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All good Toronto Maple Leaf fans should know the name of the last Leaf to lead the NHL in goals scored (although we may share it begrudgingly due to the length of time that has passed since it happened). Gaye Stewart was the top goal scorer with 37 goals in 50 games in the 1945/46 season. That season he had just returned from two years of military service to lead the NHL as a 22 year old. Stewart slipped badly the following season to 19 goals in the newly expanded 60 game schedule and after a terrible start to 1947/48 (1 goal in 7 games) he was shipped to Chicago.
Maple Leafs boss, Conn Smythe dealt Stewart along with four others in exchange for a player he had long coveted in Max Bentley. In the biography of Smythe by Kelly McParland, Smythe explains his souring on Stewart which allowed him to trade for Bentley; "Stewart scored too many goals against teams that weren't a threat or in games that weren't in doubt". Apparently Smythe was able to accurately come to this conclusion with the help of compiling ahead-of-it's-time statistical and film evidence. A fairly harsh statement indeed, but was Smythe's assessment correct? Without access to game films from 1945 (I wish) I will try to prove Smythe's thinking true or false by looking at the only thing available, game by game records. To check the accuracy of Smythe's comment I searched through boxscores of old Montreal Gazette sports pages as my usual go-to site (the hockey summary project) has no individual game records for this time period. It didn't really take long to find the box scores that were needed.
First thing I did was narrow down games that matched Conn Smythe's original statement. He firstly said that Gaye Stewart scored too many goals against teams that weren't a threat. We'll, only one team in Stewart's big year of 1945/46 finished behind Smythe's Leafs, the other four finished with at least a .500 record. The last place New York Rangers are clearly the only squad that can be considered "not a threat" to Toronto or any other team for that matter as they finished with a 13-28-9 record. I found box scores for every game that the Leafs played the Rangers that year and Gaye Stewart counted 7 goals in the 10 games. This means that he had 30 goals in 40 games against the other four "threatening" teams.
Stewart's goal rate was actually slightly less against the putrid Rangers than against the rest of the league. Smythe's other point was that Stewart scored too many of his goals in games that weren't in doubt. For this one I looked for games that were decided by two or more goals. The Leafs played in 15 games that season decided by two or more goals for either team and Stewart scored 11 goals in those games. This goal scoring rate was practically identical than his rate in closer games.
Combined then, in games that were either against New York or of a margin wider than two goals, the Leafs had a total of 23 such games. (only two of the games met both of these criteria). In these 23 games that Smythe insisted Gaye Stewart did too much of his scoring, he scored 17 times. Therefore in his other 27 "close games against better teams" he scored 20 goals. These numbers translate into goals per game of 0.739 in the "Rangers/Blow-out" games and 0.741 in the tighter, more difficult games. Stewart actually scored at a very slightly higher rate in tighter games against tougher teams.
Even if we consider these to be even, Smythe's statement is about as false as can be. Stewart actually re-found his scoring touch after the trade, scoring 26 goals in the 54 games with Chicago. He followed that up with back-to-back 20 goal seasons before being traded to Detroit and the next year, the Rangers. He would play two full years in the AHL with Buffalo before retiring at age 31. Max Bentley of course helped the Leafs win the Stanley Cup the year he was acquired and two additional Cups in the next three seasons. Because of this fact, the trade would have to be considered a success for Smythe even if his thinking on Gaye Stewart's production was entirely false.
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