By: Sean Tierney
For fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the past decade or so has been mostly brutal. Playoff misses, failed free agents grabs, botched deals, and a five-minute long playoff collapse that was virtually soul-crushing.
In 2015, in takes a lot of blue blood and heart for fans to stick with a team that is finally embracing a ground-up rebuilding project.
But, as Sportsnet reminds the Leafs faithful, times have been worse in Toronto:
And, honestly, fans of the Blue and White are going to need to search hard for these types of silver linings and glimmers of hope to endure this rebuild. The likes of William Nylander, Connor Brown, Antoine Bibeau will help. Heck, Mitch Marner, Dylan Strome, or whoever the Leafs snag in the 2015 draft will likely be a big part of the solution too. In time. In the meantime, a look back at brighter days in Leafs history seems warranted. With the use of advanced statistics, it’s possible to take an objective look back at the greatest players at each position in Toronto Maple Leafs history. At Hockey Reference, every player is assigned a “point share” for everything they do that contributes to their team’s points in the standings. As per HockeyRef:
“One point is equivalent to one Point Share…In my system for hockey, a team with 100 points will have about 100 Point Shares, give or take…a player can have negative Point Shares. I justify this by thinking about it in the following way: a player with negative Point Shares was so poor that he essentially took away points that his teammates had generated.”
For much, much more on the system used for calculating offensive, defensive, goalie, and overall point shares, please check out Justin Kubatko’s post here.
So, who are the greatest Toronto Maple Leafs at each position? For this thought experiment, we will rely on Kubatko’s point shares. Player point shares are tied to standings points for a team. For this reason, we’ll restrict the eligible players to the post-expansion era.
How The Point Shares Line Up…
Felix Potvin – Starting Goaltender
While Ed Belfour, Curtis Joseph, and Mike Palmateer are all in the post-expansion era discussion, Felix Potvin earns the starter’s job on the back of his amazing point shares performances. In 1996-97, Potvin set the fourth-highest single-season point shares for goalies in Leafs history, behind only Harry Lumley and Al Rollins (both pre-expansion). His mark of 14.1 point shares just edges out Joseph’s mark of 14.0 (2000-01) and Belfour’s 13.9 (2002-03). In all, Potvin registered in the NHL’s top-ten for goalie point shares five times during his eight years in Toronto – more than any other Leafs goalie since 1967. Due to his long-tenured dominance, Potvin owns the crease for this post-67 greatest Leafs squad.
Sylvain Lefebvre – Defenseman
Though his time with the Leafs was short, Sylvain Lefebvre’s 1993-94 season still stands as the best all-time mark for defensive point shares (regardless of pre- or post-expansion era). With 11 points and 79 penalty minutes, it wasn’t Lefebvre’s standard statistics that led to his DPS mark of 6.5. Instead, Lefebvre’s steady defensive-zone play and his ability to clear the net front led to a plus-minus of +33 (sadly, enhanced possession stats aren’t available for this era). The Leafs posted the NHL’s sixth best goals-against mark that season and Lefebvre was a major part of that success. With his gritty, solid, stay-at-home play, Lefebvre shows that defensive defensemen have their place on all-time greatest lists too.
Borje Salming – Defenseman
In 1978-79, Borje Salming posted a defensive point shares rating of 6.4. Then 27-years-old, the future member of Legends Row posted 17 goals and 73 points, finishing third in Leafs scoring behind only Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald. In all, the classic Leafs star owns four of the ten best defensive points share seasons in Leafs history, making Salming the clear choice as the best overall defenseman in Toronto Maple Leafs history.
Right Wing – Phil Kessel
Lanny McDonald was definitely close on this one. McDonald managed to feature in the NHL’s top-ten for offensive point shares four times in his still-underrated Leafs career. And yet, Phil the Thrill has been even better, no matter what the Toronto media may tell you. Kessel owns two of the top-ten marks in Leafs history for OPS. He’s posted marks of 8.7 and 8.8 OPS, good for tenth and a tie for ninth-place with Charlie Conacher. That’s good company. He’s the only Leafs player since 1996-97 (Mats Sundin) to enter the Leafs’ top-ten – and he’s done it twice. Though Kessel receives a ton of flack for soft defensive play and a seemingly poor fitness regiment, his offensive contributions in Toronto have been historically good.
Centre – Darryl Sittler
While Mats Sundin and Doug Gilmour are sentimental favourites, Darryl Sittler is virtually unparalleled at the centre position in Toronto, especially during the expansion era. During the 1977-78 season, Sittler amassed 45 goals, 72 assists, and 117 points. Together, his offensive contributions amounted to an offensive point shares of 10.1. This is the single greatest OPS mark in the post-expansion era for the Leafs and ranks behind only Babe Dye (1924-25) and Ace Bailey (1928-29) in Leafs history. As the owner of the single best offensive season for the Leafs since 1929, Sittler earns the centre spot in the greatest post-expansion Leafs lineup.
Left Wing – Dave Andreychuk
With apologies to heart-and-soul Leafs legend Wendel Clark, left winger Dave Andreychuk claims the final spot in the greatest post-expansion Leafs lineup. During the 1993-94 season, Andreychuk posted an offensive point shares mark of 9.7, tying him with Mats Sundin for the fourth-best offensive season in Leafs history and second-best in the post-expansion era. With 53 goals, 46 assists, and 99 points, Andreychuk rode shotgun with Doug Gilmour, piling up goals at an historic rate. Andreychuk remains one of only three Toronto Maple Leafs (Gary Leeman and Rick Vaive as the others) to pot 50 goals for Toronto.
Based on Hockey Reference’s comprehensive points shares data, the greatest post-expansion Leafs lineup looks like this:
Dave Andreychuk — Darryl Sittler — Phil Kessel
Borje Salming — Sylvain Lefebvre
This lineup represents the Leafs well across the decades since the NHL expanded from six teams to 12. This lineup also reminds Leafs fans that, even in the gloom that has dogged Toronto this season, the Leafs have been great in the past and have an all-time star in their lineup today.
What do you think, Leafs fans? Does HockeyRef’s point shares analytic create a reasonable all-time Leafs squad? Is someone missing from the mix?