Now that the decade is over, there are a few things we should keep in mind.
The Toronto Maple Leafs played 63 playoff games over the last ten years. The Montreal Canadiens appeared in 45.
I’m just saying the inability of the Leafs to reach the playoffs after 2004 doesn’t mean the whole decade was a bust.
The end of the decade invariably spawns lists and none is more eagerly awaited than this one…The Leafs All Decade Team.
You’ll agree with some of the choices and disagree with others. Consider it as you would a holiday feed of turkey. Good taste is one thing. Digestible choices can be quite another.
Honourable mention: Ed Belfour.
If Curtis Joseph (1998-02, 2008-09) wasn’t the best goaltender in Leafs history (hard to imagine for a franchise that included John Bower, Jacques Plante and Turk Broda) he was the one who fit his team best. Never an airtight defensive team, Joseph’s Leafs needed a big game goalie and CuJo fit that bill perfectly. He played 60 playoff games for the Leafs and while he could never push them into the final, there’s not much fault in a 2.25 goals against and eight shutouts. While a shadow of his former self when he returned to the Leafs for a curtain call season, Joseph mustered everything when Martin Gerber was ejected in a game late in the year. He stopped all three Washington shots in the shootout and gave his many admirers one last glimpse of the best Leafs goalie of the decade.
Ed Belfour (2002-2006) was 37 when he arrived for three seasons with the Leafs. Belfour stayed true to his reputation as one of the most detail oriented-players in NHL history and got good results before a major downturn in his third year. Like Joseph, Belfour was good when it counted. He posted three shutouts and a 2.34 average in 20 post-season games.
Honourable mention: Tomas Kaberle, Ian White.
The fact that McCabe (2000-08) put the puck in his own net in Buffalo doesn’t change the fact that he piled up nearly 300 (297) points and logged Big Hoss ice time for the Leafs in virtually every situation. The turn for McCabe seemed to come when the league outlawed the most grievous forms of interference, not the least of which, the can opener, was sort of a symbol of all that was wrong with the way the game was being played. McCabe scored at least 15 goals four times and his departure has left Tomas Kaberle in a constant search for a triggerman. Say what you like about McCabe, you never had to yell at the television and beg him to shoot.
Thomas Kaberle ( 1998 to present). For a player with his skating and passing skills, Kaberle has been largely underappreciated. Never a physical defender and notoriously unwilling to shoot, Kaberle is an intuitive passer who is almost always the author of any breakaway pass the Leafs enjoy. After a down season last year, his game has improved appreciably and he has hovered around the top of the scoring lists for defenceman all year.
Ian White (2005 to present) has gone from being scratched 11 times at the beginning of last season to a top four defenceman. Generously listed at five-10, White is a strong skater with emerging offensive instincts and a hard, accurate shot.
Honourable mention: Alexei Ponikarovsky.
Gary Roberts (2000-2004). Over the span of 237 games, Roberts brought a net-crashing, protein shaking game that influenced everyone around him to play bigger and consume odd post-game blended beverages. A darling among Leaf fans who saw him as the embodiment of Wendel Clark’s tough, Roberts had lost many of the skills that made him an elite scorer by the time he hit Toronto. He did, however realize that every step away from the net was a step toward a retirement he was able to put off until his forties.
Never a dominating player, Alexei Ponikarovsky (2000-2009) has nonetheless broken 20 goals three times and is on pace to do it again.
Honorable Mention: Tie Domi, Phil Kessel.
Alexander Mogilny (2001-04) was the odds on choice when players were asked who was the most talented player they had ever seen – anywhere. That he scored just 166 points in 176 games either speaks to superb defensive play from opponents or a lack of interest on his part. It was always that way for Mogilny, a player who changed speeds just as quickly off the ice as on. His honesty was sometimes as startling as his acceleration. Mercury took tips from this guy.
That Tie Domi (1989-1990, 1994-2006) enjoyed immeasurable popularity speaks more to his 2,265 penalty minutes than his 84 goals but whenever Domi scored, the Leafs seemed destined to win. He had an undeniable place in the Leafs dressing room and in the public consciousness and if you can say that fighting is a job that needs to be done, Domi did it well.
Phil Kessel (2009 to present) scored six goals in his first 10 games and gave Leafs fans a glimpse of a pure scorer. A powerful skater with a great shot, Kessel can also make plays. If Mats Sundin would have had Phil Kessel, he would have be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Honourable mention: Darcy Tucker.
With 420 goals and 987 points, the great Mats Sundin (1994-2008) endured as the club’s focal point day after day, year after year. Like clockwork, new Leafs would remark on Sundin’s astonishing leadership by the time training camp ended. Sundin did everything but get his team into the finals. He played 83 post season games for the Leafs and bagged 74 points and 35 goals. Sundin scored more goals than any other Leaf and sits first in points and game-winning goals. What else is there?
Darcy Tucker (1999-2008) was a relentlessly competitive player who recklessly threw his undersize frame around the ACC and road stops around the circuit. Tucker scored 138 goals for the Leafs and played with a blatant disregard for his own body that made him a fan favourite.