Prior to the Toronto vs Montreal hockey game this past Saturday night, the Maple Leafs organization honored one of their own as #13 Mats Sundin had his number raised to the rafters of the Air Canada Center.
I grew up in an era of Toronto hockey that was dominated by Mats Sundin.
He was the man. He was the best player we had and the face of the entire franchise. With Sundin on the roster, the Leafs were perennial playoff contenders.
That’s more than we can say about any of the current crop of players.
Sundin accomplished a lot during his 13-year stint with Toronto and solidified himself as one of the greatest Maple Leaf players of all-time.
But can we call him the best of the best?
Sundin certainly has the numbers to be in consideration for the title of greatest Leaf ever. He is the franchises all-time leader in goals scored (420) and points (987), as well as second all-time in total assists (567). He is clearly the best offensive player the team has ever had. Despite never winning a Stanley Cup, he did get close in 1999 and 2002 when he helped take the Leafs to the conference finals. Winning at least one championship in Toronto would have more than likely solidified Sundin as the greatest to ever wear the blue and white.
Even though I would love to just outright name Sundin the best Leaf player ever, I can’t find it in me to do it. When I look back at the history of the franchise and some of the big hall-of-fame names that have skated for this team, it’s nearly impossible to find that one guy who I can safely say is heads and tails above everyone else. There are probably 7 or 8 players who I could legitimately make a strong case for.
What about a guy like Borje Salming? Some say he was the greatest defenseman to ever play for the team. He scored 148 goals for Toronto (most for any defenseman) and is the team’s all-time leader in assists(620). Despite a 49 game tenure with the Detroit Red Wings, Salming played nearly his entire 17 year professional career as a member of the Leafs. He became the first player of Swedish descent to ever be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Mats Sundin might not even be the greatest Swedish player to ever dawn a Leafs uniform. That distinction could belong to Salming.
How about Darryl Sittler? This guy was an offensive machine. He ranks right behind Sundin in goals scored (389), points (916) and is third all-time in assists (527). That’s not even mentioning the record-setting 10 point (6 goals, 4 assists) outing he had against the Boston Bruins back in 1976. His problems with former Leafs owner Harold Ballord were infamous. Some say it was Ballord who drove Sittler out of town. Despite his disputes with Leafs management being as bad as they come, Sittler was still one of the more beloved and respected players on the roster. To this day, Sittler remains a favorite alumnus and ambassador of the Leafs organization.
Tim Horton: 1185 games played (2nd) Dave Keon: 365 goals (3rd), 493 assists (4th), 858 points (3rd) Frank Mahovlich: 296 goals (tied for 6th), 597 points (7th) George Armstrong: 1187 game played (1st), 296 goals (tied for 6th), 713 points (5th) Johnny Bower: 475 games played, 219-160
This was an era when the Maple Leafs were the most dominant team in all of hockey. The Leafs would go on to win 4 Stanley Cups in the sixties (62, 63, 64, 67) and forever label itself as a dynasty. Players like Keon and Mahovlich were big parts of those successful teams. Whose to say that they couldn’t possibly be reasonable choices for the greatest Leaf of all-time.
I haven’t even gotten into some of the more recent names that fans would probably know. What about a Wendel Clark or a Doug Gilmour? Maybe its a player from the forties like a Ted Kennedy.
Whose to say.
The Maple Leafs organization has had so many quality players over its history that picking just one to be the best ever is extremely difficult.
Mats Sundin could very well be the greatest player in franchise history for all we know.
To be fair to all of the greats who have been a part of this storied franchise, I will play it safe and say that Sundin deserves at the very least to have his name in the discussion.