The Leafs & Top 5 Drafting: Where It Went Wrong With Gary Nylund

Welcome to the second in a seven-part series on the Maple Leafs and their history of making picks in the Top 5, given they’ll add another superstar/casualty who will be indispensable in building a Stanley Cup contender/crushed under the unfair expectations of a fanbase starved for any form of team success imaginable.  You decide.

We profiled the 1973 #4 overall selection of Lanny McDonald in our last edition.  Despite the looming (and soon to be larger) presence of owner Harold Ballard, the Leafs made out like bandits in that 1973 Draft, also scooping up Bob Neely and Ian Turnbull in the first round, quickly posting a 22 point improvement in the 1973-74 season, and being one of the eight teams in a sixteen-team NHL to make the playoffs.

Playoff results continued for the Leafs as they won the league’s Preliminary Round in five straight seasons, the pinnacle of which was getting to the semi-finals in 1978 against the Canadiens, after beating the Islanders in the quarters.

But by the end of the 1981-82 Maple Leafs season, the results had ceased to exist, and the atmosphere around Maple Leaf Gardens was rancid.  The team made the playoffs both of the prior two years with under-.500 records, and were slammed out quickly in three-game sweeps, in 1980 by the Minnesota North Stars, and in 1981 by the in-the-prime-of-their-dynasty New York Islanders.  In a 1 vs. 16, 2 vs. 15 (and so on, and so on) playoff format, the Islanders/Leafs series WAS the 1-16 matchup, with a 39-point disparity between the two clubs — the Isles with 110, the Maple Leafs with 71.  The Islanders outscoring the Leafs 20-4 in those three games a mere four years after the Leafs had bested the Isles in that playoff series, demonstrated both the quick growth of the Isles into a powerhouse, and the equally fast devolution of the Leafs into bottom feeders.

The 81-82 Leafs were even worse, and missed the playoffs for the first time since that 72-73 season, winning only 20 games of the 80 they played.  They finished 19th of 21 teams overall with only the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Rockies posting worse records (see, it wasn’t all Don Cherry’s fault! The Rockies moved to New Jersey the following year).

Harold Ballard’s reign of terror continued as the team made abysmal midseason trades, under the stewardship of general manager Gerry McNamara, shipping longtime 30-year old captain Darryl Sittler to Philadelphia for a horrifyingly below average return, 21-year old centre Laurie Boschman to Edmonton (Boschman would go on to have several excellent offensive seasons in the 1980s with Winnipeg), and 28-year old defenceman Ian Turnbull, who had an excellent finish to the season in Los Angeles as a King, but injuries limited his productivity from that point on, and he retired the very next season.

The only bright spots for the team was the nightly play of Sittler’s replacement as captain, Rick Vaive, who, at age 22, posted a 54-goal season (5th in the NHL — 22 players had 40-goal seasons!), 30+-goal seasons from Bill Derlago and John Anderson, and the usual steady play of Borje Salming, with a 56-point campaign and another All-Star Game appearance. 

That brings us to the 1982 NHL Draft on June 9th in Montreal at the Forum.  A quick prelude to the Leafs’ tactics and strategy on this day, and in a pre-social media world, imagine the impact these two trades involving the #1 and #2 picks would have in this day and age:

I mentioned the Rockies finished in last place.  They made a disastrous trade the year before to agree restricted free agent Dwight Foster from the Boston Bruins.  Foster was a 24-year old winger who put up 51 points in the 80-81 season on a stacked Boston team, and the Rockies just had to have him.  How much so?  They swapped first-round picks with the Bruins, and tossed in a 2nd-rounder as well, while taking a 10th-rounder back.  

So after a 96-point season in the newly-formed Adams Division, the Bruins found themselves recipients, thanks to Colorado’s all-around terribleness, of the 1st overall selection.  

Now, you’ll be shocked by this, but the 20th place team, the Red Wings, also had the overall idiocy and lack of foresight to trade THEIR 1st-rounder away the summer prior, for magic beans basically, to the Minnesota North Stars! The Wings swapped first-rounders so they could acquire 26-year old defenceman Greg Smith (nice player, but nowhere near an All-Star), and the Wings got the rights to Don Murdoch.  Murdoch was a scoring winger with the New York Rangers for a few years in the late 1970s but was more famous for being suspended half a season by NHL Commissioner John Ziegler for a cocaine arrest.  He never ended up playing well, or consistently with the Red Wings.  

The North Stars were desperate to draft Kitchener Rangers star Brian Bellows with this 2nd overall pick, and made a deal with Boston, giving them a couple average players, in exchange for Boston’s promise they wouldn’t draft Bellows, who’d been a consensus #1 all season long.  Bellows, to me, is still the most shocking player in my lifetime not to go #1 overall in an NHL Draft, but the North Stars paid to make sure it happened that way.  The only other player I can make a case for is 1980, where Montreal took Doug Wickenheiser #1 overall, letting Denis Savard fall to Chicago at #3. 

So with young American blueliner Gord Kluzak going 1st overall to Boston, and a delighted North Stars’ GM Lou Nanne getting the prize of the draft in Bellows to come to Minnesota, where he’d dazzle for the first ten years of his career, before being moved to Montreal at the beginning of their Cup-winning 92-93 seasons, the Leafs were up next at third overall.  Here we go:

1981-82: Toronto Maple Leafs (20-44-16 for 56 points in 80 games, 5th of 6 in Norris, 19th of 21 overall)

Pick: 3rd overall, Gary Nylund, D, Portland Winter Hawks, 7-59-66, 267 PIM in 65 games, Named Top Defenceman in WHL in 81-82, on top pairing of Canada’s gold medalists at 1982 World Junior Championship in Minneapolis, led Winter Hawks to WHL Championship and Memorial Cup berth, named to All-Tournament team on defence along with Kitchener’s Al MacInnis.

Analysis: Look, I know you don’t want to hear this.  I know it.  But Nylund WAS the right selection.  The Leafs would have been hammered to bits for passing on Nylund.  This was a draft where Boston was even criticized in some circles (after trading away the “right” to draft Bellows) for not taking Nylund 1st overall ahead of Gord Kluzak. 

Nylund was 6-4, 210 pounds (in an era when players were a lot smaller, and fast-moving big blueliners were an incredibly rare commodity), and though you wouldn’t want him on your first power-play unit or to count on him for offensive finish (he never scored more than seven goals in a junior season), he was smooth with the puck, was a fantastic passer, and, obviously was tough and loved to fight.

Did the Leafs miss on anyone?  Sure, they did.  Scott Stevens went 5th overall to Washington, and Phil Housley went 6th overall to Buffalo.  Both are in the Hockey Hall of Fame.  But both stayed amazingly healthy their first several seasons and were drafted by franchises that stayed consistently in the playoffs through the 1980s.  There were no stars chosen from picks 7-15, but Oshawa Generals forward Dave Andreychuk went at 16th, also to Buffalo.  Good work, random person named Scotty Bowman!

So what happened with Nylund, exactly?  Injuries, man.  Lots of them.

Mere months after Wilf Paiement (you know, the “star” the Leafs got back from Colorado when they shipped Lanny McDonald out just after Christmas 1979?) was moved to Quebec to acquire Miroslav Frycer, Paiement and Nylund collided in a preseason game between the Nordiques and Maple Leafs.  Nylund caught the bad end of the collision and tore his ACL.  

Now, the importance of having functioning ACL’s has really not changed since the early 1980s, but the surgery/rehab components of recovering quicker from them certainly is.  Nylund would play only 16 games in his rookie season, and was sent to the shelf again by ANOTHER collision, this time with legendary linesman John D’Amico.  Boom.  ACL again.  Nylund wouldn’t return until the 34th game of the 1983-84 season.

Nylund actually put in full and healthy seasons in 84-85 and 85-86 on terrible Maple Leafs’ regular season teams (posting a minus-69 combined in over 140 games — yes, bad stat, but shows you how reliant upon Nylund for ice time and 5v5 play he was), and was healthy during Toronto’s modest 10-game playoff run, which ended in Game 7 of the Norris Division Final against the Blues with a 2-1 defeat.

For any myriad of reasons, Nylund decided his Leafs’ career had run its course and at the healthiest ebb of it, and at age 22, he signed a free agent tender in the summer of 1986 with the Chicago Blackhawks.  This move entitled the Maple Leafs to compensation in a blind arbitration hearing.  They ask for something, the Hawks offer something, and an arbitrator decides the more fair offering.

In about the fourteen occurrence of Nylund’s Leafs’ career where you’d be inclined to say: “That’s SO Toronto Maple Leafs-ish!!!”, the Leafs (under Ballard’s direction) sought as compensation, a 19-year old Chicago native who played for Team USA in the Sarajevo Olympics in 1984, and had just posted a 79-point season in 79 games for his hometown Hawks.  That player was Ed Olczyk.

Now, Nylund had become a good “4” or “5” D-man and a strong penalty-killer with the Leafs, but good enough to snare a much more valuable and potent Olczyk as compensation?

Nice try.  The Leafs settled for forward Ken Yaremchuk (drafted four spots behind Nylund in the 1982 Draft), physical defenceman Jerome Dupont and a 4th-round pick in 1987.  Yaremchuk and Dupont played a combined 60 games as Leafs, while Nylund played 179 games in three Blackhawks seasons, and following a trade, appeared in a New York Islanders uniform for 211 more games before retiring following the 1992-93 season, at the age of 29, after a 608-game career.

Nylund’s Peak Talent: (12 out of 20). Again, this wasn’t a great class at the Draft that season.  Out of the 30 1st-round picks, only Bellows, Stevens, Housley, and Andreychuk ever played in an All-Star Game.  There were long-serving defencemen like Ken Daneyko and Jim Kyte, and Top 6 forwards, for a time, in Pat Flatley and Murray Craven, but, as noted earlier, Nylund was rated by the majority of scouts as a better prospect than both Scott Stevens and Phil Housley.  The Leafs were happy with their young forwards, and unless they could have got Bellows to slip to #3 (impossible as it was), they were probably always drafting for “need” and their blueline with Salming’s advancing age, and uncertain as to whether they’d drafted the right young defencemen in players like Jim Benning, Bob McGill, and Fred Boimistruck.  These names, plus Nylund, are almost always referred to in debating whether a young D-man should go back to juniors, stay in college, or play in the NHL at age 18, and most err on the side of further development as opposed to the bright lights of the pros.  The Luke Schenn debates of 2008-09 certainly elicited emotional arguments on both sides, as would it have with Morgan Rielly in 2013, had the Leafs kept him up during the shortened 48-game season.

Nylund’s Career: (9 out of 20) – This seems a harsh grade to give out, and certainly the Leafs didn’t get to benefit from some of Nylund’s most consistent and healthy stretches of eating ES & PK minutes for the Hawks or the Isles, but as a Top 3 pick, even when he got healthy, it all left just a little bit to be desired. 

You have to have empathy for Nylund, because despite whether you believe he should have been playing in the NHL, or back in Portland in either 82-83 or 83-84, what’s clear is, it hurt his development tremendously to basically be playing no hockey of any kind, while rehabbing a devastating injury, and its re-occurence not long after.

Given the freakish nature of his first two ACL injuries, and the growing cynicism of fans and media alike the Maple Leafs’ dog-and-pony show was becoming after the Sittler and MacDonald trades and the coaching carousel post-Roger Neilson, Nylund became an early whipping boy for all that was wrong with the early 1980s Leafs, and in the harsh glare of a huge hockey market, no wonder that by 1986 he’d had enough.  In actuality, most Leafs fans probably are surprised to find out he did carry on as long as he did, playing consistently in Chicago and on Long Island for another eight seasons after leaving Toronto.

Thanks for reading, join us here next time for another Top 5 Leafs draft tale!  This time, we move ahead to 1984, and the Leafs go right back to the well and draft a young blueliner!  I wonder if it will work out this time! Until then!

Previously in the Series

The Best Top-5 Leafs Pick Ever? – Lanny McDonald