemed almost fearless in net, constantly moving and shifting his style of play to best ruin nights for the shooters bearing down upon him; although he eventually played a more controlled and conservative game (which was the best way to describe his play while with Toronto), the evolution of Belfour’s movement patterns is almost a study in the art of goaltending in and of itself. I – like a lot of hockey fans around the league – hated Belfour growing up, but it was very hard to deny that he understood the game on every level. It seems ridiculous to say that goaltenders in their twenties and thirties now look up to Belfour when modeling their own careers, but it’s true – whether you repsected him off the ice or not, he changed the game on the ice and exemplified positional mastery like few have over the history of the league.
I’ll stop fangirling about Belfour now. I promise.
*author’s note: since we literally span the Toronto St. Patricks to the Pat Quinn Era (and beyond), I didn’t want to try ranking based on best to worst. They’re in timeline order, starting with the earliest netminders and finishing with the last one to play on the team. The only exception to this rule is Curtis Joseph, who returned to the team after Belfour played his last season with Toronto.*