The Toronto Maple Leafs went through their fair share of bad seasons in the last decade and a bit. Unfortunately for me, 11 years ago is about the time I started to pay attention to hockey. Growing up in the Greater Toronto Area, naturally, I was a Maple Leafs fan. Still, besides all the bad times, there was some diamond in the rust moments for the Leafs, at least for myself. I'll be going over my top seven favourite Maple Leafs I have watched. These are my personal favourite players, not who I think was the best.
7. John Tavares
John Tavares is a very special player to me; he wanted to play here, so he decided he would leave his previous team and play in Toronto. During the 2018 off-season, Tavares entered free agency and he decided he would sign with his hometown team. At the beginning of the 2019-20 season, Tavares would become the 25th captain in Maple Leafs history.
I always admired that he was never the flashiest player; he always had a high level of hockey and made the simple play. As a Leafs fan, hearing Tavares signed with the team brought me such excitement. Not only were the Leafs getting a very gifted forward, but also a versatile defensive centre.
6. Mitch Marner
Mitch Marner brings an energy to the Leafs locker room that no other player has brought. Marner was picked fourth-overall by the Leafs in the 2015 NHL Draft. Marner has been one of the most fun players to watch because of his creativity in setting up his teammates.
He almost seems to make the same plays every night, other teams know what he’s going to do, but he still finds a way to do it. He has also been able to be a go-to option for the Leafs in the defensive end. Marner has led the Leafs in points and assists the last two seasons. Marner’s creative playmaking ability is a skill the Maple Leafs are feeding off, whether it's Tavares, Matthews, or even Hyman; if Marner sets you up, there is a good chance you’re going to bury it.
5. James Riemer
This selection might surprise some people. James Reimer was drafted 99th-overall in the 2006 NHL Draft by the Leafs and was with the organization until he was traded in 2016. He spent some time with the AHL affiliate, the Marlies until he became a full-time NHL player in the 2010-11 season. Riemer has been the Leafs backbone for six years, also being a big reason they made the playoffs in the 2013 lockout-shortened season.
He was a fan favourite, especially for me, I loved seeing him make big save after big save. Unfortunately, Riemer's time in Toronto was full of injuries and coaches who didn’t believe in him. After the 2013 playoffs the team gave up on him as a number one goalie, and traded for Johnathan Bernier, and they would go on the split starts for the next few years. It was time for Toronto to move on from Riemer in February 2016, trading him to commit to a full rebuild.
4. William Nylander
William Nylander has had many doubters in his career, but it hasn’t stopped in from doing what he does best. Nylander was selected eighth-overall by the Leafs in the 2014 NHL Draft. Nylander spent two seasons in the AHL developing his skills. He became a full-timer in the 2015-16 season. In the 2018 off-season, the Leafs and Nylander would have a contract dispute that had Nylander holding out until midseason to sign. Because Nylander would miss so much time, he didn't play very well and was getting criticized for not playing to the level of his contract. In the 2019-20 season, Nylander would bounce back and prove all the doubters wrong.
He was being written off by a huge part of the fan-base but he wouldn’t let that bother him this season. He already surpassed his career-best in goals, and would have in points had the season not been stopped. Nylander still gets criticism from a lot of fans, but with each year he gets better, his contract will start looking like a steal.
3. Auston Matthews
Auston Matthews was Toronto’s first first overall-pick (2016) since Wendel Clark in 1985. Matthews started living up to Leafs fans expectations immediately, scoring a ridiculous four goals in his first NHL career game, something that hasn't been done in the Modern NHL era. Also, in his rookie season, he would break the record for most goals by a Leafs rookie and win the Calder Trophy (rookie of the year award). He doesn’t just score a large number of goals, but also clutch goals. Whether it’s a late game-tying goal, or an overtime winner, Matthews is always in the right spot to bury it.
I’ll never forget sitting in freezing cold temperature at the 2017 Centennial Classic, where the Leafs were up four to one, but of course the game ended up going to overtime. But once again at the right place Matthews cruising through the slot gets a rebound off the end-boards and scores it on his backhand, winning the game. Over the last four seasons, Matthews has been the Leafs most dominant scorer. This season he already surpassed his career-high in goals with 47 in only 68 games. Matthews will be the Maple Leafs most dominant player for years to come.
2. Mikhail Grabovski
Mikhail Grabovski was a very underrated player when he was with the Maple Leafs. He joined the Leafs via trade in July 2008. Grabovski was once a fourth liner player in Montreal to a top six forward with the Maple Leafs. When I first started getting into hockey, the Maple Leafs were a pretty lousy hockey team but had a few bright spots; Grabovski was one of them. With his flashy shootout goals, to his hard work mentality, Grabovski was a player who, in my eyes, worked harder than anyone else to get better.
I remember a specific game versus the Boston Bruins where he was hit hard into the boards by Zdeno Chara. He left the game, but would return in the third period. Once again, Chara threw a questionable hit, making Grabovski stumble to the ice. But he would never quit, with just over a minute to go in the regulation Grabovski scored to put the Leafs up, which was the game winning goal.He is the reason I wore the number "84" when I played hockey; I wanted to be the type of player he was, put your head down, and get it done kind of player. When Grabovski became a free agent in 2013, he decided not to resign with the Maple Leafs and moved on, but he is still one of the reasons I fell in love with the sport of hockey.
1. Nazem Kadri
Kadri was drafted seventh-overall by the Leafs in the 2009 NHL Draft. What stands out most about Kadri is how long he was actually in the Maple Leaf organization. He's played for multiple General Managers and coaches. Many different off-seasons and trade deadlines seemed like his time in Toronto was coming to an end, especially during the full-on rebuild years. In the 2016-17 season, Kadri really found his stride offensively, but more importantly, he broke out as an excellent two-way centre, getting the top-line matchups each night. Kadri was my favourite player because he did everything. He scored, set up his teammates, defended against the best players, threw big hits, and stood up for himself and the rest of the team.
He was almost the perfect all-round player for the Leafs…almost. Unfortunately, Kadri's time in Toronto came to what seemed like an abrupt end. He was suspended in the first round of the playoffs for two seasons in a row for throwing questionable hits to Boston Bruins players. After the second time, the thought of a potential Kadri trade came to the minds of a lot of fans and more importantly, Leafs general manager, Kyle Dubas. He was traded on July 1st of that off-season. And just like that, the Nazem Kadri era in Toronto ended; most of Leafs Nation has mixed feelings over his time here. I've always liked the type of player he was; he played with so much heart and always left everything out on the ice.