The Leafs & Top 5 Drafting: Al Iafrate – What Nearly Was

We’re getting there. It’s Part 3 of a 7-essay series on the Leafs Top 5 Draft picks since expansion, giving they’ll be making another such selection near the end of June, barring a trade or some sort (for the record, you can’t go wrong dangling that pick for a 3rd line 35-year old centre who can teach the Leafs’ kids lessons on winning and how it all gets done). 

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Our last edition profiled the selection of Gary Nylund in 1982 at 3rd overall (behind Gord Kluzak to Boston, Brian Bellows to Minnesota).  Strangely, though Nylund was plagued by injuries and loss of development time almost immediately, in his first preseason, the Leafs actually hit on a few players in that same 1982 NHL Entry Draft that stuck with the team, had positive impacts, and in a few cases, became real crowd favourites.

The Maple Leafs had back-to-back picks at 24th and 25th overall in the 2nd round and selected Gary Leeman from the Regina Pats, and import forward Peter Ihnacek from then-Czechoslovakia.  The rules have obviously been altered since then for drafting foreign players, but Ihnacek was a hearty 25 years old when selected by Toronto, and stepped in immediately in a Top 6 forward role and posted a full 80-game season with 28 goals and 38 assists, good for third in team scoring (as a “rookie”) behind only Rick Vaive and John Anderson.  

Leeman, meanwhile, went back to the WHL, put up a successful offensive season, made his Leafs debut in two playoff games (a 3-1 series win by the Minnesota North Stars), and eventually became quite a reliable scorer for the Leafs by the 1986-87 season.  Toronto also drafted goalie Ken Wreggett in the 3rd round, and he’d end up winning the Leafs #1 goalie gig away from veteran Don Edwards in the 1985-86 season (Wendel Clark’s rookie year) and be the goalie of choice in those 1986 and 1987 playoff seasons, before moving on and playing with Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and eventually Detroit (as Chris Osgood’s backup in the 1999-2000 season). 

The 82-83 season saw the Leafs finish third place in the Norris Division (at quite a low ebb, mind you) with a 28-40-12 record, ahead of a bad St. Louis Blues team, and an even-worse Detroit Red Wings group.  That 28-40-12 is more impressive than it seems at first glance given the Leafs’ horrific 7-21-7 start through 35 games.  But it gave the Maple Leafs Gardens’ faithful two home playoff games, followed by the #7 pick in a very deep draft (link?) — which saw the defending Cup champion New York Islanders add Pat LaFontaine to their offensive arsenal (3rd overall), and Norris rival Detroit grab a young prospect from the Peterborough Petes named Steve Yzerman (4th overall).

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The Leafs chose speedy winger Russ Courtnall with the #7 pick, a spot behind New Jersey’s selection of John MacLean, and two places above where Cam Neely fell to the Vancouver Canucks.  Toronto also selected defenceman Jeff Jackson in the 2nd round, and diminutive netminder Allan Bester (Jackson’s Brantford Alexanders’ teammate) in the 3rd round.

Courtnall didn’t make the Maple Leafs big club in the fall of 1983 and after starting the season with Victoria again, eventually made his way to the Canadian Olympic team for the Sarajevo Games of 1984, where Canada fell just short of winning a medal, finishing 4th thanks to a 2-0 shutout loss in their final game against Sweden — a win would have earned them a bronze medal.  Courtnall would join the Leafs as a freshly-turned 19-year old after the Olympics, and wowed the home crowds, posting 12 points in his 14 games.

That said, the Leafs fell short of being a playoff team — finishing 4th in the Norris Division and 18th of 21 NHL teams (only Los Angeles, New Jersey, and Pittsburgh had worse records).  Toronto, with head coach Mike Nykoluk, actually raised expectations with a 6-4-1 start to the season, and were still in a Norris playoff spot as late as New Year’s Eve, but a pair of six game losing streaks in January and early February finished any logical playoff hopes off.  The team had its moments, though, with a 52-goal season from Rick Vaive (tied for 5th in the league with Jari Kurri!), a surprising 74-point year from Dan Daoust, 40 and 37 goals respectively from Bill Derlago and John Anderson, and it saw the end of 30-year old Mike Palmateer’s NHL career. In his second year back with the Maple Leafs, and his lower body constantly in pain and unable to do what it once did — Palmateer played 34 games for the Leafs, and then hung up the pads.

So with the 4th overall pick in tow, the Leafs’ brass headed to the 1984 NHL Draft in Montreal.  Toronto was drafting behind Pittsburgh, New Jersey, and Chicago (which had secured the LA Kings’ 3rd overall pick in a prior trade). The consensus 1st overall pick was Mario Lemieux going to Pittsburgh — the only controversy there being how Pittsburgh had gotten down to drafting 1st overall, accused of tanking games, sitting healthy players, and in general, “going for the basement” before “going for the basement” was a thing.  Pittsburgh went 7-34-1 over the final 42 games, and no NHL franchise has been so vocally accused of losing games on purpose since then.  And as terrible as the New Jersey Devils were, finishing 3 points below them in the standings wasn’t easy to do, without some effort, or lack thereof.

New Jersey had the 2nd overall pick and seemed set on taking RW Kirk Muller from the Guelph Platers, the consensus “best Ontario player” in this draft class.  The Blackhawks were certainly in the right place at the right time, getting to draft a player from their own backyard — Chicago native Ed Olczyk had grown up playing minor hockey in Illinois, before hopping around and playing in Detroit’s Compuware system, and eventually Junior B with the Stratford Cullitons (note: I got to see Olczyk play as a Culliton in a playoff series against my hometown London Diamonds team — you could tell he was special, and a lot of seats were filled simply by his presence).  He had 142 points in 42 regular season games that year, before leaving back for his home country and a role on the 1984 US Olympic team.  

So with Lemieux, Muller, and Olczyk off the board, the Maple Leafs were on the clock.  They’d coveted Olczyk and there were efforts made to swap picks with Chicago to move to 3rd to get him.  The Leafs would later try and get Olczyk as compensation for the RFA signing of Gary Nylund, and eventually Toronto would get Olczyk in a trade with Chicago, but it wasn’t to be on this day.  So here’s what happened:

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1983-84: Toronto Maple Leafs (26-45-9 for 61 points in 80 games, 5th of 5 in Norris Division, 18th of 21 overall)

Pick: 4th overall, Al Iafrate, D, US Olympic Team/Belleville Bulls (OHL), 10 games, 2-4-6, 2 PIM (Belleville stats), 6 foot, 3 inches tall, 240 pounds)

Analysis: I’m not sure how the Leafs could have passed here on Iafrate’s talent.  Many scouts still say he was pound-for-pound, a more skilled player at his position than either Muller or Olczyk, who went ahead of him in the Draft.  Iafrate’s stock could have been helped more, no question, by a better overall performance by Team USA in Sarajevo.  The United States, defending their “Miracle On Ice” gold won only one of their five preliminary round games, were embarrassingly tied 3-3 by Norway, and never impressed, even with veteran NCAA players like Chris Chelios and Corey Millen, the 18-year old LaFontaine and the highly-touted soon-to-be-drafted duo of Olczyk and Iafrate.  Iafrate was “just ok” in Belleville and didn’t overly impress in a quick adjustment period to a new league and new country, but the size, skating ability, and talent was something the Leafs couldn’t pass on.  And if they were too, the Leafs might see the team drafting right behind them at #5 — the Montreal Canadiens, make the Leafs very sorry they did so, already having drafted Chelios a couple years prior.  The idea of Chelios and Iafrate growing old together as a pairing on the Habs’ blueline had to be a concerning thing though the teams weren’t in the same division or conference anymore.  As such, the Leafs made the pick, and Iafrate was a Leaf.  Montreal, by the way, would shock the entire Draft by taking Petr Svoboda at 5th overall, a player many GMs weren’t sure was even going to be made available to play in the NHL by his home country’s club.  Svoboda would play over 1000 games in a 17-year season, playing in three Stanley Cup Finals, and winning his lone Cup ring as a 19-year old in 1986.

So how did it go with Iafrate as an 18-year old rookie?  Quite well, to be honest.  Yes, it felt like a very dark time as a Maple Leaf fan, so you can imagine what it was like as a player.  The fact that bad Leafs team snuck into the postseason periodically in a league where 16 of 21 teams made it was a temporary masking of the pain and ineptitude surrounding the entire organization from top to bottom.  But Iafrate made the team as an 18-year old for new head coach Dan Maloney – who was quite expressive and public about his skepticism for younger players.  It was a youth-heavy Toronto lineup and though we rarely used the term “rebuild” then, following the trades of Sittler, McDonald, Williams, Palmateer, Turnbull, and others from the late 1970s-era Maple Leafs, and for often very little tangible assets in return, it’s what the Leafs were forced to do.

Their opening night lineup in a 1-0 overtime win in Bloomington, Minnesota against the North Stars featured 11 skaters under the age of 25 — and outside of 33-year old Borje Salming, no other position player was older than 27.  The raw mix of youth, a rookie head coach, limited veteran stability or presence, and, well, less-than-league-average talent would catch up to the Leafs very early on in this soon-to-be dreadful season, and they’d careen their way to a 21st-place finish, five points worse than Pittsburgh, the Pens only improving slighly despite a dazzling 100-point (in 73 games!) season from Mario Lemieux. 

 Iafrate, however, would finish 3rd on the team in scoring by a blueliner — pocketing 21 points in a 68 game season.  He is probably fortunate though not to have advanced statistics involving scoring chances available for many games in that rookie season, as he really did struggle when it came to making the smart play out of his own end, and often got caught leaving his partner behind on an opposing team’s odd-man rush.  The Leafs were criticized at that time by many in the media for rushing Iafrate into being an NHLer at 18, when a full year of OHL may have suited him better, and yet, unlike Nylund, he stayed generally healthy in five full Leaf seasons, never playing fewer than 65 games.

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The Leafs developed their young core into a scrappy and skilled team and Iafrate was a big part of that.  By his third season, in 86-87, he managed to play all 80 games, scored 30 points, and was by many accounts, the best defenceman Toronto had in a run that saw them lose the Norris Division Final in the second-round to Detroit, after leading the series 3 games to 1.  Iafrate would earn a trip to the NHL All-Star game in St. Louis in 1988, in the middle of a spectacular 52-point season (20 goals, 32 assists), and in a 6-game first-round exit to Detroit, Iafrate had 3 goals and 4 assists, outscoring all other Leafs, except Ed Olczyk.

So all this was promising, and even lifelong Leafs skeptics thought so. You had a team, three straight years in the playoffs, plenty of promising and developing young players under age 25 (Olczyk 22, Damphouse 20, Leeman 24, Marois 19, Iafrate 22, Clark 19, Richardson 19), and yet, it all absolutely added up to nothing in 1988-89.  There are years that begin, and you know the Leafs are going to be terrible.  This actually was one of the most “surprisingly-awful” Leafs teams of my lifetime.  

Despite three 30-goal scorers, and a 90-point year from Olczyk, the Leafs were 19th out of 21 in goals scored, and 18th out of 21 in goals against.  None of the goaltenders proved reliable, and the disastrous results saw John Brophy finally fired as head coach, after starting 11-20-2.  He’d be replaced by Leaf legend George Armstrong, in a move that was all about appeasing owner Harold Ballard.  Armstrong was actually quoted at length about how reluctant he was to get back behind the bench for the first time in 11 years and the first time in the NHL — he’d had success after retirement in the early 1970s coaching the Toronto Marlboros in Major Junior.  Sounds delightful, then!  Iafrate struggled the rest of that season, as the Leafs found themselves out of the playoffs for the first time since 1985, finishing 19th of 21 teams.

But as bad as things were, Iafrate was still considered a bright spot.  He was having his best statistical season ever in 1989-90, and a big reason the team was playoff-bound again (the infamous Tom Kurvers trade also boosted their blueline depth, ahem..) when a horrible knee injury with several games left against the Quebec Nordiques took him out for rest of the season and the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. Iafrate’s absence was quite noticeable in that series, and the Blues waltzed past the Leafs in five games.

Iafrate found himself struggling in the summer of 1990 with his knee rehab, and having a large frame to begin with, packed on some pounds before training camp that didn’t endear him either to new head coach Doug Carpenter or general manager Floyd Smith.  After an unheard of 2-16-1 start (Carpenter was fired after the first 9 games), the message was clear from high above. In Harold Ballard’s last year of life, he ordered the team to be blown up, and few teams have been blown up in the middle of a season quite as distinctly as this Leafs team was.  No one was safe, not even the team’s most reliable scoring defenceman.

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Beginning on November 9th, and lasting up until the March 5th trade deadline, the Leafs made a remarkable FOURTEEN in-season trades, including 9 of their 20 dressed players for the season opener (a 7-1 loss in Winnipeg).  Ed Olczyk and Mark Osborne to Winnipeg.  Lou Franceschetti and Brian Curran to Buffalo.  Tom Kurvers to Vancouver.  Paul Fenton and John Kordic to Washington.  And eight days prior to the aforementioned Leafs/Capitals deal, Al Iafrate was shipped to Washington for Peter Zezel and Bob Rouse. In all the mayhem, the return was a sensible one as Washington was getting a recovering 24-year old stud blueliner, who finished 6th in Norris Trophy voting the prior season, and the Leafs got two valuable depth cogs who’d help them (quicker than most thought possible) to playoff runs to the Western Conference Finals in 1993 and 1994. 

Iafrate would have a slightly rough transition to Washington, and in getting his full health and conditioning back, but by 1991-92, he looked like the old Iafrate, and posted three straight seasons of 50 points or more, peaking with a 66-point year in 1992-93, finishing 6th in Norris voting again, and even receiving two 2nd-place votes for the esteemed honour.  

He’d be moved on Deadline Day in 1994 to Boston for scoring winger Joe Juneau, in an effort by both teams to fill a need.  As a true “rental”, Iafrate would score three playoff goals for the Bruins, but they’d be knocked out by up-and-coming New Jersey in six games in the Eastern Conference semi-finals.  

By then the toll on both Iafrate’s knees were so chronic and so debiliating, he sat out the lockout-shortened season, and the entire 1995-96 season.  At age 30, he came back and the San Jose Sharks signed him to a 2-year contract, but he was barely able to play partial seasons, combining for 59 games over those two years, before hanging up the skates at age 32, following the Sharks’ 1st-round elimination to Dallas, in six games.  In summary, then:

Iafrate’s Peak Talent: (15 out of 20). Iafrate, at his very best, and there were large pockets of time, and consecutive seasons, where he got the best out of himself, was a brilliant and unique talent.  He’s a little too derided and mocked by many older Leafs fans for my liking.  He certainly doesn’t deserve poster-boy status as the “reason” you don’t allow 18-year olds to play in the NHL.  Again, I’m a big believer that in most circumstances, players become what they were going to become.  He needed to make those NHL-level mistakes at a young age to learn and improve, and did so. He became far less of a defensive liability by the time he was 21 or 22, and remember, also, the Era he played in was so very different, and scoring chances, odd-man rushes, and far fewer blocked shots and perfectly-coached defensive alignments weren’t really what hockey in the mid-1980s to early-1990s was about, so don’t blame Iafrate for that.

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Though drafted nine years before Chris Pronger was, there were elements of what Iafrate did well (Iafrate was faster, Pronger was more physically imposing and had more of a mean streak) that Pronger did also in his early days in Hartford and St. Louis.  Iafrate wasn’t on his way to a HHOF career, I’m not implying such a grandiose statement, but at his best, he brought a hybrid of size and speed and skill that just isn’t seen very often, even among today’s players.

Iafrate’s Career: (11 out of 20).  It seems a harsh grade for a player who played in 2 Olympic Games, 3 All-Star games, and was named to the NHL’s 2nd All-Star Team for his great 1992-93 season in Washington.  But he played at a time, when goals and assists were plentiful (21 players had 100 point seasons in 1992-93, only SEVEN men have had 100+ point NHL seasons since 2007-08!), and defensive responsibilities just weren’t expected of certain players.  Iafrate had a pretty consistent “go” signal from his coaches his whole career, and his talent merited that.  I’m not sure it’s possible to suggest that as many bad decisions as the Maple Leafs have been involved in during the Harold Ballard Era and as recently as the awful summer of 2013, there have been bounces and luck to go against them also.  Similar to Gary Nylund, and maybe even more so in Iafrate’s case, there were no warning bells or alarms in drafting either player.  Nylund and Iafrate had stellar skills and injury-free years leading up until each of their Draft Days.  It was a terrible stroke of luck for Iafrate to have his 1990 injury, just as his career was blooming and entering what did eventually end up being his peak offensive years.  Despite the decent return of Zezel and Rouse, the Leafs’ evaluation that Iafrate would never be the same player again was a mis-read, and he gave Washington some exceptional stretches of world-class scoring from the blueline.  With another 400 games played, healthy games at that, we’d be talking about an excellent career, as opposed to a tale of a talented player who got some very bad breaks and wore down over time too soon.

Next up in our series, the Leafs fish at the bottom during the 1984-85 season, and they draft a player who became one of the most popular Maple Leafs ever, and then they traded him for a superstar at exactly the peak of his popularity and skills.  Then they traded for him again.  And later, again.  And then, no, wait, they didn’t acquire him a fourth time. I may double-check that.  

Thanks as always for reading!  Follow me on twitter at @gbradyradio or instagram at @gregfbrady

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  • SEER

    An excellent article Greg. A number of years ago the San Diego Chargers spent $10 thousand for a pyschiatrist to analyse Ryan Leaf who was a football hero out of Washington State. The shrink suggested to avoid Leaf. He proved to be right. The crazy Chargers drafted him and similar to Johnny Football, Ryan Leaf was soon out of the game. Quite frankly when I learned that the 18 year old Irafrate drove back home to Detroit after the draft but just had to stop the car and pull over to throw rocks at the street lights, only to be taken to jail by the local cop establishment. I knew this was not a member of Mensa. He indeed had a lot of talent on an ownership club which was absolutely crazy.

    You point out how the leafs had a number of talented young players in a league where 30, 40, 50 goals were common. One such player you mentioned was Gary Leeman who had been a solid young defenceman in the W.H.L. Soon after joining the leafs , Leeman became a forward and had a 50 goal season. Now Greg you would have to fill me in on the next part. But some how Leeman and Irafrate got into a conflict. What was the conflict? Well one of the two was sleeping with the other guys wife. This must have done wonders for the moral of the club. Leeman was shipped off to Calgary.

    As you point out he basically was allowed to play the way he wanted as under Ballard as the leafs went through a collection of bum coaches. Defence was not a priority and as you suggested the serious knee injuries occurred which slowed him down. Once again the i.q. set in as he allowed himself to get out of shape.

    My basic statement is that this guy had all the talent in the world from the neck down but a smart player he was not.

    The leafs of course dealt him off as you pointed out they traded half the team under the crazy Ballard in one year.

    Under the new leaf management I’m looking for number one picks who have talent, character and most importantly actually have an i.q. and don’t spend their spare time trying to break street lights.