Friday, November 20, 2009

And You May Ask Yourself: How Did I Get Here?

This entry was cross-posted at PPP

This morning (November 21), an anonymous commenter ovasked how exactly the Leafs arrived in their current mess.

There’s not a single cause or easy explantion.

This franchise has gone through three, maybe even four, different phases since 2000, however; with the exception of one small window, all of these phases have focused on the short-term, sacrificing picks and prospects for a supposed fix.


The Pat Quinn teams of the early 2000s were powerful clubs. Each made the playoffs and several flirted with 100 point seasons. They combined a nice mix of talent and flair (Sundin, Mogilny) with grit (Roberts, Tucker) and solid goaltending (Cujo, Belfour).

These teams were often legitimate threats to go deep in the post season and on more than one occasion it was widely thought they could challenge for a cup. As a result, these teams made a number of trades where the future was sacrificed for the present. There was a small window of success and the Leafs went for it, selling off the future in the hopes of a big pay-day.

In 2003, the Leafs trade Brad Boyes (2000 1st round pick), Alyn McCauley and a 1st round pick for Owen Nolan

In 2004, the Leafs trade two prospects, a 1st and 2nd round pick for Brian Leetch.

In addition to dealing away those three first round picks, the Leafs also had some bad luck when their 1999 first round selection (and WJC 1st team all-star) Luca Cereda had to hang up his skates due to health complications with his heart.

From 1999 to 2004, the Leafs emerged with just two first round draft picks: Carlo Colaiacovo and Alexander Steen. Both would later be traded to St. Louis for Lee Stempniak.

Had either of those post-season pushes turned out, the price paid would have been well worth it. Unfortunately, the 2003 club were eliminated in game seven of the first round while the 2004 club was eliminated in game six of the second round.

The Missing Years

John Ferguson Junior’s tenure was like a ship lost at sea…or maybe it was a ship that kept running into ice bergs…or a lost ship, on fire, that kept hitting ice bergs. Choose your own nautical disaster metaphor and, in keeping with JFJ’s reign of error, the more apocalyptic and dire your selection the more accurate it will be.

Ferguson was GM from the 2004 to 2007 drafts.

Out of those five drafts, he managed to hold on to his first round pick in just once – giving the franchise Jiri Tlusty and a whole lotta NSFW jokes.

Unable to shake-off the "win now!" edict from the MLSE board, in just two years Ferguson sacrificed two first, a second and a fourth round pick in an effort to shore-up the team’s goaltending. Some four years later, goaltending remains a position of weakness that hasn’t been adequately addressed.

JFJ's draft day magic:

The 2005 first round pick (Tukka Rask) dealt for Andrew Raycroft.
The 2006 first round pick was Jiri Tlusty.
The 2007 first round and second round picks (along with a 2009 4th) to San Jose for Vesa Toskala.
The 2008 second round pick to Phoenix for Yannic Perreault.

Draft Schmaft Redux?

In 2008, Cliff Fletcher was brought in to try to move out the NTCs/NMCs on the club and start the, ahem, rebuilding process.

Given the need to get more talent into the system, he made some, shall we say, curious moves:

A swap of first round picks, 2008 3rd round pick, 2009 2nd round pick for Luke Schenn
2008 3rd round pick for Jamal Mayers
2008 4th round pick to get rid of Bryan McCabe
2008 5th round pick for Ryan Hollwegg
2010 2nd round pick for Mikhail Grabovski

In fairness to Fletcher, he also acquired a small parcel of picks:

2008 2nd round pick and a 2009 5th round pick for Hal Gill
2008 3rd round pick for Chad Kilger
2008 5th round pick for Wade Belak

An Eye for Talent? Um. Not really...

If you’re going to trade away picks and prospects, the returning players better pan out.

Clearly that has not been the case for the Leafs.

By my math, the Leafs traded five first round and three second round picks for the following:

69 games from Owen Nolan.
28 games of Brian Leetch.
91 games (and 268 goals against) of Andrew Raycroft (plus a multi-year buyout)
17 games of Yanic Perreault
127 games (and counting) from Vesa Toskala

Stop and marvel at that return.

Five first and three third round picks for 332 games played (plus Toskala's starts until the end of the season).

I'll spare the Leaf defenders from doing the math - Brad Boyes, one of the former first rounders traded away, has played 347 NHL games, 15 more than this motley collection managed for the Leafs.

What's worse is that every single one of these players left the Leafs without a single asset coming back in return. Nolan, Leetch and Perreault walked as UFAs and Raycroft was bought out.

I'll wait while you drink it all in.

I don’t know about you,but I don't think there’s an adjective that can adequately summarize this. One could argue that only Bernie Madoff has done a worse job of asset management - and even that might be a stretch.

Making Mistakes Beyond the Draft

Even more painfully, that poor return only reflects the draft side of the equation.

The Leafs have not excelled in the free agency department (Blake, Finger), have made poor decisions in awarding NMCs and NTCs, and often signed guys at the wrong time, inking McCabe, Tucker and others to long-term deals rather than trading them at peak value. But I’ll save that rant/analysis for another day…

For now, in a nutshell, this is how you build a franchise that’s on target for a 50 point season and has limited options at hand.


  1. Anonymous12:25 pm

    The Leafs really have had a wonderful knack for conjuring up a perfect storm of idiocy when it comes to looking into the vague mists of time trying to figure out 'the future'. Sure, the pulpit of hindsight makes it easy to criticize past indiscretions, but the ability to try and fix one error with another is remarkable, especially during 'the missing years'.

    Also, the return of the Silver Fox to try and 'right the course' of the floundering Leafs was a joke at best. Hiring back the person who used to believe that money was the best way to deal with the future instead of through the draft to try and correct matters in a cap-based NHL was something like to trying to floss your teeth with a cross-bow - even a correct shot will still draw a little blood.

    But yeah, you pretty much nailed it. The Leafs, since suckling at MLSE's cold teat, has become the model Uroborus franchise in the NHL, much better at consuming itself than the opposition.

  2. Blake Miles12:34 pm

    I am a Sharks fan, and I warned TO fans last year, when they got all excited about Brian Burke and Ron Wilson. This is the same duo that kept San Jose in the basement since the lockout. They left, BOOM; the sharks had the best season in franchaise history and set records all over the board. President's cup and all time record for regular season points. The leafs? They got Burke and Wilson. Seems they can't even trade management properly. Great Blog; great comments. You know the game and you know the leafs. Awesome to hear a fan who knows what they're talking about. They should put you in charge!!

  3. I have nothing to say about the Leafs, but about two weeks ago I did see Stop Making Sense for the first time. Good God, what a fantastic film!

  4. I remember being really excited when the Leafs got Nolan. I was nervous giving up Boyes, but I thought the Leafs would be unstoppable with Nolan. I was delusional.

    Also, Burke has never had anything to do with the Sharks. Wilson left and the Sharks put up a great regular season, but they consistently did that with Wilson as coach. The Sharks' problem is the playoffs (with or without Wilson). Who cares if you win the President's cup if you go out in the first round.

  5. I really liked the Nolan deal at the time too. Figured he was a pre-eminent power forward who'd help put the Leafs over the top. So much for that.

    I also really liked Stop Making Sense. One of my favourite concert films...

  6. Paul Steckley12:52 pm

    Hindsight is always 20-20 but often misleading.

    In fairness to JFJ, Leetch had another year on his contract but it was wiped out by the lockout. Two prospects (who ended up doing nothing in the NHL BTW) a 1st and a 2nd for a hall of fame defenceman for a season and a bit wasn't a bad deal at the time. His arrival really pushed McCabe's development.

    At the time those trades were made, Nolan and Leetch looked like they could be the players that could put the Leafs over the top. This was a team that had reached the conference finals twice in recent memory and looked like they could challenge for the Cup. Neither trade resulted in the desired result but they weren't bad hockey deals at the time.

    Now the Raycroft and Toskala deals are a different story. Both looked like bad hockey deals at the time and have proven to be worse. Raycroft has proven to be a one-year wonder and Toskala has been frustratingly inconsistent. Neither were worth more than a 2nd or 3rd round pick at the time the deals were made, and I doubt anyone would even offer that much now with the benefit of watching Raycroft and Toskala get beat high glove side over and over again. Worse, of course, is the fact that the Leafs could have picked up a free agent goalie like Legace instead of trading for Raycroft, costing them nothing in future assets and they'd still potentially have Rask in their system. And they likely don't feel the need to trade for Toskala, keeping those picks to either draft or trade for a first-line centre that would now be available to play with Kessel.

  7. You nailed it again. Unfortunately 4 decades of futility has made Leaf Fans (myself included) experts at justifying the mistakes management continues to make. The Leafs were close during Pat Quinn's era, but NEVER close enough. Bringing in players like Leetch, Nolan, Mogilny, is never a bad idea, but veterans will only take you so far. Let us not forget all of these big names were brought in at the end of great careers, not even close to their primes.

    The Leafs record of drafting and developing young talent has been a colossal embarrassment for years. Wendell and Kaberle, since 1983...that says it all. The most disturbing aspect of this to me is they keep making the same mistakes. Trading for talent is never a bad idea, but it's as much about timing as anything. Without a steady stream of GOOD young talent coming out of the system, these trades are wasted. They produce lots to talk and some nifty highlight clips but not much in the way of success. The proof is in the results. Look around at teams before and after the lockout ... championships have always been built with a BALANCE of good drafting, good trading, good signings, and yes, a little luck. Leafs have always been short on luck, but they don't help themselves much in the others areas as well.

    Think about this ... why do the Leafs always have to go outside of the organization to find talent ... it almost never comes from within.