Looking back at notable Maple Leafs teenagers

A share of the rookie high in points for the week to go along with a game-winning goal puts Auston Matthews at the top of the NHL's freshman class from the past seven days.

The consistent focal point of optimism and excitement this season is in great part due to the strong play of the large group of young players in the Toronto Maple Leafs‘ lineup.

At the top of the heap are those rarest of NHL breeds: teenage NHL players in the form of 19-year-olds Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

As the Maple Leafs organization and the NHL get set to celebrate historical landmarks at the 100-year mark, it is interesting to take a look back at the other members of that very exclusive club of teenaged Maple Leafs players.

It is an interesting collection of players, with some thriving and others leaving you scratching your head wondering what the organization was thinking at the time.

Note: As a guideline for this list, we’ll stick to players who skated in at least 20 NHL regular season games.

These are the no-brainers. To a man, they all had very solid first NHL seasons on their way to entering another very exclusive NHL club: the Hockey Hall of Fame.

This group includes Red Horner (19) in 1928-29; Charlie Conacher (19) in 1929-30; Busher Jackson (19) in 1929-30; Ted Kennedy (18) in 1943-44; Dick Duff (19) in 1955-56; and Frank Mahovlich (19) in 1957-58.

Jackson technically didn’t make the Hall of Fame, but many believe he should have.

I will also include another person who didn’t make the Hall of Fame but has worked in the executive offices at the Hall for two decades: Ron Ellis (19) in 1964-65.

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Due to a large number of NHL-eligible players choosing to join the military, there was a shortage of quality NHL players in and around the period of World War II from 1939 to 1945.

As a result, a few younger players made the jump into professional hockey.

Aside from Ted Kennedy, who is included in the Hall of Fame category above, this list of teenagers includes Gaye Stewart (19) in 1942-43; Gus Bodnar (18) in 1943-44; Jack Hamilton (18) in 1943-44 and Jim Thomson (19) in 1946-47.

This is the list of Leafs teenagers who started strong with the Maple Leafs but never became elite NHLers.

This includes the likes of Eric Nesterenko (19) in 1952-53; Jack Valiquette (19) in 1975-76; Laurie Boschman (19) in 1979-80; Allan Bester (19) in 1983-84; Gary Leeman (19) in 1983-84 and Russ Courtnall (19) in 1984-85.

A common theme here is that these players were forwards, whereas the same rate of teenage success can’t be said for those on the blue line.

The 1980s became synonymous with an unfortunate pattern of rushing teenage Toronto defencemen to the NHL blue line before they were ready.

Why this became a recurring exercise in failure just illustrated the effect that continual losing can have on an organization, creating a false hope that actually results in making the same old mistakes.

1981 marked my second NHL Entry Draft as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs front office. General manager George “Punch” Imlach had already made up his mind that a complete overhaul and youth movement would permeate his team for the upcoming 1981-82 season.

Unlike the well thought-out strategy of the current Leafs regime we see today, the 1981 roster revamp was a little more focused on the quick fix. Two teenagers drafted in 1980, Bob McGill and Fred Boimistruck (both 19 years old) were already ticketed for the NHL roster.

Imlach was adamant that whichever defenceman the Leafs took with their 1981 sixth overall should also be agreeable to making the NHL jump right away to join McGill and Boimistruck.

However, the player Leafs scouts wanted to draft was James Patrick, who would not agree to turn pro immediately as he had committed to attend the University of North Dakota. Jim Benning, then 18, offered no such problem that way, so the Leafs selected the now-general manager of the Vancouver Canucks instead. (Patrick would be taken three spots later by the New York Rangers.)

Benning, Boimistruck and McGill would endure baptismal by fire, which would be a failure from an organizational standpoint.

Boimistruck, while not known for being a physical force, was probably the best player of the three for the first 20 games that season, but injuries woes would eventually take their toll and he was completely out of hockey by age 22.

Benning was like a teenager who had been dropped on another planet. My one enduring memory of him, though, is seeing him sit alone at Maple Leaf Gardens, wearing his Portland Winterhawks leather jacket and watching the Toronto Marlboros practice. Who knew this would be the educational process for a future top NHL scout and player evaluator?

Bob McGill fared the best of the three and would have the longest NHL career. He now is a broadcaster with Leafs TV.

The following year, in 1982-83, a new defensive prodigy surfaced in 19-year-old Gary Nylund. The third overall selection that year seemed to have the size and maturity to make a more successful transition into the NHL that had eluded the other three. Unfortunately, Nylund would need serious knee surgery after being injured in an exhibition game and would play just 18 NHL games at the end of that season.

In 1984-85, Al Iafrate was the teenager rushed into the mix. This might have been the most glaring example of a player being ushered into the NHL way too soon. The 18-year-old had played a grand total of just 10 games the previous year with the Belleville Bulls after a negative experience with the U.S. Olympic team.

Iafrate needed time to grow on the ice, but more importantly he needed time to just be a goofball teenager off the ice. Despite management’s miscalculation, he was still able to enjoy a decent NHL career.

Luke Richardson (18) actually had a decent rookie season in 1987-88, but struggled in his second year as he began to spend time as a healthy scratch. He would eventually join all of the above players as teenage Toronto Maple Leafs who definitely would have benefited from remaining with their junior team at least another season.

Almost two decades later, the same would be said about Luke Schenn. At 19 years old in 2008-09, Schenn represented great things for the team’s future — much like Matthews and Marner do today.

Similar to what happened two decades earlier, Schenn would never blossom into that All-Star stud defenceman on the Leafs’ blue line. He has evolved into a journeyman rearguard currently playing in Arizona, but he definitely could have been better off had he played one more year in junior.

This is the category that Matthews and Marner hope to join at the conclusion of this season.

First up is Wendel Clark in 1985-86. As a 19-year-old, he took the hockey world — and the city of Toronto — by storm as he brought respectability back to a Leafs team that had finished dead last the year before (sound familiar?).

Clark led the Leafs in both goals (34) and penalty minutes (227) that season, helping the Leafs get back to the playoffs where they upset the heavily-favoured Chicago Blackhawks in the first round.

A year later in 1986-87, Vincent Damphousse (19) would have a less sensational (but still very strong) rookie campaign with the Leafs. He started the season at centre but was shifted over to the wing after being dominated by Steve Yzerman in an early-season game against the Detroit Red Wings. The move kicked off a long and successful NHL career, beginning with a 46-point rookie year as a teen with 21 goals and 25 assists.

For our third (and most recent) teenage success story, let’s go to the blue line. Personally, I was worried when the Leafs included a 19-year-old Morgan Rielly on their NHL roster in 2013-14, but the rearguard now continues to be viewed as that stud defenceman the Leafs were hoping for on their blue line for many years to come.

So the Toronto Teenage Maple Leafs Club will have two additions at the end of this season, and they look like they will be two names added to the “got it right” category.

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