Anatomy of a Turnaround: the 1989-90 Maple Leafs

Anatomy of a Turnaround: the 1989-90 Maple Leafs

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Excitement abounds these days in the streets of Toronto, as a long-overdue rebuilding effort for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the prospect of a revitalized franchise, moves into high gear.

Arguably the last successful revitalization of the Maple Leafs franchise occurred in the early 1990s, when in the span of three seasons the Leafs went from basement-dwellers to Stanley Cup contenders.  Although many are quick to credit then-GM Cliff Fletcher’s 1992 mega-deal with the Calgary Flames as the key turning point for the franchise, the groundwork for the franchise’s rapid acceleration from pretender to contender actually began much earlier … in the 1989-90 season, to be exact.

In 1989, Floyd Smith became the General Manager of a miserable Maple Leafs squad, one which had considerable offensive talent but couldn’t keep the puck out of their own net.  Although Smith will forever be remembered for the ill-fated decision to acquire Tom Kurvers for the first-round pick that turned out to be Scott Neidermeyer, he did in fact lay the groundwork for the massive success the team would experience just three years down the road.

During the previous season (1988-89) under Gord Stellick’s short-lived tenure as GM, the Maple Leafs finished 28-46-6, good enough for 62 points and the division-bottom finish Maple Leafs fans had become oh-so-accustomed to throughout the 1980s.  But with Stellick leaving for the New York Rangers and Smith assuming his post, change was in the air.

As the 1989-90 season progressed, the light went on for several of the Leafs’ players.  Gary Leeman scored 51 goals.  Daniel Marois added 39, and Vincent Damphousse and Ed Olczyk knocked in 33 and 32 respectively.  Al Iafrate scored 21 from the blueline, and Tom Kurvers (yes, that Tom Kurvers) added 15 in the only season in which he looked to be worth the first-round pick that was exchanged for him.   The Leafs finished 38-38-4 and made the playoffs, a remarkable turnaround from the previous season.  The  accomplishment was all the more astounding given that Wendel Clark played in only 38 games due to injury.

Early into the 1990-91 season, the newly-raised hopes of Leafs fans were rapidly deflating as nearly every player struggled to match his previous season, some to a greater degree than others.   As rumours of serious locker-room discord began to circulate, Smith set in motion a course of action to inject more grit and leadership in his lineup in the hopes of righting a sinking ship.

Under Smith’s guidance, 1990-91 was a season of trades for the Maple Leafs which would ultimately lay the foundation for the team’s great success in the near future.  Among his many wheelings and dealings, the following moves would pay huge dividends for the Maple Leafs’ rise to playoff contender:

  • Drafted goaltender Felix Potvin in the second round of the 1990 entry draft.
  • A 3rd round draft pick was sent to Philadelphia to re-acquire tough guy Kevin McGuire, along with an 8th round pick that would later be used to draft offensive defenceman Dmitri Mironov.
  • Utility forward John McIntyre was sent to Los Angeles for hard-hitting veteran Mike Krushelnyski.
  • Checking forward Lou Franceschetti and defender Brian Curran were sent to Buffalo for Mike Foligno and an 8th round pick.
  • In a move to add skill on the blueline and grit up front, high-scoring Ed Olczyk and dependable forward Mark Osborne were traded for under-rated defenseman Dave Ellett and veteran checker Paul Fenton.
  • Talented-but-inconsistent Al Iafrate was traded to Washington for defensive stalwart Bob Rouse, and faceoff specialist Peter Zezel.
  • 1st-round bust Scott Pearson and a second round pick were dealt to Quebec for forwards Lucien DeBlois and Aaron Broten, as well as defenseman Michel Petit.

Although Smith’s deals did nothing to increase the star power of the Maple Leafs, what they did do was set the foundation of leadership, grit, and solid defensive play (Foligno, Krushelnyski, Zezel, Ellett, Rouse, Mironov) that was to become the backbone of the team’s success in the near future.

Unfortunately, the slumps incurred by young guns Leeman, Marois and Damphousse, as well as the absence of goaltending depth (Stellick amazingly traded Ken Wregget for two first round picks … which unfortunately turned into Rob Pearson and Steve Bancroft), took its toll and the Leafs would finish in the basement once more.

Exit Floyd Smith, enter Cliff Fletcher.

With a solid core of veteran leadership now in place, The Silver Fox could focus solely on improving the skill level of his club.  As the Maple Leafs teetered toward yet another last-in-the-division finish, rife with lacklustre performances from the youthful players that had served them so well only two seasons before, Fletcher began to take action.

From 1991 to 1992, Fletcher would make the following key moves:

  • Drafted Dmitri Mironov in the 8th round of the 1991 entry draft.
  • Before the ’91-’92 season even began, made his mark by sending fan favorite Vincent Damphousse, along with young goaltender Peter Ing, first-round bust Scott Thornton, and struggling defenseman Luke Richardson to the Edmonton Oilers for tough guy Craig Berube, and two legends you may have heard of:  Glenn Anderson and Grant Fuhr.
  • Midway through the season, Fletcher constructed what would turn out to be the hallmark trade of his career.  Somehow, Fletcher convinced Calgary GM Doug Risebrough that Gary Leeman’s 51-goal season two years’ prior was no fluke.  Convinced that he was trading a second-line centre for a first-line winger, Risebrough sent Doug Gilmour, Kent Manderville, Jamie Macoun, Ric Nattress, and goaltender Rick Wamsley to Toronto for Gary Leeman, Craig Berube, Alexander Godynuk, Michel Petit, and goaltender Jeff Reese.  I think we all know how well that deal worked out … for both sides.
  • Two months later, Fletcher gave up on the rapidly-declining Daniel Marois, sending he and Claude Loiselle to the New York Islanders in exchange for two forwards: defensive-specialist Dave McLlwain and tough guy Ken Baumgartner (who came with the added advantage of being able to play on the blueline when necessary).
  • The same day, Fletcher sent Lucien DeBlois to the Winnipeg Jets to re-acquire speedy winger Mark Osborne.

Unfortunately, turnarounds do not happen overnight, and the amount of roster turnover combined with an overall lack of scoring punch resulted in the Leafs once again claiming their usual place among the bottom-dwellers of the league.  But hope was just around the corner in the form of Doug Gilmour’s inspired play, new head coach Pat Burns, and one more major move up The Silver Fox’s sleeve.

In 1992-93, just three short years after Floyd Smith began to overhaul the core of those terrible teams of the 1980s, the fruits of the Smith/Fletcher labour began to pay off.   Fletcher continued to tweak the roster, drafting Russian sniper Nikolai Borschevsky in the 4th round, sending a third round pick to Montreal for blueline stalwart Sylvain Lefebvre, establishing a scoring presence on the second line by getting John Cullen from Hartford for a song (future 2nd round pick that didn’t pan out), and claiming dependable grinder Bill Berg off waivers from the New York Islanders.

Midway through the season, with Gilmour on a tear and up-and-coming goaltender Felix Potvin making a bid for full-time NHL duty, Fletcher made a bold move on par with the lopsided Calgary deal of the previous year. Trusting young Potvin to take command of the job in net,  Fletcher fleeced the Buffalo Sabres by sending the legendary Grant Fuhr (along with a 6th round pick) for high-scoring winger Dave Andreychuk, backup goaltender Daren Puppa, and a first round pick that would eventually become future Leafs’ defenseman Kenny Jonsson.

These would prove to be all the moves Toronto would need to make, as they would make the playoffs with ease and eventually come within one game of the Stanley Cup Final.

The following season, in 1993-94, Fletcher took a relative break from trade activity, with the only major roster move being the trade of Glenn Anderson for the equally-talented Mike Gartner.  Unfortunately, the Leafs would bow out once more in the third round of the playoffs.

Although questionable managerial decisions would ultimately dismantle the core of those 1992 – 94 teams, there was little doubt that the days of the Toronto Maple Laughs were no more, and that the passion for a championship had been re-invigorated in a city that had nearly lost the faith.

The Maple Leafs would remain a playoff contender throughout most of the 1990s and into the early 2000s by holding true to the Smith/Fletcher early-90s philosophy of establishing a foundation of grit, leadership, and solid defensive play.   In the following decade, from 1994-95 until the 2004 NHL lockout, the Maple Leafs would only miss the playoffs twice, and would twice more reach the Conference Finals (1999, 2002).

Maple Leafs fans today have reason to be excited.   Although the team has missed the playoffs in each season following the lockout, new hope is on the horizon with a management group that is committed to building through the draft, and a General Manager in Brian Burke who firmly believes in the philosophy of putting in place a foundation of grit, leadership and defensive acumen to support his skill players.   Once again, the future looks bright in Leaf Nation.

So why was 1989-90 the key season to the Leafs’ early-90s success?

The deals with Winnipeg, Calgary, and Edmonton simply would not have happened without the types of seasons Olcyck, Leeman, and Damphousse enjoyed during the 1989-90 campaign.  Each played a key role in carrying what looked like a lousy team on paper to a surprising .500 record and into the playoffs, success which caused rival GMs to take notice of the Leafs’ young talent.  Smith was able to parlay Olcyck’s solid 32-goal year into a much-needed top-pairing defenseman in Ellett, and Fletcher was able to turn Leeman’s sole 51-goal campaign into the steal of the century in Gilmour … a year and a half after the fact.  As for Damphousse, his great play, and the leadership he demonstrated in the absence of Wendel Clark, had Edmonton willing to offer up Grant Fuhr as part of the Anderson deal. Which, of course, ultimately led to Dave Andreychuk donning the blue and white.

Top ten scorers from 1989-90 season, and players from the 1992 – 94 teams for which they were exchanged:

1. Gary Leeman (Gilmour, Manderville, Macoun, Nattress)
2. Vincent Damphouse (Fuhr –> Andreychuk, Anderson –> Gartner)
3. Ed Olczyk (Dave Ellett)
4. Daniel Marois (Ken Baumgartner, Dave McLlwain)
5. Mark Osborne (part of the Dave Ellett deal, later re-acquired)
6. Al Iafrate (Peter Zezel, Bob Rouse)
7. Tom Kurvers (Brian Bradley –> lost in expansion draft, 1992)
8. Rob Ramage (lost in expansion draft, 1991)
9. Tom Fergus (traded for cash)
10. Lou Franceschetti (Mike Foligno)

Seven out of the top ten scorers on that surprising 1989-90 Maple Leafs squad were traded for players who ultimately played key roles in one or both of the Leafs’ 1992-93 and 1993-94 near-championships.  Further, three key players on those teams were drafted between 1990 and 1992: Felix Potvin (1990), Dmitri Mironov (1991), and Nikolai Borschevsky (1992).

(Slick Nik’s Game 7 OT tip-in against Detroit in ’93 remains to this day one of the most memorable Leaf playoff goals ever. For those who don’t remember the goal, and those who want to relive it, here it is.)