DEEP DIVES: Gary Leeman's Insane Four-Year Stretch

Updated: Feb 22, 2021

Gary Leeman became borderline elite for four seasons in the late 80s and early 90s.

I am a huge fan of collecting cards, and one of the first hockey sets I collected the full set of was 1990-91 Score, which I would get cards from one of my hockey coaches after having a good game. When reading the back of one of these cards, I noticed that a player I had never heard of scored 51 goals during the 1989-90 season, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Gary Leeman.

Yeah, you heard that right, Gary Leeman scored 51 goals during the 1989-90 season as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. It's not like it came out of nowhere, having strung together a few good seasons before that, but, it was the highest goal output of his career. This stat is one I have always remembered since I first saw the card, and I have been wanting to write about it for a few weeks now. Leeman's career was an interesting one, so let's dive right into it.

Leeman's Early Years

Leeman was drafted in the second round of the 1982 draft by Toronto and shortly made his debut after in 1983 during the playoffs. During his first three seasons in the NHL, he scored 75 points and just 18 goals, which was not bad, especially for a second-round draft pick. Leeman would not find a consistent scoring touch until 1986-87.

Dominance out of the Blue

Leeman's 1986-87 season would be the beginning of something special. Joining the famous "Hound Line" with Wendel Clark and Russ Courtnall, they combined to be one of the best lines in hockey. Leeman responded to the new role by scoring 21 goals and 31 assists, both career-highs. Leeman would do even better than that over the next three seasons as well.

The next three seasons of Leeman's career would be outright ridiculous. In 1987, he scored 30 goals for the first time ever. He scored a high of 24 goals during his two junior seasons. Recording another 31 assists, Leeman was arguably one of the best playmakers and scorers on the Leafs during this stretch, scoring 61 points in 80 games, which was a career-high.

Leeman continued his upward climb in 1988, but missed some time due to injury, only skating in 61 games. That didn't matter, as he scored 75 points in just 61 games, notching another 30-goal season (32) and dishing out 43 assists, scoring over a point-per-game for the first time in his career as well. If he had played all 80 games, he would have scored 98 (42 G, 56 A) points, which is insane for a guy who never had scored more than 75 points in a season.

Leeman healed up for the 1989 season, absolutely skyrocketing to the best season of his career. He scored 51 goals and 43 assists, leading Vincent Damphousse on the Leafs by just one point but scoring more goals than he did. He also scored 14 goals on the power-play. Leeman scored more goals than Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Mark Messier during this season, which is an unfathomable statistic as Leeman placed seventh during the regular season in goals. He became the first Leafs player to surpass 50 goals in a season since Rick Vaive during the 1983 season. He also shot at a 19.9-percent clip, which was the best he would ever record. His 95 points tied him for 16th with Joe Nieuwendyk, wrapping up two-straight seasons of over a point-per-game (1.18) and four-straight seasons of 20+ goals, three-straight with 30+. He became an All-Star for the first and only time of his career. This season was unbelievable and would be a perfect cap to one of the best four-year stretches for a random player anyone has ever seen.

Unfortunately, Leeman would never come close to equaling these totals again. After scoring just 29 points in 1990, he was traded midway through the next season to Calgary and struggled there as well. He joined Montreal in 1992 and won his first Stanley Cup. Leeman bounced around to Vancouver and St. Louis after that, finishing his career in 1996 with the Blues. Leeman would not even record 51 goals for the rest of his career -- scoring 47 in 206 more NHL contests before he retired in 1996.

Why is this stretch so crazy?

Leeman's four-year stretch is one of the craziest non-Gretzky/all-time great player stretches I have ever seen. The fact that he did not surpass 51 goals for the rest of his career was even crazier.

Leeman outside of 1986-90: 65 G, 118 A, 183 PTS

Leeman 1986-90: 134 G, 149 A, 283 PTS

So what happened during this stretch? I think playing with two really good players, specifically Wendel Clark, really helped Leeman exceed expectations during this period of games for the Leafs. There was also a significant boom in scoring during this era as there were 27 50-goal seasons during this time period. Eight different players scored 50 goals or more in the season Leeman scored 51. There were also seven 60 or more goal seasons as well. Mario Lemieux scored 85 in 1988.

You can pinpoint the beginning of Leeman's success to the 1985-86 playoffs, scoring two goals and ten assists for 12 points in the ten games the Leafs played, and Leeman parlayed his postseason success into success during the regular season.

Leeman finished his career with the round number of 199 goals. Of those 199, 134 came between 1986-90. Leeman scored 67.3-percent of his career goals during this stretch of games. While he scored 100 more points during this stretch than the rest of is career combined -- 60.7-percent of his career points -- it was still an otherworldly performance by Leeman in the late 1980s. His career-high in goals before this era? 24 in juniors.

Leeman was arguably an elite forward for a time during the late 1980s, even scoring 50 goals in a season almost out of nowhere. While I have known about this statistic for some time, you probably wouldn't have known just how good Leeman was for the Leafs unless you took a deep dive.


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