If you throw a punch and it lands, you might win the fight.
If you throw a punch and miss, that’s when you’re vulnerable.
It’s the 1995-96 season and the Toronto Maple Leafs have the playoffs on their minds. After losing in the 1993 and 1994 Western Conference Final, the Leafs lost a seven-game series to the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the 1995 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
(Let me pause for a second for the younger crowd. the Leafs used to be in the Western Conference. Remember how the Red Wings used to be in the west? OK this is like that but dumber. Moving on.)
The Leafs seem to still think they have a legitimate shot to go on a decent run in the playoffs. In August, before the 95-96 season began, the Leafs acquired defender Dmitri Yushkevich and a 1996 second-rounder from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for a 1996 first, 1996 fourth, and a 1997 second-rounder.
As the 1996 trade deadline approached, the Leafs made a big splash, one that was meant to bolster the roster and make fans go nuts. On March 13, 1996, the Leafs acquired defender Mathieu Schneider, defender D.J. Smith, and former Leafs captain Wendel Clark.
The fans in Toronto were gaga for Clark’s return and blew the roof off of Maple Leaf Gardens when he scored in his first game back. Please enjoy what might be the most 1990’s video ever.
My goodness! Pandemonium in Hogtown, Leafs fans as loud as ever, and the prodigal son returned. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, see, loading up for the 1996 Stanley Cup Playoffs might not have been the best idea. On one hand, the Western Conference was fairly weak. Consider this: The Tampa Bay Lightning were the worst team to make the playoffs in the east with 88 points. The worst team to make it in the west was the (original) Winnipeg Jets with just 78. The New Jersey Devils missed the playoffs in the east with 86 points, whereas the Leafs finished fourth in the west with just 80 points.
On one hand, you could view that as the west being ripe for the picking. On the other, the 1995-96 Red Wings finished with a monstrous 134 points while the Colorado Avalanche, who had recently acquired Patrick Roy, had 104. Those two beastly teams appeared destined for a collision course in the Western Conference Final, which in fact did happen and was one of the nastiest playoff series of the past three decades.
No matter! At least the Leafs can get at least two rounds worth of playoff revenue, right?
Clark was a nice add for the Leafs but their opponents, the St. Louis Blues, added Wayne Gretzky. Sad trombone, the Blues won in six.
Whatever. The Blues got theirs in the second round.
Oh, right! What did the Leafs give the Islanders?
This is the part where I give you a moment to back out while you still can because if you’re a Leafs fan I’m definitely about to ruin your day.
The Leafs gave up a four-piece package: Three players and one pick.
Sean Haggerty was one piece. He was selected in the second round of the 1994 draft but never quite panned out for the Islanders, only playing 10 NHL games for them.
Darby Hendrickson was another piece. He was a young, up-and-coming depth centre looking to stay in the NHL longterm. He ended up going back to the Leafs a few months later.
Kenny Johnsson was the third piece. This one hurts. Shortly before the Clark trade, the Leafs traded away forwards Dave Andreychuk and Benoit Hogue. They finished fifth and sixth on the team in scoring despite not finishing with the Leafs. Johnsson finished seventh, despite being a 20-year-old defender, scoring 26 points in 50 games. Johnsson was also the Leafs’ second-leading defensive scorer behind Larry Murphy.
Johnsson went on to play 597 games with the Islanders, putting up 232 points. Matthieu Schneider was a slight offensive upgrade on Johnsson, putting up 7 points in 13 games to end the season, but it seemed obvious that Johnsson could have helped the Leafs in both the short and longterm.
In fairness, Schneider was under contract but simply fell to a groin injury that sidelined him for the majority of the 1996-97 season. Schneider’s 37 points in 76 games was excellent in 1997-98, even if the Leafs as a team were not.
And now number four…
Remember how I said the Leafs didn’t have their first-rounder in 1996? Well the Islanders wanted a first anyway. The simple solution: Toronto gave the Islanders their 1997 first-rounder.
What’s the saying? Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.
If you’ve read my Scott Niedermayer trade tree, which is its own treasure trove of yuck, you know where this story goes. The Leafs acquire a player in the 1989-90 season for a 1991 first-rounder, think they’re better than they are, they are very not, and low and behold they surrender the third overall pick to the Devils who select Scott Niedermayer.
The Leafs’ 1996-97 season went… poorly.
There were injuries. There were trades. Mats Sundin and Tie Domi were the only Leafs to reach 80 games. Felix Potvin, as much as it pains me to say it, had a terrible year with a .908 save percentage in a heavy 74 games while facing just under 2,500 shots.
The Leafs finished last in the Central Division, third-last in the Western Conference, and fourth-last in the entire NHL. Guess what that means, kids.
The first-rounder the Leafs gave the New York Islanders ended up being the fourth overall pick in 1997.
The Islanders used that pick to select: Roberto Luongo.
Alright here’s how my dumb fantasy goes: The Leafs probably would have continued down the path they were on. Ride Potvin for a year or two more, sign Curtis Joseph as a free agent, trade Potvin, and develop Luongo while CuJo holds the fort. When CuJo leaves, Luongo is ready, the Leafs never sign Belfour, he never gets bought out, no Rask-for-Raycroft trade, and we all have a Merry Christmas.
That’s all wishful thinking though.
Consider this however: The Leafs drafted Felix Potvin in 1990. The Leafs didn’t draft another goalie who actually played an NHL game for them until they selected Mikael Telqvist in 2000.
OK I’m drawing this out with agonizing hypotheticals. How does the trade tree stretch out?
For the Islanders, the tree is enormous and is actually still ongoing.
If it makes Leafs fans feel any better, the Islanders wasted Luongo in one of the worst trades in franchise history. Isles GM Mike Milbury sent both Luongo and Olli Jokinen to the Florida Panthers for Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha.
Parrish certainly wasn’t bad. He scored 214 points in 345 games with the Islanders. Kvasha wasn’t bad either, scoring 156 points in 332 games with the Islanders. Jokinen, though: Four different 30-plus goal seasons, 321 career goals, 750 points in 1,231 games, including 419 points in 567 games as a Panther. Losing Jokinen was bad. Losing Luongo, too? That’s a fleecing.
It’s not all bad for the Isles though.
The Islanders traded Parrish to L.A. in a deal that saw them acquire defender Dennis Grebeshkov. The Isles then sent Grebeshkov to Edmonton for defender Marc-Andre Bergeron and a 2008 third-rounder. A few months later, the Isles then sent that third-rounder and defender Allan Rourke to Edmonton for a second-rounder in 2008. That pick was 53rd overall and used to select current Islanders defender Travis Hamonic. That ought to take the sting off the Luongo trade. Well, maybe a bit.
In a funny twist of fate, the Islanders traded Bergeron to the Anaheim Ducks for what was actually the same 2008 third-rounder they initially acquired with him, which turned into Kirill Petrov. He never left the KHL except for one brief 13-game AHL stint.
The Islanders traded Kvasha and a 2006 fifth-rounder to Phoenix for a 2006 third-rounder. The Isles managed to turn that third-rounder into several more picks in deals with Boston and later San Jose. Unfortunately, none of those picks cracked the NHL with the Islanders. Even more unfortunately, Boston used that 2006 third-rounder to select Brad Marchand at 71st overall.
How about the Leafs?
I’ve heard some refer to this as the worst trade in Leafs history. In my humble opinion, that’s simply not the case. Oh, it’s definitely not a good trade but it could be worse. In truly catastrophic trades, you give up a lot in return for nothing. In this case, the Leafs gave up a lot but at least got something.
Clark played 125 games in his second stint as a Leaf, scoring 50 goals and 33 assists for 83 points. The Leafs weren’t great but he did his part.
Smith was flipped to Nashville for Marc Moro, who never played for the Leafs but did serve as the captain of the Leafs’ AHL affiliate. Smith is also one of the Leafs’ current assistant coaches, by the way.
Schneider played 115 games with Toronto before getting dealt to the New York Rangers in a deal that saw the Leafs get defender Alexander Karpovtsev.
After 125 games as a Leaf, Karpovtsev was traded to the Blackhawks in a deal that saw the Leafs acquire Bryan McCabe.
After seven years and 523 games in Toronto, McCabe was traded to Florida for defender Mike van Ryn, who managed to sneak in 27 games as a Leaf.
In total, between Schneider, Karpovtsev, McCabe, and Van Ryn, that’s 790 Leafs games. Sure, you’d rather have Luongo but that’s far from nothing.
Luckily, this trade would mark the last time the Leafs would trade away their first-round pick before the season even began (Oh Tyler Seguin. Right).
As a rule of thumb, maybe don’t trade away your first round-pick before Valentine’s Day.