Maple Leafs Trade Tree: Aki Berg

Aki Berg. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Aki Berg.

This name always invokes a funny reaction for me. I’ve read about the Leafs-Habs trade of Russ Courtnall for John Kordic and it just doesn’t resonate that much because it happened only a few months after I was born. Aki Berg, however, is a name I remember well.

With the Los Angeles Kings visiting Toronto to play the Maple Leafs on Tuesday night, let’s take a look back at the Aki Berg trade.

Aki-Petteri Berg was the third overall pick of the 1995 NHL Draft. I’m going to go ahead and type that again just in case: Aki Berg was the third overall pick of the 1995 NHL Draft. Another former Leaf, Chad Kilger, was actually fourth.

I was lamenting this to a friend recently, saying “If Aki Berg were a prospect for the 2017 NHL Draft and you saw his numbers, you wouldn’t even send a scout to watch his games.” As my friend pointed out though, that’s simply not true. He played in Finland’s highest leagues from the age of 16. That will get you noticed whether you put up points or not.

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It likely also helped that Berg’s Finnish team, TPS Turku, featured the likes of 1993 first-rounder Saku Koivu and 1992 fourth-rounder Jere Lehtinen. Who knows, Berg’s high profile in 1995 might have gotten his short-term teammate, Miikka Kiprusoff, noticed enough for the San Jose Sharks to draft him in the fifth round that year.

All this along with the fact that Berg was a 1995 dream at 6-foot-3 and about 215 pounds, which probably helped get him selected third overall by the Kings.

But they would eventually sour on that choice.

After five seasons of bouncing between the NHL and IHL, including one season back in Finland, the Kings decided to trade Berg at the 2001 trade deadline.

To who? Why the Leafs, of course.

Now you’re probably wondering what the Leafs offered up. Well, I’m going to make you wait a bit.

On October 8, 1999, the Leafs traded veteran defender Sylvain Cote to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for a second-round pick and a conditional draft choice. The second-round pick the Leafs received from Chicago was in 2001.

Fast forward to the 2001 NHL trade deadline.

The Leafs were poised to squeak in to the 2001 Stanley Cup Playoffs, while the Blackhawks were well out of contention. This made the Blackhawks’ second-rounder the Leafs received for Cote more valuable than the Leafs’ own second-rounder in 2001.

With that, the Leafs traded their own 2001 second-round pick along with forward Adam Mair to the LA Kings in exchange for Berg.

At the 2001 NHL Draft, the Leafs used Chicago’s second-rounder to select Karel Pilar 39th overall. If that doesn’t ring a bell, say it like this: PEE-lash. Yeah, now you remember.

Pilar is incorrectly remembered as a bust by most, but that’s not fair. He was drafted out of the Czech League on Litvinov HC where he put up very respectable numbers for a defender. In fact, at 39th overall Pilar was the second-highest right-handed defender drafted in 2001 after Montreal Canadiens first-round pick Mike Komisarek.

He came to North America right after getting drafted and put up good numbers with the Leafs’ AHL team, the St. John’s Maple Leafs. He even had short stints in the NHL with the Leafs and looked pretty good.

So what happened?

It was discovered that Pilar suffered a rare viral infection that attacked his heart. You can read about it in this 2007 profile on one of Pilar’s attempted comebacks. He was not a bad draft choice; far from it, in my opinion. Just rotten luck.

Now, you’ll remember the Leafs traded their own 2001 second-rounder to the LA Kings for Berg. Wanna take a guess who that pick became? I mean, you assume the pick turned out to be a star, right?

With the 49th overall pick in the 2001 NHL Draft, the LA Kings selected Mike Cammalleri.

Out of that 2001 draft class, Cammalleri is third in goals with 280 behind only Ilya Kovalchuk and Jason Spezza. He’s also fourth in total points behind just those two and Jason Pominville. In fact, the 34-year-old Toronto native just scored the sixth hat-trick of his career against the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday.

Berg, meanwhile, played 325 games with the Leafs, scoring 10 goals and 32 assists for 42 points.

Pat Quinn was both the Leafs’ coach and GM at the time of this trade. I found these quotes from him in a article from 2001:

“The situation in L.A. was that he was a fifth or sixth guy and we thought there was some real upside,” Leafs head coach/GM Pat Quinn said. “When guys get an opportunity elsewhere, sometimes they can grow.

“This was more done in the long-term sense because of his age (23) and his skill level and when we look at our team, we could have a pretty good young defence. We now have six young guys who have a lot of potential for growth in front of them.”

Let’s try to defend the Leafs’ logic on this one by attempting to use our 2001 eyes.

The Leafs know they’re about to go into the playoffs. They also know they have two second-round picks, including one that should be in the top-40 (their Chicago pick ended up being 39th). What’s the harm in trading a second-rounder for a 23-year-old defender with some potential upside who you can plunk into your roster right away?

Could the Leafs have picked Cammalleri instead of Pilar? Sure they could have, but the same could be said about every other team in the league. The Leafs also clearly went into the 2001 Draft with a simple plan: Draft defence.

Toronto’s first four picks in 2001 were used on defencemen. The Leafs used their first-rounder in 2001 to select Carlo Colaiacovo, their second on Pilar, and two of their three third-rounders to select defenders Brendan Bell and Jay Harrison. Those picks, along with a 23-year-old Berg who was once the third overall pick? The Leafs were addressing an organizational concern on defence while trying to strengthen their roster for a playoff run. That’s good planning.

But Mike Cammalleri.

You could make the argument that Berg was terrible and the Leafs should have never made the deal, but hindsight is 20/20. Considering what Berg was expected to be, and considering he played more than 300 games for the Leafs, a second-round pick and a depth forward are a reasonable price to pay.

But Mike Cammalleri.

Anyway, this was 15 years ago. What’s in the past is in the past. Let’s gear up for what should be an exciting game between the Los Angeles Kings and the Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday night.

…But Mike Cammalleri.

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