It is not quite that Oct. 16, 1989, lives as a “date of infamy” in Toronto Maple Leaf history, but it does stand as one when a smaller “innocent” move had much more serious repercussions.
Floyd Smith, then the new general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, needed to find that steady “stud” defenceman on a Leaf team that had got off to a 1-4-0 start in their first five games and, even worse, had allowed 30 goals against (6.00 per game) over that period.
After losing out on acquiring Randy Moller from the Quebec Nordiques (he had been traded earlier to the New York Rangers for Michel Petit), Smith focused on Tom Kurvers from the New Jersey Devils.
The 27-year-old Kurvers had been a solid NHL defenceman for six NHL seasons and had been traded from Montreal to Buffalo (in 1986) for a second-round draft choice and from Buffalo to New Jersey (in 1987) for a third-round draft choice. Now Kurvers would be going to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a serious upgrade in a first-round draft choice in 1991.
The added cache and value in that particular draft would be that Eric Lindros, the most touted graduating junior player since Mario Lemieux in 1984, would be eligible that season.
The Lindros “situation” would be very much a back burner visual for the Toronto Maple Leafs as they blossomed with Kurvers in the lineup and finished the 1989-90 season with a .500 record (38-38-4), which meant they were three games above .500 with Kurvers in the lineup. He had a solid season on the Leaf blueline with 52 points (15 goals, 37 assists) in 70 games.
Despite a first-round playoff loss to the St. Louis Blues, Leaf fans were very excited about a team that had finished third in the NHL in goals for with 337 (only Calgary with 348 and Los Angeles with 338 had more).
The optimism and excitement in looking forward to even better things in 1990-91 would soon unravel as would the perspective on the Kurvers trade.
The unanticipated nightmare of the 1990-91 regular season would start with the Leafs going 1-9-1 in their first 11 games and then firing head coach Doug Carpenter who was replaced by Tom Watt. The brutal start was bad enough for Leaf management, but now the spectre of that first-round pick going to the New Jersey Devils possibly becoming Lindros was a very unsettling reality. The Leafs were 4-16-1 on Nov. 17, and dead last in the NHL, which was not a great situation for two NHL teams.
For the Leafs it’s obvious why, but the Quebec Nordiques welcomed finishing dead last and being able to draft Lindros. The Leafs’ unexpected early-season woes were putting them in serious “contention” for that dubious (but lucrative) honour. So on Nov. 17, GM Smith made a trade to strictly erase the possibility of finishing last.
The Leafs gave up Scott Pearson and two second round selections to Quebec for Lucien DeBlois, Michel Petit and Aaron Broten. These three veteran players had no future with the Maple Leafs. The trade only made the Nordiques weaker for that season and strengthened the Leafs. It increased the Nordiques chances of finishing last and decreased Toronto’s odds. It was a trade that would never have happened had the Kurvers deal with New Jersey not occurred.
The nightmare ‘90-91 season would remain a Leaf nightmare, but at least wouldn’t lead to Lindros being the “cost” for Kurvers who, by the way, also struggled that season and was traded to Vancouver for Brian Bradley in January.
The expansion San Jose Sharks had the second overall selection in the ’91 draft. If they had selected Scott Niedermayer instead of Pat Falloon, the negative legacy of the Kurvers trade would have died there. But they didn’t. Instead, the New Jersey Devils used Toronto’s pick to draft Scott Niedermayer third overall.
Much like Brian Burke made the Phil Kessel trade never expecting the Bruins to have a chance to select Tyler Seguin, Smith had the same thought in regards to the Kurvers deal. The top 10 of the 1991 draft included one other stud in Peter Forsberg, but otherwise less-than-ordinary high first-rounders Falloon, Scott Lachance, Aaron Ward, Alex Stojanov, Richard Matvichuk, Patrick Poulin, and Martin Lapointe were picked at the top.
The Leafs may have “dodged a bullet” when their pick wasn’t used on Lindros, but experienced an arguably worse result in the Devils choosing Niedermayer. He accomplished feats that eluded Lindros: four Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe Trophy and induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Plus, Niedermayer won a Norris Trophy (something Lindros wasn’t eligible for).
Niedermayer became a huge contributor on New Jersey’s uphill climb from a team that had trouble getting out of the first round of the playoffs, to an NHL powerhouse. What if he had instead joined the team that finished 20th out of 21 NHL teams in 1990-91?
Think of the Toronto Maple Leaf playoff runs in 1993 and 1994 after Cliff Fletcher (Smith’s successor as GM) added the likes of Doug Gilmour, Dave Andreychuk, Glenn Anderson and Jamie Macoun to existing Leafs like Wendel Clark, Todd Gill and Felix Potvin. Think of the significant difference an elite NHL defenceman like Niedermayer would have made with those two teams. Stanley Cup teams seem to need an elite “stud” all-star defenceman – something the Leafs didn’t have for those two playoff runs.
The New Jersey Devils sure did when they won their first Stanley Cup in 1995. Scott Niedermayer went on to lead the Devils to three Cups and the Anaheim Ducks to one, the kind of success that continues to elude the Leafs and their fans.