I was on /r/Leafs a few days ago combing through some posts,
and I saw a discussion about what the worst trade in Toronto Maple Leafs
history could be. There’s much debate over this one, but in reality, I don’t
think it’s as close as people think.
What It’s Not
Trades created from personal vendettas don’t
count. You’re never going to get fair value in those, especially if done in
short notice. For this reason, trades like Darryl Sittler to the Flyers or
Lanny McDonald to the Rockies are irrelevant moves in this discussion.
Russ Courtnall for John Kordic isn’t anywhere
near as lopsided as many consider it to be, and is definitely the most “overhyped” of the oft-mentioned bad trades. Everybody likes to point out that the
Leafs traded a 50 goal scorer for a goon, but Russ Courtnall never hit 50. In
fact, he never topped 36, and never got to a point per game. This is a guy
whose peak years came in the 80’s and early 90’s. This is a trade that’s made
out to be “Phil Kessel for a cheese sandwich”, when in reality it’s like
letting Clarke MacArthur walk. Except the Leafs got back a top-end enforcer in
an era where their division was one long line brawl, which meant less punching for Wendel Clark
and more protection for Vincent Damphousse and Gary Leeman.
The fact that the Phil Kessel trade was once in
this discussion is still mindboggling. Even if Kessel doesn’t become as great
as he is now, and you know that those 1st round picks are going to
be as high as they are, you still probably do that trade. The Leafs were in the
midst of their longest playoff drought in history and fan anger was at an all
time high. Whether the Leafs get Seguin or Hall, you’re asking a teenage rookie
from Ontario who entered the league with attitude concerns to lead the Toronto
Maple Leafs out of the ashes. Or you get a 21 year old who has already had
reasonable NHL success and spent a few years in a relatively big market. It was
Rask for Raycroft, on the other hand, is the
truly bad Boston trade. With that said, I still understand it to an extent. We’ve
got a very nationalistic general fanbase in this city, the type that listens to
the media go on and on about needing local boys to succeed. You need a goalie,
you’ve found a young one who had a stellar year not too long ago, and a choice
of goalie prospects to give up. Rask had more upside from the start, but Pogge
was thought to have more than he proved, and just had a Canadian gold medal put
on his shoulders a few months ago. He makes that trade, and the fans are
pressuring for Ferguson to be fired before they get to see it play out. That
said, avoiding Raycroft all together would’ve been the preferred plan C and
still puts this trade high up on the list.
What Is, Then?
I think this conversation begins and ends with the trade
that brought Tom Kurvers to the Leafs in October of 1989. In return, they sent
the New Jersey Devils their 1991 1st Round Draft Pick.
Kurvers was an offensive defenceman, who can probably be
best compared today to someone like our very own Cody Franson, or a not as good
Kris Letang. Absolutely potent in the offensive zone, he was a very good play
maker and, as the Devils discovered the year before the trade, a heavy point
shot. The powerplay was his bread and butter, and if you combined him with some
quality players, he’d put numbers on the board.
The Leafs were looking for that type of guy to compliment Al
Iafrate and Rob Ramage on the point. After all, goaltending was basically a
lost cause (Allan Bester was still their starter at this point), so why not try
to score away your problems? In the first year, it kind of worked; they let in
a horrendus 358 goals, but scored 338 to make up for it, tallied up a 38-38-4
record, and made the playoffs. It was a marked improvement on the year before,
but they still had another year until they gave up their pick..
And then the wheels came off. Players weren’t scoring, the
defence wasn’t helping, the powerplay wasn’t clicking, and the goaltending wasn’t
stopping pucks. They lost the first game. Then the second.. it spiraled out of
control, to the tune of a 2-15-1 start. It was November 8th, and
this team was tanking, and fast. They made straight up player swaps with
Boston, Los Angeles, and Winipeg to shake up the roster, but even with two of
the next three games, they knew it wasn’t going to be enough. The worst case
scenario was coming.
The worst I speak of? A sensation born in London, raised in
Forest Hill, and thought to be the best prospect since Wayne Gretzky. Of
course, I’m speaking of Eric Lindros, who was gifted in practically every asset
of the game imaginable. It was his draft year, and the Leafs were without their
probable 1st overall pick.
You can’t be the team that traded the golden ticket to the best
draft day prospect in the history of the game for a powerplay specialist, right? The Leafs
understood this, and needed to not just take themselves out of the basement,
but put a team in their place. To make matters worse, Kurvers had just
sustained a knee injury that was going to take him quite some time to recover.
So on November 17th, the 4-16-1 Maple Leafs
pulled the trigger on a deal with the 3-15-3 Quebec Nordiques, sending Scott
Pearson and two second round picks to the French Coast for Aaron Broten, Lucien
Deblois, and Michel Petit. They also later picked up Claude Loiselle on waivers
fromthe Nordiques, trying to bridge the gap even further.
The Leafs went on to make several other moves during the
season, knowing full well that this core wasn’t going to work moving forward.
One of the departed, in fact, was Tom Kurvers, who had followed up a 52 point
season with just 3 assists in his first 19 games. The Leafs got back Brian
Bradley in return, who had 41 points in 85 games with the Leafs before being
claimed by the Tampa Bay Lighting in the 1992 Expansion Draft and scoring 269
points in his next 279 games (of course).
Tom Kurvers went on to have a few more solid years with the
Vancouver Canucks and New York Islanders, before a spotty year with the Mighty
Ducks lead to his NHL retirement and a victory lap in Japan.
Eric Lindros turned into one of the most all around dominant
hockey players we’ll ever see, getting as high as 4th all time in
points-per-game after five seasons while being one of the most physically
imposing and intelligent players around. Injuries threw a wrench in that, and he
eventually became a Leaf in the twilight of his career, scoring 22 points in 33
The Quebec Nordiques successfully out tanked the Leafs, and
drafted Lindros, who refused to report to the team. However, they managed to
trade him for about half the planet. Specifically, he was traded to the
Philadelphia Flyers for Peter Forsberg, Steve Duchesne, Kerry Huffman, Mike
Ricci, Ron Hextall, Chris Simon, two 1st round picks, and $15
The New Jersey Devils recieved the third overall pick from
the Maple Leafs, and rather than picking Lindros, had to settle for Scott
Niedermayer, who was a core piece in all three of their Stanley Cup
Championships, a gold medalist (World Cup, World Championship, and Olympics), a
Norris winner, and a three time all star. He also elimianted the Leafs from the
playoffs twice in that time. After leaving the Devils, he won another Cup, was on two more all star teams, and wore
the C for Team Canada when they won 2010 Olympic Gold. Niedermayer was named to
the Hall of Fame in 2013 in his first year of eligibility.
I’d actually argue that despite Niedermayer’s better resume,
a proper medical staff and some avoidance of freak accidents could have given
Lindros the better full career. For all intents and purposes, I consider this
trade to be Kurvers for Lindros. But whatever you want to call it, the Leafs
got three mediocre years of a powerplay specialist and/or an under performing 2/3 centre in exchange
for your choice of one of the greatest players of our generation.