In the early-1990s, the small-market Edmonton Oilers were blowing their team up and selling off all of the key players remaining from their 1980s dynasty. The Leafs, who hadn’t been a serious contender in years, decided to get in on the sale.
Shortly before the start of the 1991-92 season, Toronto sent Vincent Damphousse, Luke Richardson, Scott Thornton, and Peter Ing to the Oilers in exchange for Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson, and Craig Berube.
The trade was met with mixed reviews. On one hand, the Leafs were acquiring a lot of experience. Fuhr and Anderson had been involved in five different Stanley Cup runs during Edmonton’s dominant run in the 80s. But they were also reaching the latter stage of their careers and the Leafs had to part with their future to acquire them.
The three key players Toronto sent to Edmonton were top picks in the draft acquired as a reward for some miserable days in the mid-80s. Damphousse was drafted with the sixth-overall pick in 1986 and had already established himself as a star player in the NHL. Richardson was the seventh-overall pick in 1987 and had posted a few solid seasons as a rugged, stay-at-home defender. Thornton had been drafted third-overall in 1989 and had played just 33 games with the Leafs.
General manager Cliff Fletcher said after the deal was made that Leafs fans had suffered for long enough and that the team needed to do something in order to become competitive. This deal, in his mind, would push them over the top.
In the immediate short-term, the trade was a bit of a flop. The Leafs would miss out on the playoffs, posting an ugly 30-43-7 record in 1991-92. Meanwhile, Damphousse led the Oilers in scoring and they made a surprising run to the Western Conference Final.
Anderson had a good season, scoring a team-leading 24 goals and 57 points, but Fuhr had a rough year between the pipes, putting up an .881 save percentage in 66 games. The Leafs were very clearly not just two players away from getting over the hump as Fletcher had suggested.
But, as mediocre as this deal was on its own, it led to a couple of other trades that have gone down as two of the best in the history of the Toronto Maple Leafs. We’ll talk about one of those today.
In his second season in Toronto, Fuhr lost the starting goaltender gig to Felix Potvin, who came in as a 21-year-old rookie and put up a brilliant performance in 1992-93. With Potvin solidifying himself as the team’s ace in net, the Leafs no longer had a need for Fuhr, so they shipped him off to Buffalo along with a fifth-round pick for Dave Andreychuk, Darren Puppa, and a first-round pick.
At the time of the deal, the Leafs owned a 24-21-8 record, good for seventh in the Campbell Conference. After that, they caught fire. The Leafs would go on to post a 20-8-3 record down the stretch, finishing the season with the fourth-best record in the Campbell Conference. They finished with a record above .500 for the first time since 1978-79 and their .589 points percentage represented their most successful regular season since the early-1960s.
Andreychuk was a key cog in Toronto’s late-season success. In 33 games as a Leaf, he scored 25 goals, which was good for third on the team for the entirety of the season. Another important part of this deal was what it meant for Toronto’s goaltending. Fuhr had been mediocre that season, posting a .895 save percentage in 29 games. This deal allowed Potvin to fully take command of the net. Also, Puppa, who filled in as Potvin’s backup, was rock-solid, posting a .922 save percentage in eight appearances.
All of the anxiety about trading three former top picks for two guys that were over the hill the previous year was gone now. The Leafs swapped their struggling goalie for a stud goal-scorer and suddenly boasted a deep offence. Glenn Anderson had also come as advertised, as he put up 22 goals and 65 points in 1992-93.
The Leafs would ride their hot finish into the playoffs. They took down the favoured Detroit Red Wings in a classic seven-game series in the first round and then edged out the St. Louis Blues in another seven-game series after that. In the Western Conference Final, the Leafs came within one win of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final, but got stopped by Wayne Gretzky and the L.A. Kings. Gretzky famously played what he views as the best game of his career in Game 7 of that series, but he got some help from referee Kerry Fraser to even get to that point.
The Leafs would go on another playoff run the following season, but, again, they got stopped in the Western Conference Final, this time by the Vancouver Canucks, who were on their Cinderella run. Andreychuk was again a key player in another great Leafs season, scoring 53 goals and 99 points.
The trade, which was already a clear win for the Leafs, started to look even better after they used Buffalo’s first-round pick to draft Swedish defenceman, Kenny Jonsson. Fuhr, on the other hand, would continue his mediocre play in Buffalo before getting sent to Los Angeles in 1995 to re-join Gretzky.
So, all told, Fletcher did deliver on his promise to push the Leafs over the top in the early-90s, though he went about doing so in a more roundabout way. While Fuhr was a flop in Toronto, flipping him for Andreychuk, who became a key member of Toronto’s back-to-back playoff runs, was a massive victory. There’s another successful deal that spawned from that Oilers trade that was critical in Toronto’s success in ’93 and ’94 that we’ll get to soon.