Welcome to Part Three in a series examining the worst trades in Toronto Maple Leafs history. I must warn you, this is a slippery slope: this journey will take you to a dark place of self-loathing if you are a Leafs’ fan. And if you’re not… then at least you’ll have a good laugh at our expense. And so, here are #20 through #16 of the Top 25 Leafs trades in the modern era.
#20: Toronto trades Fredrick Modin to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Cory Cross and a 7th Round Pick in 2001 (Ivan Kolozvary) (October 1st, 1999)
There is something that I feel must be said RIGHT off the bat about this trade: I am not convinced that Freddy Modin would have ever developed into a decent hockey player in the fishbowl that is Toronto. He always seemed to come alive late in the season when the pressure was off, which is why a change of scenery to a non-traditional hockey market like Tampa Bay was likely the best thing for him. Apparently the anonymity helped, because Modin developed into a solid NHL forward. Over six seasons with the Lightning, Modin averaged 24 goals and 48 points. He had three seasons of 50+ points, and twice cleared 30 goals. Not all-star numbers, but better stats than most Leafs not named Sundin were putting up during that time. His numbers belie a decent offensive winger… the kind of player that Toronto typically lacked during the Sundin era, no offense to Jonas Hoglund. No, wait, scratch that… LOTS of offense.
And in return for six seasons of Modin (including a Stanley Cup championship), the Leafs got poor Cory Cross. Cross was often a healthy scratch during his time in Toronto, and seemingly despised by Leaf fans the rest of the time. During three seasons, he played 162 games, and during that time he was rivaled only by Aki Berg in terms of fan-directed venom and hatred. During the late 1990s, a little before this trade, I attended a live game in Tampa between the Lightning and the Florida Panthers. It was a brutal game, featuring eight fights (three of which involved Enrico Ciccone). Anyways, there were four guys sitting in the row in front of me who were riding Cross ALL evening, taunting him every time he touched the puck. There was this one play where a Panther just SLAMMED a Lightning player into the corner glass, sending the Tampa Bay player crumpled to the ice and triggering a brawl. The arena erupted into jeers, and the audience was screaming for blood. And then all of a sudden, one of the four guys said “Oh, it’s okay, it was only Cory.” And all four of them promptly sat down and began sipping their beers, calmly waiting for play to resume. I think that succinctly describes many hockey fans’ feelings for Cory Cross (outside of Edmonton)… although I can’t for the life of me figure out why the poor guy was so hated. But I CAN figure out why this trade sucked.
#19: Toronto trades Jim Pappin to the Chicago Blackhawks for Pierre Pilote (May 23rd, 1968)
Now this one is reaching back in time a bit, but I define the “modern era” as everything post-1967. You know, the last season the Leafs won the Stanley Cup… and the last season the NHL had less than twelve active franchises. So this trade makes the cut-off by one year. The Leafs apparently decided that their aging blueline needed reinforcements, and they identified Pierre Pilote. Now Pilote was an incredible NHL defenseman: 498 career points in 890 games and a place in the Hall of Fame. Fantastic numbers for his era. But he only played one season for the Leafs before retiring, scoring 29 points in 69 games, along with one assist in four playoff games.
Pappin on the other hand was just getting started. Pappin played seven seasons for Chicago, averaging 31 goals and 63 points per season. He would’ve been a fantastic fit alongside Sittler and McDonald during the 1970’s. He never scored fewer than 22 goals in a year, and hit career highs of 41 goals and 92 points in the ’72-73 seasons. And in the two seasons where Chicago lost to Montreal in the finals (’71 and ’73), he contributed 18 goals and 29 points in 34 games. So in summary, he was a consistent performer year-in and year-out, who also contributed in the clutch. And we gave it up for the final season of an aging hall-of-famer’s career. Sadly, this was not a one-off, but rather the beginning of a long-term trend that became synonymous with the Maple Leafs.
#18: Toronto trades Frank Mahovlich, Garry Unger, Pete Stemkowski and the rights to Carl Brewer to Detroit for Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson, Floyd Smith and Doug Barrie (March 3rd, 1968)
Like the Pappin deal, this JUST sneaks into the window for the “modern era”. At first glance, the Leafs did well for themselves in the core part of the deal. Ullman was a fixture up front for Toronto, averaging 25 goals and 70 points from ’68-69 to ’73-74. He ended up scoring 471 points in 535 games for the Leafs. Henderson was also a solid-if-unspectacular contributor. Ignoring a shortened ’72-73 season, he averaged 28 goals and 55 points over the same timeframe as Ullman, and finished with 318 points in 408 games. Fairly solid numbers for both players over a fairly lengthy period. But the Leafs never had any playoff success with either player during this time: between ’68-69 and ’73-74, the Leafs missed the playoffs twice, and failed to move beyond the first round the other four seasons (posting a combined record of 3-12). Furthermore, the other two acquisitions were duds: Floyd Smith scored a total of 25 goals in 131 games before moving on to Buffalo, and Doug Barrie never made the NHL.
Mahovlich played parts of four seasons for the Red Wings, and in his two full seasons scored 49 and 38 goals. He was then dealt to the Montreal Canadiens, recording 129 goals and 310 points in 263 games, recording a pair of 90+ point seasons and pair of Stanley Cup rings. He scored 31+ goals in each of the six NHL seasons he played after leaving Toronto. The Red Wings also managed to lure Carl Brewer out of retirement, where he contributed 39 points in 70 games from the blueline.
I could accept Henderson/Ullman for Mahovlich/Brewer. In fact, some of the early research I did only mentioned that part of the trade. But then I found out about Unger/Stemkowski for Smith/Barrie, and the wheels fell off.
Garry Unger recorded a healthy 165 points in 216 games for Detroit, including 42 goals in ’69-70. But when he moved on to St. Louis, he recorded eight straight seasons of 30+ goals, and had a five-year run where he scored between 68 to 83 points. He ended his career with an astounding 1,105 games played, scoring 413 goals and 1,075 points. He also set an NHL Iron Man record by playing 914 consecutive games (since eclipsed by Doug Jarvis, who will show up later on this list). Meanwhile, Frank Stemkowski posed two solid seasons of 20+ goals and ~50 points, before moving on to the New York Rangers. While not as talented as Unger, Stemkowski still ended his NHL career with 206 goals and 555 points in 967 games. The Leafs traded two players who each played 900+ games post-Toronto, and another 461 games (plus 506 points) of the Big M, for 943 combined games from Henderson and Ullman. And that simply isn’t good enough.
#17: Toronto trades Larry Murphy to the Detroit Red Wings for Future Considerations (March 18th, 1997)
According to the Toronto Star, the future considerations amounted to Detroit paying $800,000 of Murphy’s $2.5 million salary. That’s right: the Leafs paid all of Murphy’s salary during the Wings’ Cup win in 1997, and $1.7 million (or 68%) of it during their Cup-winning season of 1998. Wow. They LITERALLY paid Detroit to take him off their hands. The Jets at least got $1 for trading Kris Draper.
This trade is one where I allowed bias to creep into my earlier list in 2008. I rated it much higher the first time around, because I was (and still am) a big Larry Murphy fan. Toronto acquired him from the Pittsburgh Penguins right after he was a member of the Second All-Star team, and for a fairly reasonable price (Dmitri Mironov and a 2nd Round Pick in 1996). Murphy then came in and recorded 12 goals and 61 points, placing him third in scoring behind Gilmour and Sundin. As a DEFENSEMAN. And yet for some reason, Leaf fans rode him mercilessly. The last Leaf defenseman to score 60+ points before that was Al Iafrate (63 points in 89-90), and it didn’t happen again until Bryan McCabe scored 68 points in 2005-2006 (and we all know how beloved he was at the end of his run in Toronto). Hell, in 1991-92 and 2009-2010, absolutely ZERO Leafs cleared 60 points. Think about that.
The Leafs were desperate to get rid of Murphy and his contract. It was part of a cost-cutting measure enacted by Steve Stavro, one that saw the Leafs opt not to sign Wayne Gretzky as an unrestricted free agent because they failed to see the financial benefits. Never mind that he was willing to take less money to play here, or that he was the greatest player in NHL history. They could have written a BLANK CHEQUE for all the #99 Leafs jerseys they would have sold… but I digress. Enter the opportunistic Detroit Red Wings. They acquired Murphy, with the sole cost being that Detroit had to pay $800,000 of Murphy’s remaining salary. And in return they got 58 points in 94 regular season games, plus 26 points in 42 playoff games along with two Stanley Cup championships. He then remained with Detroit for three more seasons, recording a very respectable 171 points in 312 games. And Toronto paid $1.7 million plus whatever remained of his post-trade-deadline ’96-97 salary to have him do that in Detroit instead of Toronto. Again, Toronto did not receive a single asset in return, simply a small portion of his salary back. Simply maddening.
#16: The “Three G’s” Salary Dump
Trade A: Toronto trades Todd Gill to the San Jose Sharks for Jamie Baker and a 5th Round Pick in 1996 (Peter Cava) (June 14th, 1996)
Trade B: Toronto trades Dave Gagner to the Calgary Flames for a 3rd Round Pick in 1996 (Mike Lankshear) (June 22nd, 1996)
Trade C: Toronto trades Mike Gartner to the Phoenix Coyotes for a 4th Round Pick in 1996 (Vladimir Antipov) (June 22nd, 1996)
After the 1995-96 season, the Leafs embarked on a salary purge that saw them dump three of their higher-priced players in Gill, Gartner and Gagner. The bloodletting continued in 1996-97, as Doug Gilmour, Kirk Muller, Larry Murphy and Dave Ellett were all shipped out. But these three trades prior to the 1996 Entry Draft were where it began.
Gill was a useful player for the Sharks, scoring 42 points over two seasons, and was even named team captain. He even played another 225 games with five NHL teams from 1998 to 2003. Gagner had a very respectable 27-goal, 60-point season for the Flames. After joining the Florida Panthers, Gagner was part of the blockbuster Pavel Bure trade before retiring as a Vancouver Canuck. Finally, Gartner scored 32 goals and 63 points for the Coyotes, but saw his production trail off the following season (12 goals, 27 points) before retiring.
Now I will admit, these players were all at the tail end of their careers, so I understand why they were moved. But the point of rebuilding is to turn veteran assets into prospects who grow into a new nucleus. So how did the Leafs do on that front? Let’s see. Peter Cava? Never played in the NHL. Mike Lankshear? Never made it to the NHL. How about Vladimir Antipov? Want to guess? I’ll give you a hint: zero NHL games played. And Jamie Baker had zero impact for the Leafs, recording 8 goals and 21 points in 71 games over parts of two seasons. He ended up rejoining the Sharks for the final game of his career, after leaving the Leafs as a free agent. So the Leafs traded three useful roster players for a combined total of 21 NHL points from four players. Stunning.
To make matters worse, the Leafs could have used this help in 1996-97. The roster was stuck in a half-assed rebuild driven more by desire to cut costs than to add long-term assets. The team dropped from 80 points in ‘95-96 to 69 points in ‘96-97. Sundin, bless his heart, scored 41 goals and 94 points. Gilmour had 60 points, but he was dealt at the deadline. No other Leaf scored more than 49 points, and Wendel Clark (with 30 goals) was the only other Leaf to score more than 25 goals. This means Gartner and Gagner would each have been top three in points and top four in goals, adding some much-needed strength to an anemic offense. As for Gill, he could have been used instead of the ragtag group of David Cooper, Jamie Heward and Matt Martin, who collectively had 4 goals, 15 points and a minus-21 rating in 75 games. Adding the “Three G’s” and preventing the salary purge might have made them a playoff team. Alternately, the Leafs could have been more patient, and waited for LEGITIMATE OFFERS rather than dumping three useful veterans for what amounted to 71 games from Jamie Baker.
That’s it for Part Three in this series; check out Part Four, where we’ll take a look at the trades ranking #15-11 among the Top 25 Worst Trades in modern Toronto Maple Leafs history.