Much has been made of the hot start of the Leafs in general and Phil Kessel* (*still not really Mike Bossy despite all appearances to the contrary) in particular. Kessel’s start (now 21 points in 13 games) is certainly the best I can remember (my comparables were Clark in 1991 and Fergus in 1986) and the Leafs were kind enough to point out that it was actually the best start by any Leaf player since 1944-45. They didn’t say who that was, but my nickel says Dave “Sweeney” Schriner, who was going goal-for-goal with Rocket Richard (50 in 50) until he broke a leg near Christmas.
I also can’t recall the last time a Leaf led the league in scoring this late in the season. It led last night to the first mention this year (first I’ve heard, anyway) of Gordie Drillon, the last Leaf to lead the league in scoring. Looking at Gordie, the teams he played on and particularly the manner in which he left town explains an awful lot about why there hasn’t been another one since.
The Leaf teams of the 1930s were a high-flying bunch of superstars. That’s not just hyperbole. Look through the various leaderboards from those seasons and they’re littered with Leafs. Conacher, Jackson, Primeau, Horner, Clancy, Day. Look at the top offensive performers at their positions and these are the kinds of names you’ll see. In the later 30s, young stars like Apps and Drillon were added to the mix and they joined right in. Drillon led the league in goals and points in just his second season.
Between 1930-31 and 1940-41, the Leafs were first overall four times, second overall four times and third the other three. They won a Cup in 1932 and then went to six of the next eight Stanley Cup Finals. Great stuff. The problem? They lost all of them.
Conn Smythe’s focus originally turned to some of his high-flyers – Jackson and Conacher in particular. He didn’t like their movie-star lifestyles and felt that they lacked the discipline to get the team where it needed to be when it mattered most. As they were moved out and the new crop took over, though, nothing seemed to change. The Leafs could romp all season, get right to the dance, but never close the deal. After the Leafs lost yet again in the 1940 Final, coach Dick Irvin – who’d led them for most of the decade – saw the writing on the wall and stepped down before he could be fired.
The new coach, Hap Day, felt the issue wasn’t so much the players as it was the style they played. Under Hap, the Leafs changed from a run-and-gun, blow-the-doors-off team to one that focused on team defense. Everyone was expected to check and be responsible. The players who could adapt came to thrive, those who couldn’t found their way out of town.
It was never that Hap didn’t want or like talented offensive players. He didn’t employ a true checking line and wanted at least one significant offensive threat on the ice at all times (this was a team that traded for Art Ross winner Max Bentley and then put him on the third line with the penalty killers). He just wanted everyone to be responsible. Offense-only players like Drillon came to be replaced by fierce checkers with scoring upside like Teeder Kennedy.
In the 1942 Final, with the Leafs down 3-0, Drillon was benched by Day. Gordie had led the Leafs in goals and points that year and would be a second-team all-star at year’s end. Day told him, though, that his style didn’t mesh with the rest of the team and he had to change the lineup. The Leafs won the next four and Drillon was sold to Montreal at season’s end. (I find it interesting that he’d go to Montreal to play under Dick Irvin again. Irvin and Frank Selke turned a floundering Habs team into a better reincarnation of the 1930s Leafs and won a bunch of Cups that way.)
Playing Hap Day’s defense-first strategy, the Leafs would win other Cups in 1945, ’47, ’48, ’49 and ’51. Their rebirth in the sixties under Punch Imlach saw them succeed with the same basic structure. They played defense. The best players, Keon, Kelly, Mahovlich, Horton, etc. were expected to play a two-way game. Those who chafed ended up elsewhere.
Later flashes under Roger Neilson and Pat Burns were much the same. The Leafs didn’t play to light it up, they played tight. I think it’s kind of interesting that the year Gilmour set the Leaf single-season record for points, the trophy he won was the Selke.
The only Leaf teams I can think of that got anywhere with a mostly offensive philosophy were the Quinn teams of the late 90s and early 2000s. With those teams, Quinn tended to roll his lines and spread his offense. A player like Sundin never got the ice time one would expect.
So while it’s a very long time since a Leaf won the scoring title, I don’t find it particularly surprising. For most of the last 70 years, whenever this team was successful, it was through team defense and that doesn’t lend itself to individual scoring prowess. The Leafs haven’t had an Art Ross winner for the same reason that none of Jacques Lemaire’s teams have. The style simply doesn’t suit it.
As an aside, what makes Kessel’s start so interesting is that it has come with increased defensive responsibility. He’s playing in the last minutes of games to protect leads, which is something that didn’t happen in the past.