In 2016, the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrated its Centennial Anniversary home opener. As part of that 100-years’ celebration, the team did a retrospection of Maple Leafs’ history. At the time, a number of lists of “the best Maple Leafs’ players” of all time being were constructed.
As part of that celebration, the team also retired a number of players’ jerseys. Previous to 2016, only two Maple Leafs players had their jerseys retired. One was Ace Bailey and the other was the 24-year-old Bill Barilko. If fans recall, Barilko was the young Maple Leafs defenseman who scored perhaps the most famous goal in team history in the 1951 Stanley Cup victory against the Montreal Canadiens and only a few months later was lost in an airplane crash while fishing in the deep bush of northern Ontario. Gord Downey and The Tragically Hip wrote a song commemorating Barilko’s goal titled “Fifty-Mission Cap.”
Who Are the Maple Leafs Current Top Centers?
Obviously, when making assessments about the top centers on any team – both currently and historically – there’s speculation about how current young players might play over the next few seasons. Injuries are always a problem, and those can slow a player down or even end a player’s career.
As well, the NHL is different these days than it was many years ago. Players often don’t stay with the same team long – even those who are highly skilled. Because of the current CBA’s salary-cap situation, often teams are forced to trade even their star players if their contracts don’t fit into the space available on the salary cap.
The current Maple Leafs centers are easy to pick. Both Auston Matthews and John Tavares are easily the best centers the team has. The third and fourth line centers – Alex Kerfoot and Jason Spezza – are good players but I won’t spend time discussing them in this analysis.
Maple Leafs’ Current Best Centers
Simply stated, I believe Auston Matthews will become the best center in Maple Leafs history. As a rookie in 2016-17, he scored 40 goals and won the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year. In his second season, although injury-shortened, he averaged a point-a-game (63 points in 62 games). Every season since that time, he’s been over a point-a-game. This season, before the coronavirus suspended the season prematurely, he was on his way to 60 goals.
Still only 22-years-old, this season Matthews has 80 points (47 goals and 33 assists) in 70 games. He’s also jacked up his defensive game and is beginning to use his size to dominate on both the offensive and the defensive ends.
Matthews, with still 12 games remaining when the season was shortened, already had broken personal records. He’s a strong player, who seems ready for the spotlight of playing in Toronto. That he sometimes acts like a kid isn’t really that surprising, because he is one – and a wealthy one at that.
It’s easy to forget that John Tavares is only 29 years old – he seems to have been a great player for such a long time. This is his second season with the Maple Leafs; and, during his first season, he broke his personal goal-scoring record by scoring 47 goals for the season. He also scored 88 points, which broke his previous record by two points.
Now in his 11th season – playing nine seasons with the New York Islanders – he has played 814 games, with 345 goals and 424 assists for 769 points. These are clearly star-quality numbers; and, for the past few seasons, he’s averaging more than a point a game.
The indication is that Tavares will stay with the Maple Leafs for some time. He’s shown leadership and scores when scoring is needed. Perhaps he’s not as flashy as his teammate Matthews; but, when consistent is defined in the dictionary, Tavares’ photo is beside it.
Maple Leafs’ Best Centers in Their History
As a note, these rankings are mine alone and based upon my best research. Other Maple Leafs fans might have their own favorite or best centers, and really who’s to argue. These are my own.
Number One: Dave Keon
In 2016, CBC Sports named Dave Keon as the best Maple Leaf player of all time. Keon played with the Maple Leafs during its greatest success and won four Stanley Cups with the team. His length of service (15 seasons) with the team made him a leader in many of the team’s scoring categories.
Keon is the only Maple Leafs player to ever win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Stanley Cup Playoffs MVP. Similar to Matthews, during his rookie season (1960-61), he was named the NHL’s top rookie. He was the Maple Leafs’ captain from 1969-1975.
Number Two: Darryl Sittler
Darryl Sittler played 12 seasons in Toronto; and, during 10 of those seasons, the Maple Leafs made the playoffs. Sittler was a top-10 finisher for the Hart Trophy five times and had five 40-goal seasons. Sittler also holds one NHL record that never will be broken: in 1976, he scored 10 points (six goals and four assists) in a single game against the Boston Bruins. That’s amazing scoring actually.
Number Three: Mats Sundin
Mats Sundin was an amazing player; however, he played for the Maple Leafs during the team’s Stanley Cup drought. In total, Sundin played 13 seasons with the Maple Leafs. He remains Toronto’s all-time leader in both goals (420) and points (987). Over his entire career – not just with the Maple Leafs, Sundin averaged just over a point-a-game (1,349 points in 1,346 NHL games). He was the Leafs’ captain from 1997 to 20o8.
My Final Take
The Maple Leafs three all-time best centers in history have been excellent players and good leaders. My personal take is that John Tavares will rank among these players should his career as a Maple Leafs player not end because of injury. I believe he clearly wants to remain with the team and is of star quality.
However, although Auston Matthews might not become the team leader some of the other Maple Leafs centers have been – and I’m thinking about Mats Sundin here, I believe he’ll become the highest-scoring center in team history and will become the best ever.
The best of the bunch: Auston Matthews.
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