Were The 80s Leafs Really That Bad?
John C. Calhoun
Do you ever get those days where you wander through your house and find some hidden gems from the past? That happened to me earlier when I had discovered a DVD collection that had been sitting on my shelf for months and I had not opened it for quite some time. The collection was titled "Toronto Maple Leafs: 10 Great Leafs And Their Most Memorable Games," and just looking at the back of the list gave me goosebumps reflecting on past greats such as McDonald, Gilmour, Clark, and Sundin.
When looking at this this list, however, one name caught my interest and had me curious to watch. This person was none other than Ken Wregget.
The name did not sound familiar at all, in fact I had no idea who he was. It took a quick Google search to determine that Wregget was a Leaf goalie from the mid to late 1980s. I later asked my dad about Wregget, and he told me that he was the James Reimer of the 80s.
With this discovery, I popped in the Wregget disc which showed the whole game played on April 16, 1987, a playoff match-up (weird right?) against the Blues. It was a Game 6 and the Leafs were one win away from advancing to the second round.
This particular game was included in the collection for a number of reasons:
1) Wregget made only 19 saves in the series clinching win.
2) Four Leaf captains played in that game: Rick Vaive, Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour, and Rob Ramage.
Watching this "memorable" game for the first time left me in confusion. My initial reactions were "Why are the players skating so slowly?" and "Was 80s hockey really like this?" As I watched the Leafs score to take a 1-0 lead early in that game, one question popped into my head:
"How the heck did the Leafs make the playoffs that year anyway?"
A long research through the depths of the internet helped me try to answer this question. To my surprise, the Leafs did make the playoffs that year with a record of 32-42-6. The fact that they made the playoffs with a losing record was one thing, but the fact that they went as far as they did (Game 7 of the second round against Detroit) was even more amazing.
That was when I remembered the media's and fan's perception of the Leafs in the 80s as a whole: They believed that it was awful decade and that every year was a total failure. In remembering these jabs at the team, it inspired me to further investigate how the Leafs were during the supposed "Dark Ages," and what I found out was pretty shocking.
Here are my general takes on the Leafs' seasons between 1980-81 and 1989-1990, and I will make an overall impression on them all at the end.
The Leafs were starting to lose the high power flair that made the team a powerhouse during the 70s, and this season saw proof of that. While still housing Leaf legends Sittler, Salming, Vaive, Turnbill, and Paiement, the team was bad from start to finish. Despite this, they made the playoffs thanks to an extremely weak conference, where they would be swept in three by the eventual Cup champion Islanders. During the offseason, the Leafs were moved to a new conference and a new division, the Norris.
During Sittler's last season as a Leaf, the team continued to perform poorly. The team was very active with trading away most of their talent away for nobody's, most famously Sittler being traded to the Flyers. Between August of 1981 and March of 1982, the Leafs made 9 trades robbing them of any hope of making the playoffs. This season was best remembered with Rick Vaive becoming the first Leaf to score 50 goals in a season. He ended up with 54 goals.
Much of the same from the previous two seasons carried over to this one: the Leafs had a poor record that was well below .500. The team still had little talent to carry them through the season, but managed to secure a playoff spot in a weak conference. Vaive had his second straight 50+ goal season and John Anderson, current head coach of the AHL Chicago Wolves, lead the team with 80 points. The Leafs lost 3-1 to the Minnesota North Stars in the opening round.
Oh yea, now we are getting to the good stuff. There isn't much to discuss about this dismal season as the team was as bad as the record suggests. You would have to think that in an era where offense was key (considering how good the modern day Leafs are in that department), they could not get anything going and let their atrocious defense make them lose games. The results were obvious: nowhere near the playoffs. Non-Leaf highlights include the Oilers winning their first Cup and Lemieux being drafted by the tanking Penguins.
And we have arrived at the single most embarrassing season ever. That didn't take long. In fact, this minor league team playing in the NHL managed to secure just 48 points total and play at a Sabres like pace. It is this season that gave the team their infamous mock name: the Maple Laughs. Yea, I'm just going to cry in the corner after typing that. By the way, they were the absolute worst team in the league that year. How lovely. On the bright side, the Leafs went on to draft Wendel Clark with their only 1st overall pick ever. Next!
The good news was that the Leafs were able to improve their record, but it wasn't by much (9 point difference). The better news was that despite still holding such a atrocious record yet again, they STILL managed to make the playoffs. Let's just say the NHL back in the day had weak competition. Still, considering what happened the previous season, making the playoffs was all the more impressive (even if it was a relatively short run). Clark played well, Steve Thomas led the team in playoff points, and Wregget announced his arrival.
I have already talked about this season earlier, so I'll be quick. This season saw the Leafs continue to improve their record to 70 points (which is still terrible in today's league, but still an improvement) and house a fairly decent team. With the playoff format changed to have the first round go from 5 games to 7, it was a chance for the Leafs to make some noise. And they did, by playing well up to Game 7 of the second round. Everything in Leaf land was starting to look up again...
... only for them to make their record the following season much worse. Yes, the Leafs regressed hard in 87-88 to the second worst in the league, but it was perfectly understandable considering that they had traded Vaive to the Blackhawks before the season began. So naturally, this would mean the Leafs would miss the playoffs again, right? WRONG! Because of an extremely weak Norris division, they managed to secure a ticket to the postseason on the last day of the regular season. It did not last long though, as they were eliminated in 6 by the Red Wings. One more thing to note, the Leafs drafted fan favourite Tie Domi in the ensuing draft.
Annnnnnnd, we're back to mediocrity once again. The team did slightly improve their record by a few points, but it did not hide the fact that the coaches had to be changed. It saw John Brophy relieved from his coaching duties mid-season, players traded left-right-and-center, and the team without a captain. On the bright side, interim coach George Armstrong led the Leafs close to the playoffs, but they eventually missed out by losing to the Chicago Blackhawks on the final day of the regular season. The Leafs needed a win against Chicago to clinch a post season birth, but a Troy Murray overtime goal ended the season for Toronto. The Blackhawks, by the way, went as far as the third round. Oh well, maybe next year.
Wrapping up our trip through the 80s sees the Leafs pull off something they had not done since the late 70s: a non-losing record! Amazing, I know. Even better, Gary Leeman became the second Leaf ever to score 50 goals in a season and the team as a whole was pretty decent. Despite finishing the season with a decade high 80 points and a whole lot of confidence, the team was smoked in the first round by the Blues. Perhaps the best thing that came from this season was the team drafting future star goalie Felix Potvin in the second round. Oh, and Leeman? He later was part of package that helped the team acquire some guy named Gilmour.
So there you have it, that was the Leafs of the 80s. I have to say, trying to do research for this was harder then I had originally thought. Overall, the team played pretty poorly and did not win a whole lot. Yet, they still managed to make the playoffs 6 times out of 10, which is WAY better than the current Leafs have fared (1 out of 10). They were just lucky that their division was weak. Sort of like the Capitals in the Southeast the past few years before the division change.
The reason I wrote about this was because for the longest time, I had always believed that the Leafs of the 80s were really bad teams that never made the playoffs. So to learn that the team was fairly a playoff regular despite the terrible records was very surprising to me.
Yes, it is easy to see that the Leafs of the 80s never housed a team that finished with a winning record, and I cannot argue against it. I also can't deny that the 84-85 Leafs were the worst in franchise history and represented the lowest point for Hogtown Buds. And I for sure cannot ignore that Harold Ballard set the Leafs back by a few years and will live in Leaf infamy as the worst owner ever. But to say that they never made the playoffs ever is ridiculous.
By the time I finished watching the DVD of the Leafs eliminating the Blues by a score of 4-0, I was left with a new impression of the so called "Dark Ages." After all that I had discovered, I can never look at those 10 years the same way I originally had. And from now on, I can easily summarize the era with a few words:
The Leafs of the 80s were bad, but not as terrible as many claim.