November 28, 2015
Many of Toronto's top young defensive prospects were rushed into the NHL in the early 1980s. The likes of Leeman, Jim Benning and Fred Boimistruck were all top junior stars who were small and soft by NHL standards. They were all rushed into the league due to a chronic lack of depth instead of apprenticing in the minor leagues. As a result all relative busts as defensemen.
Leeman was able to save his career when the Leafs moved him up to right wing during the 1985-86 season. While he tried, he simply couldn't handle the necessary physical aspects in a NHL defenseman's job duties. But the Leafs felt that Leeman's explosive speed and agility and his soft hands could be utilized on the wing.
The move paid off for the Leafs and Leeman. It did take some time though. His offensive instincts were obvious - he had great vision to go with his puck skills. But he tended to play the role of a setup man too often. As his career on right wing progressed Leeman learned it was alright for a winger to be a little selfish and take it up on himself to score. And while many converted defensemen make good defensive forwards, but that wasn't the case with Leeman.
Leeman was probably the Leafs most talented player during the 1980s. And it showed as he progressed. He found a a home on the "Hound Line" with fellow Notre Dame Hound graduates Wendel Clark and Russ Courtnall up until 1987. Leeman took his place on the right side of the top line in Toronto along with Ed Olczyk and Mark Osborne. That line had great chemistry and Leeman really took off playing with Eddie O. Leeman put together back to back 30 goal seasons before exploding with a 51 goal, 95 point 1989-90 season.
The Leafs became an exciting offensive team to watch thanks to two great lines, and some good offense from the defensemen. But things fell apart for both the Leafs and Leeman after that year. Leeman suffered through a shoulder injury that kept him out of 25 games in 1990-91, and he struggled to score 17 goals. To make matters worse an off-ice dispute between Leeman and teammate Al Iafrate tore apart the Leafs dressing room.
Although his skill was obvious he was never able to rekindle his success after that. After a slow start in 1991-92 he was part of a huge trade which landed Doug Gilmour in Toronto. Leeman was an absolute bust in Calgary - scoring just 11 goals in two years. He later had unsuccessful stints in Montreal, Vancouver and St. Louis. He ended his career in the minor leagues followed by in Europe.
Gary Leeman was a skating enigma who proved he could be a star in the National Hockey League. Unfortunately injuries and off ice problems ruined a sometimes spectacular, sometimes frustrating hockey career.