The 1993-94 Maple Leafs: Fighting the Fluke

The 1993-94 Maple Leafs: Fighting the Fluke

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The 3-headed monster that led the Leafs to their early-1990s success. (Image via ChangingOnTheFly.wordpress.com)

Following the unexpected success of the 1992-93 campaign, which saw the Maple Leafs take a 44-29-11 season to the Conference Finals, the stakes were high entering the 1993-94 season.  Could the Leafs prove that history was indeed behind them, and the previous season’s success was not a fluke as some critics were wont to suggest?

Jaded by the disaster that was the decade of the 1980s, one could hardly blame the skeptics for questioning everything from scoring depth to injury concerns to whether goaltender Felix Potvin was a flash-in-the-pan or the real deal.  After all, hopes had been raised, only to be suddenly dashed, not long before.  Fortunately, each of these questions was to be answered in short order — much to the delight of Leafs Nation.

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The Offseason: Re-alignment, Expansion, and Contractual History

The offseason of 1993 was one of relatively little activity for the Maple Leafs in comparison to prior years.  Perhaps the biggest change came with re-alignment. Gone was the Norris Division, newly-minted as the Central Division — geographically-based division names formed a key part of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s plan to make the game simpler for new fans to understand — and featuring the inclusion of the Winnipeg Jets, as well as the new Dallas Stars franchise (formerly Minnesota).  Division standings would no longer determine playoff matchups; where previously the top four in each division squared off against each other, playoff brackets would now be determined by Conference standings, a system which remains in place to this day.

1993-94 also marked the third consecutive year of expansion, this time with the Florida Panthers and Anaheim Ducks entering the league. Fortunately, this time around the Leafs‘ losses weren’t nearly as significant (in 1992 Brian Bradley was claimed by Tampa Bay, and promptly scored 42 goals). Checking forward Joe Sacco was claimed by Anaheim, while veteran backup goaltender Daren Puppa took his talents to South Beach.

The 1993 Entry Draft saw the Ottawa Senators nab Junior phenom Alexandre Daigle with the top pick. Subsequent contract negotiations would lead to the largest ever rookie contract in the NHL … and eventually a series of rule changes largely responsible for the Entry Level Contract salary cap in today’s game.  Quietly going to the Hartford Whalers with the second overall pick was Chris Pronger.

The Maple Leafs drafted Swedish defender Kenny Jonsson with the ninth overall pick, acquired from the Buffalo Sabres in the prior season’s wildly lopsided Grant Fuhr-Dave Andreychuk trade.  With their own first-rounder, nineteenth overall, the Leafs drafted power forward Landon Wilson.  Although Wilson would eventually go on to forge a solid career as a reliable checking line forward with Boston and Phoenix, hindsight stings with this one as two picks later, the Montreal Canadiens drafted Saku Koivu. Also available were Todd Bertuzzi, Jamie Langenbrunner, Janne Niinimaa, Brendan Morrisson and — coincidentally — future Maple Leaf Bryan McCabe.

The overall lack of activity on the part of Leafs’ GM Cliff Fletcher reflected the organization’s belief that the previous year’s success was no fluke. Fletcher opted to stand relatively pat with regard to available free agents, stocking the farm team in St. John’s with youthful castoffs such as Chris Snell, Chris Govedaris and Marcel Cousineau while waving goodbye to part-time Leafs Bob McGill, Bob Halkidis, and Rob Cimetta. On the trade front, Fletcher again made few moves of consequence, shipping veteran part-timers Dave Tomlinson and Kevin McLelland out for cash.

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The Roster

Given the success of the 1992-93 club, the roster returned pretty much intact with only a few minor changes. At the start of the 1993-94 season, the team was constructed as follows:

Forwards
Glenn Anderson, Dave Andreychuk, Ken Baumgartner, Bill Berg, Nikolai Borschevsky, Wendel Clark, John Cullen, Mike Eastwood, Mike Foligno, Doug Gilmour, Mike Krushelnyski, Kent Manderville, Mark Osborne, Rob Pearson, Peter Zezel (others who would play a part time role included Patrick Augusta, Chris Govedaris, Darby Hendrickson, Alexei Kudashov, Eric Lacroix, Guy Larose, Yanic Perreault and David Sacco)

Defense
Drake Berehowsky, Dave Ellett, Todd Gill, Sylvain Lefebvre, Jamie Macoun, Dmitri Mironov, Bob Rouse (others who would play a part time role included Frank Bialowas, David Harlock, and Chris Snell)

Goaltending
Felix Potvin
Damian Rhodes

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The Season Begins

The Maple Leafs quickly silenced any and all doubters by opening the season the best way imaginable: recording a franchise record-setting ten consecutive victories.  In their first 16 games, the Leafs would post a 12-1-3 record and looked to be all but unstoppable.

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Saying Goodbye

Casting a pall over the string of victories to begin the season was the departure of fan favorite Mike Foligno, who in his 15th season found himself lingering on the bench, dressing for only four of the first fourteen games as head coach Pat Burns sought to find ice time for younger players.  The expansion Florida Panthers were looking for leadership, and Fletcher was willing to accommodate Foligno’s desire to play a larger role on a rebuilding club, sending him south for cash.

When asked about the trade, Foligno noted that as much as he enjoyed being a part of the Maple Leafs, he felt capable of playing a larger role than the situation in Toronto allowed:

“[The Leafs] wanted to see how their young kids did, however, and see how the team started. When I met [with Cliff Fletcher], he told me the Panthers were interested, but he also said he wanted me to stay [...] People may ask why I wanted to to leave a first-place club. Well, I didn’t feel a challenge there anymore. I think the best thing for me was to serve another club, and I wanted to go to an expansion team. It was something I’d never done, and I’m the type of person who likes new experiences. This is a great opportunity for me to meet a new challenge.” [Quotes courtesy the South Florida Sun-Sentinal]

Despite the loss of Foligno’s leadership, the Leafs would continue to play a spirited November, finishing the first two months of the season with a sterling 17-5-4 record.  Key to their success was a revitalized and healthy Wendel Clark, who cemented his legend by scoring 23 goals in those first two months alone while appearing in 24 of the first 26 games.  But it wasn’t just Clark carrying the team. In those first 26 games Doug Gilmour recorded 35 points (6 G, 29 A), while Dave Andreychuk added 31 points (17 G, 14 A).  And goaltender Felix Potvin showed no signs of a sophomore slump,  starting 22 of the first 26 games and posting a 13-5-4 record and .918 SV% during that span.

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The Injury Bug

Fans knew the hot streak had to come to an end sometime, and the fast start would prove to pay off many times over as injuries began to hit key members of the team. Nikolai Borschevsky, Dave Ellett, Todd Gill and Peter Zezel would each miss much of the next month, which coupled with mini-slumps from Andreychuk and Clark resulted in a 4-7-2 slide.

The red-hot Clark would miss much of January with injury, as would the unsung Mike Krushelnyski.  Yet despite this immense loss of grit and leadership the Leafs rallied around a once-again healthy defense corps, and the play of Gilmour and Andreychuk, to post a 7-2-4 record on the month, including an eleven game unbeaten streak.  March and April would see the Leafs again battling injuries, this time to Gill, Bob Rouse and John Cullen, causing the team to struggle to maintain a .500 record over the span of the season’s final stretch.

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Fletcher Makes His Move

Knowing Cliff Fletcher’s penchant for wheeling-and-dealing, fans knew it would be only a matter of time before The Silver Fox pulled off another deal.  With New York Rangers’ GM Neil Smith having made a concerted effort to add members of the former Edmonton Oilers’ dynasty over the past few seasons (acquiring Adam Graves, Mark Messier and Jeff Beukeboom in 1991-92, Esa Tikkanen and Kevin Lowe in 1992-93, and soon to add Craig MacTavish at the 1993-94 trade deadline), it was not at all surprising that the Rangers expressed an interest in Glenn Anderson.

Cognizant of the need for veteran leadership with the playoffs rapidly approaching, Fletcher agreed to send Anderson, along with minor-leaguer Scott Malone and a 4th round pick (Alexander Korobolin) to New York for veteran sniper and all-around good guy Mike Gartner.  The deal worked out immediately for the Leafs, as Gartner would score 6 goals in the season’s final 10 games.

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After 84: the Post-season Beckons

The Leafs would finish the regular season sporting a 43-29-12 record, one point shy of their franchise-record setting season of the year prior, a feat all the more impressive considering the multitude of injuries over the season’s second half.  More importantly, their banged-up roster was beginning to return to health just in time for the playoffs.

Although Gilmour did not match his record-setting pace of the previous year, he broke the 100-point barrier for a second consecutive season with the Leafs (27 – 84 – 111).  Andreychuk recorded his second straight 50-goal season, netting 53 to go along with 46 assists. Both were outdone by Clark, however, who in the finest season of his career finished with an astounding 46 goals in 64 games … a sure bet to have joined Andreychuk in the 50-goal club had he been able to stay healthy.

But perhaps the most unheralded contributor to the 1993-94 squad was shutdown defender Sylvain Lefebvre.  Appearing in all 84 games, Lefebvre led the club with a sterling +33 plus/minus rating.  Although a strong case can be made that plus/minus is arguably among the most misleading of statistics, it carries a degree of usefulness when contrasting players on an individual team.  In that context, Lefebvre’s +33 can be seen as all the more impressive — and impactful — when compared to the +8 recorded by the next-highest plus/minus rating defenders on the club (Gill, Rouse).

Unfortunately there were several others who, largely due to injury, could not meet the expectations of a season prior. A serious spleen injury limited Borschevsky’s campaign to just 45 games, in which he managed a respectable 14 goals and 35 points but was clearly not the same player upon his return.  Similarly, Cullen’s continuing injury woes limited him to just 30 points (13 G, 17 A) in 53 games, while Zezel recorded 16 (8 G, 8 A) in 41 games. And Rob Pearson, whose prior season had held so much promise, slumped to 12 goals and 18 assists in 67 games.  On the defensive side, the long-tenured Gill was limited to only 45 appearances.

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The Postseason Begins

Following the run the 1992-93 team put together, the 1993-94 Maple Leafs naturally entered the post-season with sky-high expectations.  With offensive support beyond the triumvirate of Gilmour, Andreychuk and Clark, goaltending and defensive play were going to have to be at their best for the Leafs to repeat, or better, their post-season success of the season prior.

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Round 1: Toronto v. Chicago, or, “The Legend of Felix Potvin”

The Maple Leafs entered the playoffs a healthy and hungry group. Faced against the Jeremy Roenick- and Chris Chelios-led Chicago Blackhawks, who entered the playoffs on the back of another stellar season by goaltender Ed Belfour, the Toronto squad knew it had to make the most of its home-ice advantage.  And in the opening game, they did not disappoint.  As many expected, Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk would each light the lamp, but it was the “grit guys” who made the biggest difference, with Bill Berg, Jamie Macoun and Kent Manderville each adding tallies of their own in a 5-1 romp to open the post-season campaign.

The Blackhawks — and Belfour — regrouped for Game 2, carrying a tension-filled, scoreless game into overtime.  Early in the extra frame Belfour, who had turned aside 37 shots to that point, was unable to stop a point shot by Leafs’ everyman Todd Gill — a goal steeped in controversy as Wendel Clark appeared to tap Belfour’s stick just prior to the puck going in.  Nevertheless, the goal was allowed to stand (replay officials looked at whether Clark was in the crease, not whether he interfered with Belfour) and the Leafs headed into Chicago up two games to none.

Bitter about the controversial Game 2 loss, the Blackhawks would roar back on home ice, with Tony Amonte putting 4 goals past Felix Potvin in a 5-4 Chicago victory.  If Game 3 was the Amonte show, Game 4 was the Gary Suter show, with the defender’s hat trick carrying the Blackhawks into overtime with the score tied at three. In the extra frame, an unchecked Roenick would swoop in to one-time a deflected Amonte feed past Potvin to tie the series. In a turn of unfortunate poetic justice, the goat on that play was none other than Game 2 hero Gill, whose turnover at the Leafs’ blueline led directly to the scoring play.

Back on home ice, to a man the Leafs’ players vowed to be better after surrendering nine goals in the two losses in Chicago. But with the game scoreless six minutes into the 3rd period, disaster nearly struck as Chicago forward Joe Murphy fired a waist-high shot that appeared to beat Potvin … only to have the Leafs’ goaltender reach back and snare the puck just inches from the goal line.  Just minutes later, Leafs’ checking forward Mike Eastwood — filling in for Gilmour, who’d left the game with an ankle injury — drove hard to the Chicago net and tapped in an Andreychuk pass to give the Leafs a 1-0 lead.  Despite a heroic effort from Belfour, whose team was outshot 37-17, the Blackhawks could muster no offense as Potvin’s second shutout carried the Leafs to a 3-2 series lead.

Having suffered the effects of three consecutive Game 7′s in their ’92 playoff run, the Maple Leafs had no intention of returning home for a deciding game. In front of a boisterous, domineering Chicago crowed, the Leafs reverted to a defensive shell after taking the lead on a first-period goal on a deflection by Mike Gartner.  Despite outshooting the Leafs 27-17, the Blackhawks could once again not solve Felix Potvin, whose third shutout of the series led the Leafs to the six-game first-round victory.

How remarkable was Potvin during the series against Chicago?  In six games, he allowed ten goals on 166 shots for a .940 SV%, recording a remarkable three shutouts.  But even better than that is his home record: in three games at Maple Leafs Gardens, Potvin allowed only one goal on 77 shots for an incredible .987 SV%.  His performance, quite simply, ranked among the greatest ever in a playoff series in Toronto Maple Leafs’ history.

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Toronto Knows the Way to San Jose

The Leafs entered the second round of the playoffs facing an opponent few would have guessed would be there, the San Jose Sharks.  An expansion club only three years’ prior, the Sharks had assembled a hard-working team around legendary Russian stars Igor Larianov and Sergei Makarov, with young goaltender Arturs Irbe considered by many to be a star-in-the-making.

Aside: This series also featured an oft-forgotten rule change, which lasted only one season. Playoff series involving a heavy amount of travel (e.g. those featuring West coast teams) would be played in a 2-3-2 format, rather than the traditional 2-2-1-1-1 format.  The new rules didn’t take with traditionalist fans or owners, and playoff series returned the to 2-2-1-1-1 format on a full-time basis the following season.

The series would prove to be a wild one, with San Jose taking a 3-2 shocker on Toronto ice to open the series, followed by a 5-1 Leafs victory to even things up. With the series moving to San Jose, the teams again forged a split with the Sharks winning 5-2 in Game 3, the Leafs knotting the series up with an 8-3 shellacking in Game 4, and the Sharks once again winning in Game 5 in Toronto by a 5-2 margin.  The see-saw affair continued with Toronto returning home to staving off elimination in Game 6, with Gartner providing the winner in a 3-2 overtime victory.

With a seventh game on the docket, several questions loomed large: Could the Leafs’ much-vaunted defense re-assert themselves in this series? Could Felix Potvin rediscover his first-round form? And did the Leafs have enough left in the tank to return to Conference Finals for a second straight season?

The answers to these questions, as it turns out, were “yes”, “yes”, and “did you ever doubt it?”.  Despite being outshot 26-11 through two periods, Potvin shut the door and the Leafs entered the third period leading 2-0 on a pair of Clark tallies. Mark Osborne and Igor Larianov would trade goals to make it a 3-1, before Gilmour iced both the game and the playoff round with his third goal (and 16th point) of the series.

Technically-speaking, one more Leafs player would score in this one as Lefebvre managed to put one in his own net in the dying seconds. But it hardly mattered beyond being an odd moment in the team’s playoff history; the game itself was for all intents and purposes over. What mattered more was, with their season on the line, the Leafs gave it their all in the decisive contest and were rewarded with a series victory … and a date with the red-hot Vancouver Canucks.

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An All-Canadian Heartbreak

For the second straight season, the Leafs earned themselves a spot in the Conference Finals, this time against young superstar Pavel Bure and his Vancouver Canucks.  The Leafs entered the series hoping to avoid a few occurrences from the ’92 run: another seven-game series, another third-round loss, and falling victim to another key officiating gaffe. As it turned out, two of the three would come true.

The series started off in promising fashion, with the Leafs taking the opener 3-2 on  goals by Andreychuk and Zezel (who scored a pair, including the overtime winner).  Two nights later, however, a 3-assist performance by Gilmour wouldn’t be enough as the Leafs would fall 4-3 and head to the coast with the series tied.

And that’s when the unthinkable happened: the offense, so dependable throughout the first two rounds, suddenly couldn’t solve Canucks’ goaltender Kirk McLean.  In Games 3 and 4 McLean stopped all 58 shots he faced, posting back-to-back shutouts to push the Leafs to the brink of elimination.

Although the Leafs may have had no desire for yet another Game 7, Game 5 certainly felt like one.  Back-and-forth scoring chances resulted in a 3-3 tie and an overtime period, after which the score remained tied and hope remained alive in Leafs Nation.  But just seconds into double-overtime, Canucks’ forward Greg Adams would pounce on a huge rebound to end Toronto’s season and send Vancouver onward to the Stanley Cup Final.

Notables during the Leafs’ playoff run included Doug Gilmour (28 points in 18 games), Dave Ellett (18 points in 18 games), Wendel Clark (9 goals) and Mike Gartner (3 game-winning goals).  Somewhat surprisingly, Dave Andreychuk was only able to record 5 goals during the post-season run, while Nikolai Borschevsky was a shadow of his former self with only 4 points (2 G, 2 A) in 15 appearances.  Felix Potvin, meanwhile, turned in his second consecutive excellent playoff performance, finishing with a 9-9 record, 2.46 GAA, .912 SV% and 3 shutouts.

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The Aftermath

The Vancouver Canucks would go on to face the New York Rangers in the 1994 Stanley Cup Final, a seven-game series which would see the Mark Messier-led Rangers (and ex-Leaf Glenn Anderson) break a 50-year championship curse in what is widely remembered as one of the most entertaining Finals of all time.

For the Maple Leafs, the end of the 1993-94 campaign brought about the end of a short, yet brilliant, era in franchise history.  In the offseason, the team’s identity would be undeniably altered with the trade of team captain, and face of the franchise, Wendel Clark for a young Swede named Mats Sundin. Other notable off-season departures would include Sylvain Lefebvre (in the Clark trade), John Cullen, Mike Krushelnyski, Rob Pearson, Bob Rouse and Peter Zezel.

With a revamped roster, the new-look Leafs would go on to make the playoffs in each of the next two seasons, followed by a two-year post-season hiatus before reloading to charge all the way back to the Conference Finals in 1998.  They would continue to make the playoffs each subsequent season (including another trip to the Conference Finals in 2002) leading up to the 2004-05 lockout …

… and the rest, as they say, is history.  But those are stories for another day.

Looking forward to your thoughts as always,

[email protected]
twitter.com/garrettbauman

Alec Brownscombe is the founder of MapleLeafsHotStove.com, where he has written daily about the Leafs since September of 2008. He was also the editor of the 2009-12 Maple Leafs Annuals. You can contact him at [email protected]
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