Trades #1-5 of the 15 Best Trades in the modern history of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Here were are; the best trades that the Toronto Maple Leafs have made in the modern history of the franchise. The Leafs have had massive turmoil in the front office in the past, only recently stabilized. They went through coaches and GM like crazy in the 80s, which is why there’s a fairly large gap in the “good trade” timeline between 1980 and Cliff Fletcher’s arrival in the early 90s. One thing I will readily admit is that Cliff Fletcher almost single-handedly rescued this franchise: the man’s finger prints are all over my list of the Top 15 trades. I don’t think he gets enough credit for the job he did returning the Leafs to respectability. But which trades made the top five? Let’s find out.
#5: Toronto acquires Dave Andreychuk, Daren Puppa and a 1st Round Pick in 1993 (Kenny Jonsson) from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Grant Fuhr and a 5th Round Pick in 1995 (Kevin Popp) (February 2nd, 1993)
Cliff Fletcher became the Leafs’ GM in the summer of 1991. One of the first moves he made was the acquisition of Glenn Anderson and Grant Fuhr from the Edmonton Oilers. Fuhr was the biggest superstar that the Leafs had had arguably since Darryl Sittler, and by FAR their best goaltender since Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk left the Leafs’ crease. But the emergence of Felix Potvin indicated that Fuhr was a valuable asset that the Leafs may not need. Fletcher wisely decided to move Fuhr to address another gap on the team: scoring ability.
Fuhr was shipped with a fifth round pick to the Buffalo Sabres. The draft pick was a bust: Kevin Popp never played in the NHL. Fuhr brought some excitement to Buffalo, but his stats weren’t great. In 64 regular-season games, he went 25-29-5 with an ugly 3.60 GAA and a sub-par .886 save percentage. He also failed to be a difference maker in the 1993 playoffs, posting a 3.42 GAA and a .875 save percentage. Although Buffalo upset Boston in a four-game sweep, they were swept in the second round by the eventual Stanley Cup-winning Canadiens. Fuhr never had the chance to rebound from that poor playoff performance, as he lost the starting goaltender spot to an up-and-coming Dominik Hasek: Hasek started all seven games in Buffalo’s first-round exit in the 1994 playoffs. Then, after three final games as a Sabre in the 1994-95 season, Fuhr was dealt to the Los Angeles Kings. Now that deal was a STEAL for Buffalo, as it netted them Alexei Zhitnik. Fuhr struggled in L.A., playing just 14 games (and winning just one). He signed with St. Louis as a free agent and revived his career, but his stint in Buffalo still remained disappointing. Toronto, on the other hand, fared quite well.
The centerpiece of the deal was big winger Dave Andreychuk. He was an absolute beast for the Leafs, scoring 25 goals and 38 points in 31 games after coming to Toronto in the ’92-93 season. He added 12 goals and 19 points in 21 playoff games. In ’93-94, he scored 53 goals and 99 points, although he struggled in the playoffs with 5 goals and 10 points in 18 games. But he still remains one of just three Leafs to score 50 goals in a single season for Toronto (Rick Vaive and Gary Leeman being the other two). Andreychuk played for Toronto until late in the ’95-96 season, when he was dealt to New Jersey. All told, he scored 120 goals and 219 points in 223 regular-season games, along with 20 goals and 34 points in 46 playoff games. He ended his hall-of-fame career with 1,639 games (in which he scored 640 goals and 1,338 points), and a Stanley Cup ring (won with Tampa Bay in 2004).
Puppa’s stay in Toronto was short-lived. He was solid for Toronto as Potvin’s back-up, going 6-2-0 in eight games with a 2.25 GAA, .922 save percentage and two shut-outs. He made a brief appearance, playing one period in the playoffs in relief of Potvin during a shellacking at the hands of the Red Wings. But the Leafs could only protect one goalie in the 1993 expansion draft, and it was Potvin: the Florida Panthers selected Puppa, but then Tampa Bay grabbed him during the second phase of the draft. Puppa managed to lead the Lightning to their first playoff appearance in 1996, but various injuries led him to play just 50 games between the 1996-97 and 1999-2000 seasons, and he retired. Kenny Jonsson played parts of two seasons in Toronto, showing promise: he scored 35 points in 89 games from the blueline. Unfortunately, he was dealt to the New York Islanders in the terrible re-acquisition of Wendel Clark, and he played another 653 games for the Islanders (contributing 172 goals and 348 points).
Just a fantastic move by Fletcher: he got the Leafs a 50-goal scorer to play alongside superstar centre Doug Gilmour, and still managed to acquire a quality back-up keeper (who was a second-team NHL all-star in 1990) along with a first-round pick that he turned into a blue-chip prospect. One of his best trades ever.
#4: Toronto acquires a 1st Round Pick in 1973 (Ian Turnbull) and Future Considerations (Eddie Johnston) from the Boston Bruins in exchange for Jacques Plante and a 3rd Round Pick in 1973 (Doug Gibson) (May 22nd, 1973)
This was by far the best Leafs’ trade of the 1970s. The Leafs acquired Plante from the St. Louis Blues for cash after the ’69-70 season. Despite being 42 years old, Plante put in some quality service in the Toronto net over parts of three seasons. I’m assuming Boston wanted Plante in the net as part of their push to repeat as champions in 1973. Plante was stellar in the regular season, going 7-1-0 in eight games along with two shut-outs and a 2.00 GAA. But he went 0-2 in the playoffs with a 5.00 GAA as the Bruins lost to the New York Rangers in five games. Plante then retired from the NHL. Gibson never did much: he played 52 games for Boston, scoring 25 points, and ended his NHL career with 63 games played.
Toronto on the other hand made out like bandits. The Future Considerations ended up being Eddie Johnston. He didn’t come to Toronto until after the 1972-73 season. He was fair in net for the Leafs during the ’73-74 season, going 12-9-4 with a 3.09 GAA. He lost his only playoff appearance (surrendering six goals) during a four-game sweep at the hands of his ex-team the Bruins during the 1974 playoffs. After the season, he was traded to St. Louis for Gary Sabourin.
If the trade had just been Johnston for Plante and Gibson, the deal could be called a wash: not really impacting either team in the end, but each playing well. But Toronto received the true gem of the deal with a first-round pick, that they used to select… Ian Turnbull. Turnbull was a cornerstone of the Leafs’ blueline for nearly a decade. He cleared 60 points four times and 20 goals twice, including a career-best 22 goals and 79 points in the 1976-77 season. During a six-year run from ’75-76 to ’80-81, he averaged 16 goals and 61 points. And he was no slouch in the playoffs, either: during a three-year run of moderate playoff success from 1976 to 1978, he scored 12 goals and 25 points in 32 games. As a defenseman. Very impressive. Turnbull ended his Leafs career with 112 goals and 414 points in 580 games, along with 45 points in 55 playoff contests. An absolutely fantastic return for a combined ten games of service from a nearly-finished Jacques Plante.
#3: Toronto acquires Rick Vaive and Bill Derlago from the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for Tiger Williams and Jerry Butler (February 18th, 1980)
This is a trade that, quite frankly, I am shocked doesn’t get more respect among Leafs fans. Because it was one of the most lop-sided deals (in our favour) in the history of the Maple Leafs, never mind the modern era. Tiger Williams was a fan favourite, which may have had something to do with this. In his first full season in Vancouver, Williams was stellar: 35 goals, 62 points and 343 penalty minutes. But he only scored another 40 goals and 90 points combined over the next three season, while still racking up the PIM. He was a key component of the exciting Canucks team that went to 1982 Stanley Cup Finals, chipping in 10 points and a shocking 116 penalty minutes during 17 playoff games. But his windows as an impact player in Vancouver really did appear to be limited to the ’79-80 and ’80-81 seasons. In total, Williams scored 83 goals and 165 points in 312 regular season games, along with an astounding 1,324 penalty minutes in just over four seasons. Jerry Butler was a non-factor in Vancouver, scoring 19 goals and 39 points in 128 games. He only played another 43 NHL games post-Vancouver. And to add insult to injury, Vancouver failed to do anything long-term: Williams was traded to Detroit for Rob McClanahan (who never played in the NHL after the trade), and Butler left for Winnipeg as a free agent.
Toronto, on the other hand, basically built their first line for the first half of the 1980s. Let’s start with Derlago. He was a fairly consistent forward. During a five-year span from ’80-81 to ’84-85, he had a 40-goal season and three 30-goal seasons. He scored 60+ points four times, including a career-high 84 points in ’81-82. The Leafs didn’t make the playoffs very often during his tenure (and never made it past the first round) though, and Derlago ended his Toronto playoff career with four goals in 10 games. In addition to being a consistent 30-goal threat for 5+ seasons, he also contributed to the organization on the way out: the Leafs traded him to Boston for Tom Fergus, a solid offensive center for the Leafs during the last half of the 1980s (#8 on this list).
That brings us to Rick Vaive. He was, without a shadow of a doubt, the best Toronto Maple Leafs forward of the 1980s. And I would even say Vaive was the second-best Leaf of the decade behind Hall of Fame defenseman Borje Salming. Vaive played in parts of eight seasons in a Toronto uniform, and he was a fantastic offensive player. He never scored fewer than 32 goals or 62 points during this time, and he became more disciplined as he matured: he recorded 229 penalty minutes in ’80-81, but just 61 in ’86-87. He was also the Captain of the Leafs from ’81-82 to ’85-86. Vaive is the only player with multiple 50-goal seasons in a Leafs’ uniform, which he did in three consecutive seasons (’81-82 to ’83-84). During that three-year span he scored 157 goals and 261 points. To put that in perspective, that three-year output alone would put him 43rd all-time among Leafs in points (and 25th in goals). As it was, his 299 goals ranks fifth all-time for the Leafs, and his 537 points ranks tenth. Granted the Leafs didn’t do much in the playoffs during his time here, but he was able to step up when given the chance. He scored 7 points in 4 games during the 1983 playoffs, and 8 points in 9 games during the 1986 playoffs. In total, he scored 14 goals and 23 points in 32 playoff games. He was stripped of the captaincy for apparently oversleeping and missing practice during the ’85-86 season, and at the end of the ’86-87 season he was traded to Chicago in the Ed Olczyk deal (which worked out well for both teams).
Vaive’s legacy is weaker in Toronto than it should be, likely due to the fact that the Leafs only played 10 playoff games between 1980 and 1985. He was also unfortunately the best player on some truly terrible teams: during his captaincy, the Leafs were 147-266-67, for a horrendous .376 win percentage. They also allowed 428 more goals than they scored during that time. But because the Leafs were in the Norris division, they still made the playoffs three time during that span (including one season where they lost 48 games). Still, there have only been five 50-goal seasons in the history of the Maple Leafs, and three of them were from Rick Vaive (Gary Leeman and Dave Andreychuk had the other two). And that still counts for something. Williams may have been a fan favourite (both in Toronto and in Vancouver), but losing him (along with the marginal Butler) for a three-time 50-goal man and a four-time 30-goal player was completely and utterly worth it.
#2: Toronto acquires Doug Gilmour, Jamie Macoun, Ric Nattress, Kent Manderville and Rick Wamsley from the Calgary Flames in exchange for Gary Leeman, Alexander Godynyuk, Jeff Reese, Michel Petit and Craig Berube (January 2nd, 1992)
This may surprise people not to see the famed fleecing of the Flames (sorry, I love alliteration) at #1. I will freely acknowledge that THIS deal single-handedly pivoted the franchise from a laughingstock to at least a competitive NHL franchise. Leafs’ GM Cliff Fletcher leveraged his inside knowledge of the organization, as well as several contract issues/disputes to completely obliterate his counterpart, Flames’ GM Doug Risebrough. Gilmour in particular was unhappy with “an arbitrated contract settlement of $750,000 and left the Flames on Wednesday to protest.”
This trade is interesting in that it is an amalgamation of five individual exchanges: Calgary and Toronto each received an offensive forward, a veteran defenseman, a tough guy, a goalie and a prospect. We’ll look at each one individually.
Piece #1: The Prospect. Alexander Godynuk never amounted to much in Calgary. He played 33 games over parts of two seasons, recording three goals and eight points. The Flames left him unprotected in the 1993 Expansion Draft, at which point the Florida Panthers grabbed him. Godynuk played another 141 NHL games for Florida and Hartford before heading to Europe for the rest of his career. Kent Manderville didn’t log a ton of NHL games for Toronto in his first two seasons here, spending the bulk of his time in the AHL. But he was did play 18 games in the 1993 playoff run, and was a regular from that point on until the end of the ’94-95 season. Toronto traded him to Edmonton for Peter White and a fourth round pick that turned into Jason Sessa, neither of whom did anything in Toronto (Sessa never made the NHL, and White played one game as a Leaf). So neither Toronto nor Calgary had anything to show for losing either player, but at least Toronto got 23 points in 136 games from Manderville (plus 2 goals in 37 playoff games). Plus Manderville played an additional 510 NHL games after leaving Toronto. Advantage Leafs.
Piece #2: The Rugged Veteran. Craig Berube did exactly what he was supposed to: played tough hockey and used his fists. In one-and-a-half seasons with Calgary, he scored 17 points in 113 games while adding 364 penalty minutes. He also added an assist in six playoff games. The Flames shipped him to Washington for a fifth round pick that turned into Darryl Lafrance, who never made the NHL. Berube played another 666 games in the NHL after leaving Calgary, including another 121 in Calgary during a second tour in ’01-02 and ’02-03. Ric Nattress’ stay in Toronto was short-lived: he played 36 games for Toronto in the ’91-92 season, but chipped in a respectable 16 points along with 32 penalty minutes. He ended up leaving as a free agent for the Philadelphia Flyers, where he played the final 44 games of his NHL career before retiring. Nattress could’ve been a solid depth defenseman on the 1993 Leafs’ team (ahead of Drake Berehowsky), but unfortunately it wasn’t to be. Advantage Flames.
Piece #3: The Back-Up Goalie. Jeff Reese wasn’t very good for the Flames in the ’91-92 season, going 3-2-2 with a 3.78 GAA and a .872 save percentage. But he improved in ’92-93, going 14-4-1 in 26 games as Mike Vernon’s back-up, posting an improved 3.20 GAA and a .889 save percentage. He went 1-3 in the Flames’ first-round loss to the L.A. Kings in the 1993 playoffs with awful stats, and one game into the ’93-94 season he was dealt to the Hartford Whalers for Dan Keczmer. Reese finished with a record of 17-6-3 in 39 games with a 3.39 goals-against average and a .883 save percentage. Reese made another 61 appearances post-Calgary, and although his stats were fairly, his won-loss record reflected the teams he played the bulk of those for (i.e. Hartford and Tampa Bay). Rick Wamsley was clearly on his last legs as an NHL-calibre netminder, but he did allow the Leafs to keep Felix Potvin in the minors with less pressure for the rest of the ’91-92 season. He played eight games for Toronto that year, and made three final appearances in the ’92-93 season. In total, he went 4-6-0 in 11 games with a 4.29 GAA and a .864 save percentage. Advantage Flames.
Piece #4: The Veteran Defenseman. Michel Petit was a decent defenseman for Calgary, chipping in a moderate level of offensive. His stay in Calgary was sadly the longest of the five players Calgary acquired; he was the only one with the Flames at the end of the ’93-94 season, and he left during that offseason. In total, Petit played 134 games for Calgary, scoring eight goals and 48 points. He also recorded 243 penalty minutes. He left for Los Angeles as a Free Agent during the 1994 offseason. Macoun on the other hand was fantastic for Toronto, putting in six-and-a-half seasons on the Toronto blueline. Macoun was a major component of the Leafs’ deep runs in the 1993 and 1994 playoffs, and was a stabilizing veteran presence on the Leafs’ blueline (a team that was badly in need of defensive assistance when he arrived). In total, Macoun played 466 games for Toronto, scoring 13 goals and 101 points to go along with 506 penalty minutes. He also played in 52 playoff games, scoring 13 points. What’s more, when the Leafs shipped him to Detroit late in the 1997-98 season, the draft pick the Leafs received turned into Alexei Ponikarovsky (trade #12 on this list). Major advantage Toronto.
At this point, the trade is already a win for Toronto. Macoun played 466 games as a Leaf, while the combined group of Petit, Berube, Reese and Godynuk played just 319 (not counting Berube’s second stint a decade later). Macoun also played 52 playoff games, compared to 10 from that group of Flames. And we haven’t even gotten to the centrepiece of the trade yet.
Piece #5: The Offensive Star. Poor Gary Leeman. He is one of only three Leafs to score 50 goals in a Toronto uniform, and all anyone remembers of him is that the Leafs used him to get Doug Gilmour. Leeman’s goal totals from ’86-87 to ’89-90 were 21, 30, 32 and 51 respectively (including 95 points in ’89-90). He slumped badly to 17 goals and 29 points in an injury-shortened ‘90-91 season (shoulder separation), and was struggling in ’91-92 with 20 points in 34 games. But he was just one-and-a-half seasons removed from 50 goals, and he had a fairly solid track record. So I get Risebrough targeting him. Unfortunately, Leeman just didn’t work in Calgary. He further fell off the map, scoring just two goals and nine points in 29 games after the trade. He followed that up with nine goals and 14 points in 30 games during the ’92-93 season. He was frustrated at diminishing ice time, and requested a trade. The Flames shipped him to Montreal for Brian Skrudland, and Leeman suddenly found his offensive game. He scored 18 points in 20 games for the Canadiens, and even dressed for 11 games (scoring three points) for the Canadiens’ during their 1993 Stanley Cup-winning playoffs. But Leeman was done as an NHL player at that point, and his post-Calgary NHL career (including those 20 games for Montreal) lasted just 63 games (during which he scored 36 points). To make matters worse, the Flames left Skrudland exposed in the 1993 Expansion Draft, and the Panthers (who also took Godynuk) selected him. So the “second wave” of assets for the five players the Flames acquired amounted to a few years from Dan Keczmer and a handful of games from Brian Skrudland. It’s no wonder this trade is so heavily linked to the Flames’ drop-off in the early-to-mid 90s; in addition to losing a ton of asset value in this deal, they squandered practically everything they received from Toronto and were left with virtually nothing within five years.
Meanwhile, Toronto welcomed Doug Gilmour to their roster. On a team starved for both star power and offensive skill, Gilmour was a breath of fresh air. After the trade, Gilmour scored 15 goals and 49 points in just 40 games, going +13 in the process. Despite the short stint in Toronto, that was enough to put him third on the team in points behind Glenn Anderson and Dave Ellett (and first in assists). He and Jamie Macoun (who was even) were the only Leafs to play at least 25 games and avoid having a negative +/- rating. So already the Leafs were coming out way ahead. And then he had two of the best seasons the Leafs have ever seen. In ’92-93, he scored 32 goals and 95 assists for 127 points, and then led the Leafs within a win of their first Stanley Cup final appearance since 1967 by scoring 10 goals and 35 points in 21 playoff games. The following year, he scored 27 goals and 111 points, and then led the Leafs again to the Conference Finals, contributing eight goals and 28 points in 18 games. Those two seasons were absolutely magical, and solidified Gilmour as an all-star and an eternal fan favourite in Toronto. And he also scored one of the most iconic goals in franchise history (which I was fortunate enough to see live at Maple Leafs Garderns): the wraparound goal against Curtis Joseph and the St. Louis Blues in double overtime, game two of the secound round of the 1993 playoffs.
All four position players scored 96 points in 339 games for Calgary; Gilmour had 95 ASSISTS in the ’92-93 season alone. Gilmour and the Leafs struggled after the 1994 lock-out, and he scored just 33 points in 44 games. There was no playoff magic, either; he was held without a goal, but still contributed six assists in a seven-game first-round exit in the 1994 playoffs. He rebounded slightly over the next two seasons, scoring at just under a point-per-game pace. But the Leafs were clearly on their way down, and jettisoned a number of veterans before coming to a key decision point late in the ’96-97 season: moving to a full-fledged rebuilding process, with Mats Sundin as the centrepiece. In the end, Gilmour (and Dave Ellett) went to the New Jersey Devils. He was never quite the same player post-Toronto, but he still scored 89 goals and 313 points in 432 games after leaving the Leafs. He also played in 46 playoff games, scoring 28 points. He did return to the Leafs late in the 2002-03 season… but in his first game back he had a collision with Dave Lowry that ended his season and ultimately his career. Not the way he wanted to go out, but at least he ended his career in Toronto.
Macoun, Gilmour, Wamsley and Nattress were all key components of the Flames’ Stanley Cup-winning team in 1989. And within five years, these players had all been traded for inferior replacements, which in turn were replaced with virtually nothing. While this trade hurt the Flames’ team to the core and for the long-term, their asset mismanagement within two years of this trade ensured that they dealt four key components of their best-ever roster for absolutely nothing of consequence. On the flip side, the Leafs managed to turn Gilmour and Macoun into Alexei Ponikarovsy, Steve Sullivan, Jason Smith and Alyn McCauley. Never mind the fact that Macoun was a strong presence, while Gilmour almost single-handedly revived the Leafs franchise and fan base. This was by far the most impactful trade the Leafs have made in the modern era. So why isn’t it #1? Because for all of Gilmour’s magic, he simply didn’t have a lasting enough impact in Toronto. He played in five-and-a-half seasons and was by far the most popular player on the team, but for three-and-a-half seasons he was “very good”. Don’t get me wrong; for those two seasons (’92-93 and ’93-94) he was among the top 3-5 players in the league, and I will always be a fan of those Leafs teams. But he fell off as a superstar shortly thereafter and simply couldn’t maintain that level of excellence. And a maintained level of excellence is what brings us to trade #1 on this list.
#1: Toronto acquires Mats Sundin, Garth Butcher, Todd Warriner and a 1st Round Pick in 1994 (later traded to Washington, who selected Nolan Baumgartner) to the Quebec Nordiques in exchange for Wendel Clark, Sylvain Lefebvre, Landon Wilson and a 1st Round Pick in 1994 (Jeffrey Kealty) (June 28th, 1994)
This was a trade that was controversial at the time, and still gets slammed by some fans as the reason Toronto began to decline after back-to-back appearances in the Conference Finals. But I firmly believe this is the greatest trade in the modern history of the Maple Leafs, and I will do my best to sway any doubters.
Wendel Clark was arguably the most popular Leaf for a decade, and was 1 and 1A with Gilmour during their time together. But the Quebec Nordiques made Mats Sundin available in a quest for veteran experience and toughness. Quebec had recently added a great deal of talent in the Eric Lindros trade in Ron Hextall, Mike Ricci, Steve Duchesne and Peter Forsberg. Plus Forsberg was en route to the NHL, and was widely (and accurately) seen as the best non-NHL player in the world. When the Leafs agreed to part with Wendel Clark, a blockbuster trade was formed.
Clark only played one season in Quebec, and was unable to be the difference maker the team was hoping for. He scored 12 goals and 30 points in 37 games during the lockout-shortened ’94-95 season, and only scored one goal (and three points) in the Nordiques’ first-round loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers. At the end of the season, Quebec moved to Colorado, but Clark didn’t. He was dealt to the New York Islanders in a three-way deal that saw Steve Thomas go from New York to New Jersey, and Claude Lemieux go from the Devils to the Avalanche. Lemieux was a key component of the Avs’ Stanley Cup-winning team in 1996, so Colorado/Quebec did all right in asset management. Clark’s best days were behind him. He only reached 30 goals once more (during a second stint in Toronto), and finished with 110 goals and 180 points (along with 302 PIM) in 293 games after leaving Quebec. He retired as a Leaf after the 1999-2000 season (following a brief 20-game third stint with Toronto).
Not surprisingly, Lefebvre was a fantastic player for the Nordiques/Avalanche. In five seasons he played 351 games (rarely missing any time due to injury), contributing 72 points and 192 penalty minutes. He also played in 71 playoff games, scoring eight assists and recording 55 PIM. He left the Avs for a big-money deal with the free-spending New York Rangers, playing another 229 NHL games (but he never appeared in the playoffs again). He was never negative for +/- in Quebec/Colorado, including a high-water mark of +26 in the ’95-96 season. The Nordiques unfortunately squandered their first round pick, as Kealty never made the NHL. Landon Wilson played just 16 games for Colorado. He did play 359 games after leaving Denver, and the Avs did all right: they traded Wilson (along with Anders Myrvold) to Boston for a first round pick that became Robyn Regehr, who was a central part of the Avs’ acquisition of Theoren Fleury in 1999.
While Clark may not have panned out, he was still turned into a key component (Lemieux) of their 1996 cup-winning team, and Lefebvre was exactly what they were hoping for during his five-year stay. Wilson and Kealty didn’t quite work out, but it certainly didn’t hurt Colorado (which was one of the best teams in the NHL for over a decade after the move from Quebec).
On the Toronto side of things, Todd Warriner had a surprisingly lengthy stay in Toronto. He played in parts of six seasons with the Leafs. He was never quite a mainstay, but he did post 12 goals and 33 points during his best season (1996-97). Toronto also did all right when they dealt him to Tampa Bay for a third round pick that turned into Mikael Tellqvist. Garth Butcher on the other hand was a bust. In addition to dealing Lefebrve, the Leafs lost Bob Rouse as a free agent. Butcher was unable to fill the defensive void, and he was -5 to go along with eight points and 59 PIM in 45 games during the shortened ’94-95 season. He retired during the 1995 offseason. The first round pick was shipped with Rob Pearson to the Washington Capitals for Mike Ridley and the Capitals’ first round pick, which became Eric Fichaud. Kind of a dead end asset-wise, as Ridley was dealt for Sergio Momesso and Fichaud was part of the Benoit Hogue deal.
But the key to the deal, and the reason why this is #1 with a bullet in my eyes is Mats Sundin. Sundin was never the best player in the league, didn’t have a ton of individual accolades, and never led the league in scoring. But he was a man who played thirteen seasons in Toronto. His longevity alone gets him major attention. Fletcher identified him as a man who could be THE core player in Toronto, and boy was he right. Sundin played in 981 games as a Leaf, sixth all-time. He scored 420 goals, 31 more than #2 Darryl Sittler. He also scored 987 points (oh-so-close to 1,000), 71 ahead of Sittler (and good for #1 all-time). His 567 assists rank second only to fellow Swede Borje Salming’s 620. Hell, he even played with enough of an edge that his 748 penalty minutes ranks 18th all-time among Maple Leafs players.
It wasn’t just the totals that defined Sundin’s consistency and excellence; it was the fact that he was about as sure a thing as you could get in the NHL, especially during the Dead Puck era (and on teams where he was bereft of NHL-calibre linemates… I’m looking at you, Jonas Hoglund). Sundin scored 23+ goals in each of his fourteen seasons in Toronto, including the shortened ’94-95 season. From 1995-96 until 2007-08, he never scored fewer than 27 goals, 35 assists or 72 points. He also recorded at least 46 PIM every year. His average season was 33 goals and 78 points.
Again, Mats played thirteen seasons here. During those thirteen seasons, he ranked #1 in goals 10 times, and second three times. He also ranked #1 in assists 10 times, second twice and fourth once. On a points basis, he ranked #1 every year except 2002-2003, which was Alexander Mogilny’s best season as a Leaf. So in 12 of his 13 season, Mats was statistically the best forward on the Leafs.
Let’s look at this deal another way. Mats Sundin scored 30 goals an astounding ten times as a Leaf. Do you know how many other Leafs hit 30 goals during his 13-year run? Five, and none of them twice: Mike Gartner (’95-96), Doug Gilmour (’95-96), Wendel Clark (’96-97), Sergei Berezin (’98-99) and Mogilny (’02-03). That’s right: Mats Sundin was responsible for two-thirds of all 30+ goal seasons by a Maple Leaf during his Toronto career. Hell, Mats even scored 41 goals twice, and the next-highest Leaf total during that time was Mogilny with 37. The numbers are even more telling on a points basis. Mats hit 70+ points in each of his 12 seasons after the ’94-95 lockout. There were only three other 70-point seasons by Leafs forwards: Gilmour (72 in ’95-96), Steve Thomas (73 in ’98-99) and Mogilny (79 in ’02-03). That’s it. Even if we widen the net to include 60-point seasons, there were still only ten such instances by eight players. Two players (Gilmour and Thomas) hit 60+ points twice, and six others (Larry Murphy, Mogilny, Bryan McCabe, Tomas Kaberle, Darcy Tucker and Jason Allison) did it once. And the last four guys on that list all did it in the same season (’05-06).
That’s a lot to absorb, but it can be fairly easily summarized. It wasn’t just that Mats was talented. And it wasn’t just that he was consistently excellent. It was that he maintained a level of excellence despite rarely having a supporting cast of truly NHL-calibre players, never mind elite NHLers. Mogilny was the closest Mats would have to an elite offensive teammate, and unfortunately Mogilny was son the downside of his career by the time he arrived.
And for people who claim Sundin didn’t have any playoff success… the fact is he did better than Gilmour did. Mats made the playoffs in eight of his thirteen seasons. He made two semi-finals: ’98-99 (losing in five games to Buffalo) and ’01-02 (losing in six games to Carolina). He also made the second round three times (’99-00,’00-01 and ’03-04). As beloved as Gilmour is, he missed the playoffs his first half-season here, made two semi-finals (’92-93 and ’93-94), then had two first-round exits before being traded. His four-year stretch saw the Leafs win four rounds and 25 games. Sundin’s best four-year stretch (1999 to 2002) saw the Leafs win six rounds and 32 games. So Sundin at least did as well as Gilmour did, and arguably with less talent around him. Gilmour’s playoff teams had Dave Andreychuk, Gartner, Clark, John Cullen and Dave Gagner. Sundin had aging warhorses like Thomas and Gary Roberts, and flashes-in-the-pan like Berezin, Mike Johnson and Jonas Hoglund. Who would YOU rather have on your line?
I realize some Leafs fans will never be able to see Gilmour as anything less than infallible, and simply can’t (or won’t) understand my opinion that the Sundin trade was a better trade for Toronto than the famous 10-man swap with Calgary. But Sundin was sadly an under-appreciated talent who was far better than most fans (and media) gave him credit for. We simply didn’t appreciate what we had until it was gone. And I am thankful that at least we got to give him a proper send-off when he returned during his brief stint with the Vancouver Canucks, and he was given the respect and adulation that a player of his tenure and resume deserves.
That’s all for me; I hope you’ve enjoyed my takes on the Best (and Worst) Trades in the modern history of the Toronto Maple Leafs. I have my eye on the Montreal Canadiens next, but that’s a ways away; as you can tell, I like to do a ton of research before I open my big mouth, to minimize the insertion of my feet. But I do have another project ready to go: looking at the all-decade teams for each NHL franchise for the two decades where my NHL fandom was highest: the 1980s and 1990s. Look for those to start appearing soon on this site. Thanks for reading, and as always feedback (positive or negative) is more than welcome. Here’s hoping the Leafs can add another trade to this list in the near future; or at least, win a playoff game for the first time in a decade. I can’t wait to see Yonge Street if they manage to win a few playoff games, never mind a series! Go Leafs Go!