SIMMONS: Current Maple Leafs could learn a lot from Salming and Sittler Leafs


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As Darryl Sittler clung to Borje Salming, his personal way of connecting the past with the present and the future, there was a message far removed from all the emotion and tears of Friday and Saturday night.

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Such a relevant message for the current edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Forty years later, after their best days as Leafs, Salming and Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Tiger Williams, Mike Palmateer and the late Roger Neilson still matter to Maple Leafs fans. They matter more than anything. They represent almost everything fans expect from the current version of the Maple Leafs.

A team you need to care about. A team you have to believe in. A team that pushed its limits – and perhaps, in a top National Hockey League, was never good enough to win the Stanley Cup.

There’s never any shame in leaving everything on the ice. There’s even less when a team pushes itself the way those Neilson teams pushed — that without a championship they’re still remembered and celebrated all these years later — one of the Leafs’ great, if not the greatest, after the days of the Original Six.

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It’s no longer a city with high expectations for hockey teams. Win an elimination round. Win two rounds. Beat a competitor and you’ll be well thought out almost forever.

There are surprising similarities and differences between those Leaf teams of the late 1970s and the current roster coached by Sheldon Keefe. The Leafs were very heavy at that time. They had front line forwards like Sittler and McDonald, then one of the NHL’s great centers, playing alongside one of the great right wingers of his era.

Sittler and McDonald had the kind of chemistry we saw before this season from Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, with one significant difference. The bigger the game, the better Sittler and McDonald seemed to play. In a surprising playoff season in 1977, the Leafs only advanced two rounds, which is somewhat unheard of here for decades.

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In nine games that year, Sittler scored 21 points and McDonald added 17. The two combined scored 15 goals. In Matthews’ best playoff round, in terms of points, he finished with five goals. Marner’s highest tally: two goals in a playoff round. He has scored seven career playoff goals in 39 postseason games.

McDonald had 10 in nine games in 1977 and a year later it was McDonald in overtime who jumped and knocked out the deep New York Islanders teams that would go on to win four consecutive Stanley Cups.

The then-Leafs had immense playoff challenges almost every season. The great Montreal Canadiens were a roadblock every year and they won four cups in a row before the Islanders victories.

Before that, the Philadelphia Flyers won two cups. Part of the playoff debut of Borje Salming’s brilliant time in Toronto came in the playoffs against the Flyers. The Leafs of that era could have won those rounds, but they were almost haunted by how they ended up losing.

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Still, they stood up to the Flyers and beat the Islanders in seven games plus overtime and after that they were swept by the Canadians – but with three of those four games extraordinarily close – they grabbed your heart and dragged you in the race.

Today’s teams are more advanced than the Leafs in the late 70s. That team had McDonald’s and Sittler and a pretty big drop after that. They had Ron Ellis, towards the end of his career. They had Errol Thompson, who peaked at 25 and never got back to that level. They had a scrappy middle and bottom roster that included Pat Boutette and Jimmy Jones and Jerry Butler, all of whom helped make this team special.

They didn’t have a second line center like John Tavares. They didn’t have a front or second line winger like William Nylander. They didn’t have that luxury or that wealth. They had structure and heart – a great combination of hockey values.

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Today’s Leafs have no one to compare to Salming. As great as Morgan Rielly is with the puck, he’s not Salming. He’s not everywhere on the ice. He doesn’t change games or do everything that Salming did. There aren’t many Salmings in the NHL today or any NHL for that matter. The more you watch a movie of him now, the more you realize how special he was.

And those Leaf teams had a running back with Ian Turnbull, who scored 60 points most seasons in Toronto. The Leafs no longer have a Salming or a Turnbull. They have a better top of the roster than the Leafs of the 70s could claim: but not a better bottom and not a more productive bottom.

This Leafs team also had Mike Palmateer in goal. It was a high-flying act, both exciting and spectacular, depending on the night or the period. He gave you a chance most games, the way Sittler and McDonald gave the Leafs a chance, the way Salming and Turnbull did the same and the way Tiger Williams would fight anyone who looked at a Leaf the wrong way .

Along with Salming, Sittler and McDonald, the Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup and won’t win any trophies you can name. They made 10 playoff rounds in six years together, most of them memorable. Only one Leaf team since then – Pat Burns’ team of 1993 – has come close to the Cup. In this city of elusive championships and hope, being close matters.

Being close means you will be remembered forever.

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