An introduction to the 15 Best Trades in the modern history of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
I recently wrote a series of articles detailing the worst trades in (modern) Maple Leafs history. And while depressing, it was a great mental trek through hockey history as a fan. And I got around to thinking about the Leafs trades that went RIGHT. Unfortunately, the list was not as lengthy as the worst-of collection, but there were still enough that it I decided to dive right in and see how things turned out. And I was pleasantly surprised to find enough material to comprise a legitimate list of the Top 15 Trades in modern Toronto Maple Leafs history.
A few things jumped out at me. The first was that a trade which I assumed would rank at or near the top of the list (and which fully converted me as a Leafs’ fan) didn’t even qualify. The second was just how good Cliff Fletcher was in his first run as Leafs’ GM. And the third was just how bad the Leafs were at trading prior to 1990: of the Top 15 trades, only four occurred prior to the 1990s, and just one in the 1970s.
Before we begin, I wanted to address a few trades that didn’t quite make the cut. I fully expected to have the following two deals make this list:
- Toronto acquires Sylvain Lefebvre from the Montreal Canadians in exchange for a 3rd Round Pick in 1994 (Martin Belanger) (August 20th, 1992)
- Toronto acquires Bryan Berard and a 6th Round Pick in 1999 (Jan Sochor) from the New York Islanders in exchange for Felix Potvin and a 6th Round Pick in 1999 (later traded to Tampa Bay, who selected Fedor Fedorov) (January 9th, 1999)
Belanger never made the NHL, while Lefebvre was a quality blueliner for the much-loved Leafs’ teams that went to the Conference Finals in back-to-back seasons (’93 and ’94). Meanwhile, when Curtis Joseph signed, Potvin became expendable (and I believe he may have sat out). The Leafs moved him for Berard, who was a revelation: 49 points and +18 in 102 games, as well as nine points in 17 games during the 1999 playoffs. Potvin on the other hand was a bust in New York, and was soon shipped to Vancouver. Unfortunately, each of Berard and Lefebvre lasted just two seasons in Toronto: Lefebvre was shipped to Quebec in the Mats Sundin deal, while Berard suffered a tragic eye injury that nearly ended his career (and certainly derailed his promising progression into a solid offensive defenseman). So while those two deals were definitely in favour of Toronto, their impact on the Leafs long-term was negligible.
There were also a few modern deals that I excluded for similar reasons:
- Toronto acquires Joffrey Lupul and Jake Gardiner from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Francois Beauchemin (Feb. 9th, 2011)
- Toronto acquires Joe Colborne, a 1st Round Pick in 2011 (later traded to Anaheim, who selected Rickard Rakell) and a 2nd Round Pick in 2012 (later traded to Dallas, who selected Mike Winther) from the Boston Bruins in exchange for Tomas Kaberle (Feb. 18th, 2011)
The Kaberle trade looks to be a long-term boon to the franchise: Colborne is a promising-if-unproven prospect, the second rounder was dealt to Colorado for John-Michael Liles, and the Leafs packaged the first rounder with a second round pick to move up and grab Tyler Biggs in the 2011 entry draft. Meanwhile, Kaberle (despite getting a Cup ring) was largely ineffective in Boston. He signed a big-money contract with the Hurricanes, and is now a cap-eating dead weight in Montreal. But until such time as Colborne and Biggs’ NHL chances are made clearer, the Kaberle trade can’t truthfully be deemed good enough to qualify as a significant win. The Lupul trade is CLEARLY a victory for the Leafs based solely on Lupul’s season in 2011-12, never mind Gardiner’s potential. But Gardiner’s status as a full-time NHL player is still up in the air, while Lupul hasn’t put in enough time as a Leaf yet. That being said, if I revisit this list in a few years I would be shocked if this deal didn’t qualify.
So those are the ones I ruled out based on timing (basically, due to insufficient sample sizes). There were two other deals that I thought actually were Leafs victories, but I changed my mind after reviewing the numbers behind them. Here are two notable trades that I decided to exclude from the Leafs’ Best Of trade list.
Does Not Qualify: Toronto acquires Peter Zezel and Bob Rouse from the Washington Capitals in exchange for Al Iafrate (January 16th, 1991)
This trade was one of the key building blocks of the Leafs’ resurgence in the early 1990s. In fact, four of the Leafs’ six defensemen from the 1993 squad were acquired between via trade 1990 and 1992. Iafrate had a few quality seasons in the Capitals, after which he was traded to the Boston Bruins for Joe Juneau, and was out of the league due to knee injuries shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, Zezel and Rouse were both part of the ’93 and ’94 Leafs teams, so I expected this to be a solid win. But the numbers really don’t suggest that good of a story for Toronto, even when factoring in Zezel’s glorious mullet (picturd above; Billy Ray Cyrus WISHES he had a mullet this awesome).
Rouse played with the Leafs through the 1993-94 season, after which he left for Detroit as a free agent. In 237 games he collected 58 points and 338 penalty minutes. But his +/- wasn’t stellar. He did however up his game in the playoffs, including 11 points in 21 games during the ’93 run. He was a rough-and-tumble defensive type, but not a #1-2 defenseman. Zezel as was supposed to give the Leafs some offensive punch up front, which they were SORELY lacking in the pre-Gilmour era. He exploded for 28 points in 32 games after being acquired in the 90-91 season, then scored 49 points in 64 games the following season. But he then settled into a largely defensive role with the team, and he finished with 50 goals and 128 points in 207 games as a Leaf. He also chipped in 9 points in 38 playoff games. So the Leafs got two respectable defensive players, while Dave Ellett (acquired from Winnipeg) took over Iafrate’s role as the booming shot from the point.
Iafrate on the other hand was fantastic for the Capitals. He posted seasons of 51, 66 and 45 points, and finished with 176 points and 616 PIM in 256 games for Washington. His best season saw him score 25 goals and 66 points in ’92-93. And while the Capitals didn’t do much in the playoffs, he still posted an impressive 11 goals and 16 points in 23 playoff games. He was a beast and a game-changer, a part of a sickeningly-deep Washington blueline (in ’92-93, Kevin Hatcher scored 34 goals, and Sylvain Cote scored 21). So while the Leafs had clearly decided to give up some offense for defense, they at best came out even in the trade, and at worst gave up an all-star for two reliable veterans.
Does Not Qualify: Toronto acquires Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson and Craig Berube from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for Vincent Damphousse, Peter Ing, Scott Thornton and Luke Richardson (September 19th, 1991)
This trade was the trade that made me a Leafs’ fan. Growing up, my grandfather was a Habs fan. And I idolized my grandfather, so I was too. Although Patrick Roy was my hero as a kid, Grant Fuhr was my favourite goaltender (I loved his style) and the Oilers were always a great team to watch. So when Cliff Fletcher landed Fuhr in a Leafs uniform, I INSTANTLY traded allegiances, and I’ve never looked back (although when I have been frustrated with the Leafs over the past 20 years, I have at times considered moving my loyalties to the Oilers; they’re always a fun team to watch).
I assumed this trade would be a major victory for the Leafs, and was initially trying to figure out where I would slot it in the Top 5. Then I was looking at the Top 10… and eventually I realized it really didn’t belong on the list at all.
Fuhr was undone by playing behind a fairly terrible Leafs’ team in ’91-92. The Leafs had fifteen players with a +/- below -10, six of whom didn’t even finish the season here (including Daniel Marois who was a staggering -36 in 63 games before being dealt to the Islanders). Fuhr played better behind a reinforced squad in ’92-93, but the emergence of Felix Potvin meant that Fuhr was an expendable asset, and he was dealt to Buffalo in the Dave Andreychuk deal. Fuhr went 38-42-9 with a 3.50 GAA and a .885 save percentage and three shutouts. Not exactly stellar numbers.
Anderson had clearly lost a step, but he still put up decent numbers. He led the ’91-92 Leafs with 24 goals and 57 points, and was the only Leaf to clear 20 goals that year. ’92-93 was his best season: 22 goals and 65 points, followed by 7 goals and 18 points in 21 playoff games. But the next season he fell off to 17 goals and just 35 points in 73 games before being dealt to the New York Rangers for Mike Gartner. Anderson won a cup with New York, but he had just six points in 23 playoff games. Anderson finished with 157 points in 221 regular season games for Toronto. Berube was a non-factor, playing just half a season before going back to Alberta (this time to Calgary) in the Gilmour trade: he had 12 points and 109 PIM in 40 games as a Leaf.
The Leafs gave up a ton of youth for veterans, but in this case (as opposed to most of the Worst Of list) the veterans could still go, and were later turned into other valuable assets (Andreychuk, Gartner). However, the youth the Leafs gave up ended up being pretty significant.
The centrepiece of the deal for Edmonton was clearly Vincent Damphousse. He recorded 89 points in 80 games, followed by 14 points in 16 games as the new-look (post-Messier/Fuhr/Anderson) Oilers went to the semi-finals. But Damphousse was dealt to Montreal for a package of players well below his value (Shayne Corson, Brent Gilchrist, Vladimir Vujtek and a fourth round pick). During the next twelve seasons, he posted three seasons of 38-40 goals, and another four seasons of 20+. All in all, after leaving Toronto, he scored 314 goals and 876 points in 984 games (along with 34 goals and 81 points in 101 postseason games). He also won a Cup with Montreal in 1993.
Luke Richardson was a boon to the Oilers. He played 436 games over six seasons, contributing 78 points and 630 PIM. He played another 703 games after leaving Edmonton as a free agent, and finished his career with 2,055 penalty minutes in 1,417 games. Scott Thornton didn’t last as long in Edmonton, but he chipped in 53 points in 209 games before being traded to Montreal for Andrei Kovalenko. Thornton played another 699 games with the Habs, Stars, Sharks and Kings before retiring with 941 games played. He also made it to the Stanley Cup finals as a member of the Dallas Stars, although they lost to the New Jersey Devils in six games. Peter Ing was a bust, playing just 12 games with the Oilers and a final three games with Detroit before disappearing from the NHL. But the three position players the Leafs gave up played a combined 3,736 NHL games, of which 3,031 were in uniforms besides the blue and white of the Leafs.
Although the Leafs did fairly well for themselves with what they got, they ended up lacking for years afterwards the exact type of players they gave up here: a second-line centre, an imposing defensive defenseman, and a big physical winger. But it’s hard to say if having Richardson and Damphousse over Anderson and Andreychuk would have allowed the ’93 Leafs to have that magic run, or for the resurgence of the team to unfold in the early-to-mid 1990s.
With that, my preamble is over. If you’d like to dive right in, check out #11-15 of the Best Leafs Trades!