(Kessel joins Lupul and Phaneuf on Chara’s team)
Phil Kessel insists that he doesn’t care, but the Leafs winger has to be ecstatic at having shaken the label of the last NHL All-Star draft pick that he involuntarily inherited a year ago.
Based on his play this season, combined with having an ally in Toronto teammate and Team Chara assistant captain Joffrey Lupul , there was virtually no chance that he’d regain the title, which was passed to Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks on Thursday.
This is only the second All-Star game that has used the draft format. But suppose the pond hockey-like format had always been used to establish both teams’ rosters. Which Leafs would have suffered the ignominy of being the last pick?
A review of the lineups over history has produced a list of candidates. The following criteria were used:
- All years prior to, and including 1967-68 were excluded, as the game always featured the defending Stanley Cup champion playing as a team.
- An assumption is that, like the existing format, both teams must have filled out their goalies and defencemen by a certain round, meaning that the last overall pick must be a forward. So – to Leafs blueliners Robert Picard (1980-81) and Bob Manno (1981-82), you get a reprieve.
- The last overall pick was likely to be a young player, age 23 or under.
- In all cases, a non-Leafs player is chosen as a runner-up.
Here’s who is on the list:
1981-82 Rick Vaive
Vaive would eventually go on to produce the first of his 3 career 50-goal seasons. At age 22, Vaive was midway through his NHL campaign and had yet to establish himself as a sniper at the All-Star level. He joined his Leafs teammate Manno on the Campbell Conference team, and scored opening goal of the game. The Wales Conference won 4-2 at the old Capital Center in Landover, Maryland.
Runner-up: Don Lever, Colorado
Lever, who would coach the Hamilton Bulldogs to a Calder Cup a quarter-century later, had put up consistent numbers over his career, but was well removed from a career high of 38 goals in 1974-75. Playing for the lowly Rockies, who were the worst team in the NHL, would definitely have weakened his All-Star draft position.
1984-85 Miroslav Frycer
An enigmatic winger from what was then Czechoslovakia, Frycer was Toronto’s lone representative on what would prove to be the worst Leafs team in the history of the franchise. Frycer likely wouldn’t have even participated in the game at Calgary’s Saddledome if not for the All-Star rules at the time that provided for a mandatory selection of at least one player from every NHL team. Nevertheless, Frycer scored a game-tying goal for the Campbells in the first period that knotted the affair at 2-2. Wales would go on to win 6-4.
Runner-up: Kirk Muller, New Jersey.
Yes the Leafs were awful, but the Devils weren’t much better. Suiting up for the Wales team was a rookie in Muller who had just turned 19 four days earlier. It’s almost certain that he would have had to endure the ribbing suffered later by Kessel and Couture. Luckily they didn’t have cell phones, or social media back then.
1985-86 Wendel Clark
Gasp, how dare we give a Leafs legend a slight. Be that as it may, Toronto’s beloved Wendel was in his rookie year when he laced up the blades for his first NHL All-Star game. Once again, the ‘every team gets a player’ rule benefitted the Leafs. Playing on the home rink of the since departed Hartford Whalers, Clark was held pointless in a losing effort as the Wales Conference prevailed 4-3 in overtime.
Runner-up: Mark Hunter, St. Louis
Hunter was playing in his first year in St. Louis after being dealt by Montreal, having not produced at the expectations of a Habs organization that drafted him seventh overall in 1981. It was a breakout year for Dale and Dave’s youngest brother as he finished the season with 44 goals. But his career best with the Canadiens was only 21.
1988-89, Gary Leeman
Leeman was a two weeks shy of his 25th birthday and wouldn’t have his one-season-wonder campaign of 51 goals until the following year. He was the only Leaf to have a goal and an assist in an All-Star game in the 80’s, registering 2 points in the Campbell Conference’s 9-5 win for Glen Sather’s team at Edmonton’s Northlands Coliseum. The Leafs would go on to miss the playoffs on the final day of the season *cough* Todd Gill *cough*.
Runner-up: Walt Poddubny, Quebec
The late Poddubny had been resuscitated out of a mediocre career as a Leaf, posting seasons of 40 and 38 goals with New York Rangers before becoming a Nordique, so it’s hard to envision him being drafted last overall. Really the only factor working against his favour was the position of his NHL club, Quebec, who would go on to finish at the bottom of the league standings at season’s end.
As an epilogue, the player that the Nordiques would go on to select first in the draft that summer would be dealt to Toronto many years later, to ensure that no Leafs forward in the post-Gilmour era would appear on this hypothetical list. His name? Mats Sundin.
(Information compiled from the book “The NHL All-Star Game” by Andrew Podnieks)