Thursday, November 06, 2008

From Spineless to Incompent: A History of Leafs' GMs

Following a spirited debate at PPP that attempted to quantify the incompetence of former Leafs' GM John Ferguson Junior, the question came up as to who is the worst Leafs GM in the past 35 years.

In an homage to Down Goes Brown, I thought I’d take a quick look at all of the GMs that have managed my beloved Toronto Maple Leafs over the last 40 years to see just where JFJ's tenure ranks.

The candidates:
1969 – 1979 Jim Gregory
1979 – 1981 Punch Imlach
1981 – 1988 Gerry McNamara
1988 – 1989 Gord Stellick
1989 – 1991 Floyd Smith
1991 – 1997 Cliff Fletcher
1997 – 1999 Ken Dryden
1999 – 2003 Pat Quinn
2003 – 2008 JFJ

Part I: 1969 to 1989

1969 – 1979 Jim Gregory

Winning %: .506

Playoff Appearances: 8 for 10

Drafted: Darryl Sittler, Lanny MacDonald, Mike Palmateer, Ian Turnbull, Dave Tiger Williams, Doug Jarvis, Randy Carlyle, John Anderson, Joel Quenville

Best Trade: Acquired Bernie Parent and Rick Kehoe for Bruce Gamble, Mike Walton and a 1st round pick

Worst Trade: Doug Jarvis for Greg Hubick

The Back Story
Replaced Leaf GM Punch Imlach for the 1969-70 season (I wasn’t born yet). The 1976 season is the first Leaf club I can remember cheering for.

The Good
Gregory was one of the first GMs to recognize European talent, landing the Leafs Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom.

Drafted iconic Leafs MacDonald, Sittler, Palmateer and brought Roger Neilson into the NHL with his first head coaching gig.

The team knocked off the Islanders in 1977 and in 1978 made it to the Stanley Cup Finals (yeah, they were swept by the Habs but the team was on the right track).

The Bad
In a word: Ballard.

In 1971, Harold Ballard became majority owner of the Leafs, Maple Leaf Gardens and appointed himself President and Chairman of the Leafs’ Board.

Under Ballard’s direction the Leafs lost Bernie Parent to the WHA and let Dave Keon’s contract expire in 1975 (Ballard then blocked Keon’s attempted return to the NHL from the WHA in 1980 as the Leafs still owned his NHL rights).

Allegedly, it was Ballard who made the deal with Sam Pollock that sent future hall of famer Doug Jarvis to the Habs for 72 games of Greg Hubick.

The Crazy
In 1972, Ballard was sentenced to nine years in prison for 47 counts of fraud. Ultimately, he finished serving his sentence in 1973. Allegedly, it was during one of his stays in a correctional facility that the Leafs were able to sign Salming and Hammarstrom as Ballard was notorious for his opposition to European players.

Ballard forced Gregory to fire coach Roger Neilson and, when the players lobbied for Neilson’s re-instatement Ballard relented, but he asked Neilson to return wearing a bag over his head to start the game. Neilson, smartly, declined to wear the bag.

On the patented DGB How bad was it? 100 point scale: 80 – the Leafs fielded pretty competitive teams throughout the decade and amassed a fair amount of talent. By the end of the 1970s they were actively competing against the dynasties in Montreal and on Long Island. Unfortunately, that wasn't good enough and Ballard brought back Punch Imlach.

1979 - 1981 Punch Imlach

Winning %: .456

Playoff Appearances: 2 for 2

Notable draft picks: Craig Muni, Bob McGill, Jim Benning

Best Trade: Acquired Rick Vaive and Bill Derlago for Tiger Williams and Jerry Butler

Worst Trade: Dealt Lanny MacDonald for Wilf Paiment and Pat Hickey

The Back Story
As per an earlier post on the 1979-1980 Leafs, Punch Imlach was brought in by Harold Ballard to help get the Leafs over a, ahem, small hump known as the Montreal Canadiens.

The ‘79 Leafs were a promising club led by all-stars Darryl Sittler, Lanny MacDonald and Borje Salming, with a pretty solid supporting cast of Mike Palmateer, John Anderson, Dan Maloney, Ron Ellis and Joel Quenville.

The Good
The Leafs acquired future captain and 50 goal man Rick Vaive...and that’s pretty much it.

The Bad
Imlach promptly put his ugly stamp on the club by trading Lanny MacDonald - fan favourite, 48 goal man and best pal of captain Darryl Sittler - along with Joel Quenville to Colorado for future Leon’s furniture pitch-man Wilf Paiement and Pat Hickey (who in my child hood memories could only score on the backhand. 38 goals in 120 games isn' tbad, but he struck me as terrible).

The Crazy
Imlach’s tenure was a rocky one, marked by serious conflict with the players and what seemed to be a weekly heart attack.

He sued the NHLPA in an effort to keep Sittler, Palmateer and others out of my favourite boy-hood program: Showdown (Palmateer makes Jeff O'Neill look like a paragon of fitness in that clip).

Late in the 1979-80 season, Leafs coach Floyd Smith was injured in a car accident, and after Dick Duff stepped behind the bench for two bad losses, Imlach appointed himself Head Coach. Imlach went 5-5-0 before being swept by the Minnesota North Stars in the first round of the playoffs.

Imlach was never actually fired. After yet another heart attack (his third or fourth), he returned to work in November of 1981 only to find Gerry MacNamara had his job. In the end, Ballard just let Imlach’s contract expire.

On the patented DGB How bad was it? 100 point scale: 92. This was the beginning of a long downward slide, made all the more painful because of the actual promise the Leafs had showed. Just two years removed from their first appearance in the semi-finals in a decade and one year off a solid series against the Montreal Canadiens, the Leafs broke up a solid core of players and the team would not hit .500 again for a decade.

Harold Ballard, interim GM, August to December 1980
Little known leaf fact: In August of 1980, after Imlach suffered one of his 624 heart attacks, Ballard appointed himself interim GM of the Leafs. During this time, he took Darryl Sittler off the trade market, agreed that Sittler would return as the Leafs captain for the 1980-81 season and signed Borje Salming to a contract extension. Likely the two best things that rat bastard ever did for the Leafs.

1981 – 1988 Gerry McNamara

Winning %: .367 (that’s not a typo)

Playoff Appearances: 4 for 7 (that’s not a typo either)

Notable draft picks: Wendel Clark, Gary Leeman, Russ Courtnall, Al Iafrate, Todd the ever dangerous Gill, Vince Damphousse, Luke Richardson

Best Trade: um, Greg Terrion for a 4th round pick? Tom Fergus for Bill Derlago? Not much to choose from here...

Worst Trade: Sittler for Rich Costello, 2nd round pick and Ken Strong or 1st round pick (Scott Niedermayer) for Tom Kurvers.

The Back Story
Not much to tell. A former hockey player and career Leaf employee, McNamara had some success as a scout and had been an assistant GM to Imlach. As GM, he somehow lasted through seven disastrous seasons.

The Good
With the Leafs unable to compete on the ice, the team amassed a number of solid draft picks, including Wendel Clark.

They somehow managed to sweep the Hawks in ’86 and also made the second round of the playoffs in 1987.

Um, did I mention Wendel Clark?

The Bad
This could be a never ending post.

This is the era of the pedophilia ring at Maple Leaf Gardens.

The Leafs didn’t have a single winning season under McNamara.

Not once did they have a season where they scored more goals than they allowed.

In 1985, the Leafs won just twenty games and finished 32 games under .500

In a panic move, after keeping the Leafs’ first round draft picks for his entire tenure, McNamara deals the team’s first pick to New Jersey for Tom Kurvers. New Jersey went on to select Scott Neidermayer.

Before being fired, McNamara’s Leafs went on a 1-15-6 run, posting a single victory over 22 games.

The Crazy
The Sittler trade talks were so protracted, Sittler walked out on the Leafs under the advice of his physician and the deal still took two more weeks to go down.

McNamara kept his job for nearly a decade despite the team never breaking the 70 point barrier.

On the patented DGB How bad was it? 100 point scale: 95. McNamara re-defined incompetence. Despite having a number of high draft picks, the Leafs seemed permanently mired in mediocrity. In these times of three point games, its’ hard to imagine a club putting up a .367 winning percentage for a single season, never mind the better part of a decade. The only upside was there were zero expectations for the club. This wasn’t a team that flirted with success and broke your heart, this was a team that backed into the playoffs when the Red Wings had a 40 point season.

1988 – 1989 Gord Stellick

Winning %: .390 (28-46-8)

Playoff Appearances: 0 for 1

Notable draft picks: The all Belleville Bulls draft: Rob Pearson, Scott Thornton and Steve Bancroft (three first round picks, three duds).

Best Trade: Ken Wregget dealt for 2 first round picks

Worst Trade: Russ Courtnall for John Kordic

The Back Story

Gord Stellick was a member of the Leafs communications staff who was tapped in April 1988 to become the Leafs GM. He was the youngest GM in the history of the Leafs and the NHL. He lasted 18 months. Then it was on to a lifetime of broadcasting, pimpin' for weight loss programs and writing books about 1967, because that's what Leaf fans really want to be reminded of.

The Good

It was a short stay.

The Bad

Ballard continued his meddlesome ways, dictating coaching choices and player personnel moves.

Despite amassing draft picks, the Leafs drafted poorly.

The Crazy

The usual Ballard stuff.

Stellick resigned as GM when Ballard refused to let him hire his own coach for the 1989 season.

On the patented DGB How bad was it? 100 point scale: 90. More of the same terrible on-ice product, meddlesome ownership, poor drafting and lack of vision. At this point, being a Leaf fan was like being on some sort of long march to nowhere.

Coming Soon: Part II - Floyd Smith to JFJ (bookends of incompetence).


  1. Anonymous5:04 pm

    Worst Trade: Russ Courtnall for John Kordic

    Despite calling it an homage to his format there is no way DGB is letting you get away with that line.

    The rest, is of course, awesome. Wait, depressing. That's the word I was looking for.

  2. I notice that many fans post comments indicating that Ferguson was the all time worse Leaf GM. Not even close. Gerry McNamara was not only incompetent but an embarrassment. I'll never forget the year he was in a car accident. He sued the other driver and claimed that he has suffered a brain injury. Can you imagine the GM of the Leafs claiming to be brain damaged? The other GMs must have had quite a laugh.

  3. Ahhh Good times!


  4. Anonymous10:18 am

    Good stuff, and plenty accurate. I am embarrassed to admit that I defended the Tom Kurvers trade when it was made. I was a stupid young man.

    I know DGB will disagree, and I have a somewhat checkered history in this regard (see above), but I can't accept his argument that Courtnall for Kordic was a good trade.

    McNamara was the worst, no doubt; but for me, everything you need to about the Leafs' management record in this era can be summed up in Stellick's single year: he followed up the one good move he made (converting Wregget into two (!) first round picks) by crapping the bed and using those picks to draft all Belleville Bulls, some of whom never even attended an NHL game after that.

  5. It gets a little bit worse for Gregory:

    The Habs swept the Leafs in the semifinals in 1978. They beat the Bruins in the final.

    That was good times. I miss those times.

  6. Anonymous11:12 am

    The Kurvers for a first-rounder was actually Floyd Smith.

    Stellick, to his credit, quit as Leafs GM when it really became clear to him that he was just there to execute Ballard's whims.

    --1967ers (hoping this doesn't publish twice....)

  7. I don't think I've ever been homaged before. What sort of tip do I leave?

    You're still wrong about Courtnall/Kordic, by the way.

  8. Anonymous10:48 pm

    Thoroughly entertaining.

    Though I wouldn't mind, for the next installment, if you left the JFJ part out....for at least a little while.

    Those cuts still haven't healed yet.

  9. Anonymous8:16 pm

    McNamara was a great scout