The Great Train Wreck of 1990-91


The 1990 home opener. Fitting that it was against Quebec. 

I thought it might be worthwhile to depart from the normal LotD formula to talk about a particular Leaf team for today.  As the current losing streak grows, comparisons to the train wreck of 1990-91 are becoming more frequent and louder and I thought it might be useful to look at that team a bit - if nothing else, it will allow the comparsions to be a little better understood.

The thing I'm watching this year is not whether the Leafs fall on their collective faces but what Brian Burke will do about it if it happens.  The problems with the Leafs of 1990-91 didn't come from the fact that they almost traded away Eric Lindros but the destruction waged on the team in the attempts to avoid it.  It was easily the most dismal season I ever saw.

I spent a lot of years ripping on Leaf GM Floyd Smith for the mistakes he made that year but over time, as I really started to look at it, I can kind of feel for him.  He still made a lot of mistakes but he really faced the perfect storm.

To really get what happened in 1990-91, you need to start with 1989-90.  This team was the first Leaf team to finish .500 in a decade, which in and of itself doesn't sound like a whole lot, but to the fans it was huge. 

What was even better about them was the way that they did it.  This was a young team with lots of guys who'd come up through the system.  We'd watched them grow and develop and they were finally starting to prosper.  They couldn't defend a whole lot, but man, could they score.  They'd set a team record with 337 goals scored that year, almost four and a quarter per game.  The scoring came from everywhere.  They had seven different 20-goal scorers and three more with at least 15.  They had 90-point forwards on two different lines.  Three defensemen hit for 49 points or better.  Their games were fast-paced and exciting - no lead too safe, no deficit too great. 

My favourite memory of that season was a Dec. 30, 1990 game at the Gardens, where I saw the Leafs - down 6-1 in the second - roar back with six unanswered goals to win it 7-6 in OT.  Sitting behind a row of Boston fans made it all the more exciting.

That team had two lines that could basically qualify as first lines.  The real first line was Olczyk (then 23 years old) between Leeman (25) and Osborne (28).  Eddie O scored 88 points, mainly feeding Leeman, who scored 51 goals and 95 points.  Osborne did the spade work and put up 50 assists along with 23 goals.

The other big line was Tom Fergus (27) between Damphousse (22) and Marois (21).  Damphousse would set a Leaf record with 94 points from the left wing.  Marois, who scored 31 as a rookie the year before, came up with 39 goals and 76 points in just 68 games.  When Fergus was out with an injury, Gilles Thibaudeau (26) came out of nowhere to score 18 points in 21 games.  The line didn't miss a beat.

Wendel (23) was still missing time from assorted injuries - back and leg, mainly, until a nasty hit by Fetisov tore his knee apart.  He scored 18 goals in just 38 games.  Journeyman Lou Franceschetti (31) scored 20 for the only time in his career.

The other forwards were checkers and tough guys like Danny Daoust (29), Dave Reid (25), Dave Hannan (28), John McIntyre (20) and John Kordic (24).

Pretty serious depth, and almost all of it young.

On D, the Leafs could really move the puck.  Rob Ramage (31) had joined the team in preseason and was immediately named captain.  It worked.  He was a warrior and put up 49 points.  Tom Kurvers (27) added 15 goals and 52 points.

The guy really coming into his own, though, was Al Iafrate (23).  He was huge at 6'3" and 235 and was a fantastic skater.  When he decided he wanted to carry the puck, trying to stop him was like standing in front of an oncoming freight train.  He had his best season to date, with 22 goals (tied a Leaf record) and 63 points.

Defensively, Luke Richardson (20), Brian Curran (26), Todd Gill (24) and Brad Marsh (31) all did what they could.

In goal, Allan Bester (25) finally got the chance to start, backed by Mark LaForest (27) and Jeff Reese (23).  A 20-year-old named Peter Ing got into three games.  He was a big, lanky kid they had high hopes for, but other than a good start to his first game, he got lit up.

Again, this team was a blast to watch.  They hit a high water mark of 5 games over .500 at 50 games (27-22-1).  I remember talking with friends about how odd it was to have a team that late in the season that could actually lose a game and still be over .500.  This was their first season under head coach Doug Carpenter and he looked like a keeper.

Lost in all the fun, though, were some injuries.  Allan Bester had problems with bone spurs in his left heel.  He had them worked on but never looked comfortable to me after that.  His GAA ballooned to 4.49. 

Wendel Clark missed time with back woes and that knee injury courtesy of Fetisov was a huge setback.  He returned just in time for the playoffs but couldn't really contrbute much. 

Tom Fergus missed basically all of February and March with groin/abdominal problems.  He also just made it in time for the playoffs but it would soon show that his troubles were nowhere near done.

The killer, though, happened on March 24, 1990.  With 1:51 remaining in a 4-1 win in Quebec, Al Iafrate got tangled up with Mike Hough.  Iafrate wound up with a ruptured ACL and was finished for the season.  He needed major resconstructive surgery.

With Iafrate out, the Leafs' transition game took an enormous blow.  They lost three of the last four regular season games and four out of five in the playoffs.  Counted together, the Leafs went 2-7 after Iafrate got hurt.  This was huge.

Now - so far, I haven't even mentioned the trade.  One game into 1989-90, the Leafs sent their 1991 first-rounder to New Jersey for Tom Kurvers.  Kurvers staged a three-day holdout, then reported and really played pretty well.  People raised a lot of eyebrows when the trade was announced, as 1991 was already known as the Lindros draft, but Floyd Smith was confident.  "We're not going to finish last," he scoffed.

For 1989-90, he certainly looked correct.

As 1990-91 approached, the plan for the Leafs was to cut back on the goals against.  They could certainly score, but they needed to check.  There was a mid-summer deal that moved Mark LaForest (and a crazy kid named Domi) to the Rangers fpr Greg Johnston, who'd spend most of the year in the minors.  This left the Leafs with unproven kids Jeff Reese and Peter Ing to back up Allan Bester.

Tom Fergus' abdominal problems weren't cleared up yet, and he wasn't ready to start the season.  Neither was Iafrate.  He missed all of training camp and the first three games (which the Leafs lost).  He made his season debut in the home opener (above). Wendel was in the lineup but the suspicion all season was that he was playing hurt.

Right away, there was trouble and a lot of it.  Allan Bester clearly wasn't right.  By mid-October, it was determined that he now had calcium deposits in his heels and he'd need surgery.  With LaForest gone to the Rangers, the entire goaltending duties now fell on the shoulders of Peter Ing, who'd had all of three career games going into the season, and he'd been shelled in two of them.

Iafrate did come back, but he was a completely different player.  He wouldn't test that knee.  He wouldn't rush the puck.  The most dynamic skater the Leafs had was now transformed into an angry stay-at-home guy who rarely crossed centre and took a lot of penalties.  When questioned by the media about his play, he snapped "this is how I have to play the game now."  He had emotional issues, too.  There had been marital problems stemming back a couple of years, and the rumour now was that his wife was seeing teammate Gary Leeman.  It was not a good time for Al Iafrate.

Without him lugging that puck out, opponents could key on Ramage and particularly Kurvers.  Tom struggled mightily under this.  He never scored another Leaf goal. 

Continuing the Iafrate-less trend from the previous season, the Leafs stumbled badly.  They were 0-6-1 to start, beat Chicago, then lost their next three by a combined score of 21-9.  That was it for Doug Carpenter.  Last season's genius was gone after going 1-9-1.  Assistant Tom Watt took over.  It didn't help.

Without the D moving that puck, the offense really sputtered.  Thibaudeau wasn't up to the task of replacing Fergus this time and Daniel Marois fell apart.  He ended up with 21 goals and 9 assists in 1990-91 and would never score 20 again.  The Olczyk line was a bit better, but Eddie only had four goals in 18 games and Osborne 6 points in the same 18.  Leeman was in there with them.

A Nov. 8 loss to Vancouver had the Leafs at 2-15-1.  That draft pick becoming Eric Lindros was now a real possibility.  To make matters worse, Tom Fergus needed more surgery.  He wasn't coming back to help.  Not for ages.

On Nov 9, Floyd Smith started working the trades.

The first was a relatively minor one.  To shore up the forwards, he sent 21-year-old Johnny McIntyre to LA for 30-year-old Mike Krushelnyski.

Then the bomb dropped.  On Nov. 10, Smith addressed his defense by adding Dave Ellett (26) from the Jets.  He sent Olczyk (24) and Osborne (29) west, also getting Paul Fenton (30) in return.  Ellett was not Iafrate by any stretch, but wasn't bad in that first season.  He'd be much stronger in a couple of years.  The problem was that with Olczyk and Osborne gone, Marois slumping and Fergus out, the only player he could really pass to was Vincent Damphousse.  Fenton was coming off a career year but it was clearly an outlier.  As a Leaf, he had 5 goals in 30 games.

To make matters worse, that night in Chicago, Chris Chelios put Gary Leeman into the boards.  Gary separated his shoulder.  We didn't know it yet, but Gary Leeman, the guy who scored more goals each and every season and peaked at 51, was finished.  He'd be out until January.  Instead of 51 goals, he scored 17.  After that, he had 30 more NHL goals left in him.

By the middle of November, the only player remaining from those two great lines who was producing at all was Damphousse.  The Leafs' best line was Damphousse, Krushelnyski and Clark.  Nobody else scored at all.  Damphousse would finish the year with 73 points.  Krushelnyski was second with 39 (as a Leaf).

After the Ellett deal, the Leafs actually won a couple of games.  In the second of those, however, Tom Kurvers hurt his knee.  He'd have surgery on Nov. 15.

So as of Nov. 15, the Leafs were 4-16-1.  It was pretty clear by this point that their prime competition for Mr. Lindros was coming from Quebec, who were 3-15-3, also giving them 9 points.  The Nordiques certainly wanted Lindros, and the Leafs were desperate to make sure they got him.

On Nov. 17, the Leafs and Nordiques pulled off a trade that would eventually help ensure that the Nordiques would finish last, and all it cost was another chunk of the future.  The Leafs addressed the Kurvers injury by acquiring Michel Petit (26), plus checkers Aaron Broten (30) and Lucien Deblois (33).  They sent Quebec former first-rounder Scott Pearson (21) and a pair of second-rounders (1991 and 1992).  Quebec got kids and picks and the best chance at Lindros, the Leafs got older, slower, but a touch more stable.  Win-win!

It took a couple of games, but the Leafs started to win.  From Nov. 27 through the end of the year, they went 8-5-1.  There was a minor deal on Dec. 17 that sent Franceschetti (32) and Curran (26) to Buffalo for Mike Foligno (31).  The Leafs had 26 points at New Year's, with a record of 12-26-2.  The Nordiques were still hanging around, though, just a single point back at 9-25-7.

To make matters worse yet again, the wheels came right off in January.  The return of Leeman and the periodic play of Clark (who'd separated a shoulder in Dec.) didn't help as the Leafs went 0-7-3 in their next 10.  Quebec tied them in the standings.

Smith started dealing again.  On Jan 12, Tom Kurvers (27), fresh off his knee surgery, went to Vancouver for Brian Bradley (25), an offensive centre who didn't score a goal the rest of the season.  Four days later, Iafrate (24), who was actually coming around a little bit, went to Washington for Bob Rouse (26) and Peter Zezel (25).  Eight days later, it was Fenton and Kordic to Washington again for a fifth rounder. 

The Iafrate deal probably saved the season, such as it was.  Rouse was a rock and Zezel finally gave them a centre with some punch who could take the load off of Damphousse.  Zezel had 28 points in 32 games and from about Feb 4 onwards, the Leafs played close to .500 hockey (10-11-6).  (Iafrate would find his game again and was an all-star in 1992-93.  The knee would cut his career really short, though.)

In a couple more deals, Brad Marsh went to Detroit for an eighth-rounder on Feb 4, and Allan Bester went to Detroit for a sixth a month later.  He'd only played 5 games that year and hadn't won any of them.  Fergus came back in February, but after just 14 games got filled in by Dave Taylor and was done again.

Toronto's 23-46-11 record gave them 57 points, comfortably ahead of Quebec, who finished 16-50-14 for 46 points.

At the draft, Quebec picked Lindros, who refused to report to them.  A new expansion team in San Jose picked second and pulled Pat Falloon from the western leagues.  New Jersey used Toronto's pick on a guy named Scott Niedermayer, who was projected to be pretty good, but hey - it wasn't Lindros, and that was all that mattered, right?  The Leafs didn't draft until the third round, that thought they found a sleeper in a Quebec-leaguer named Yanic Perrault.

Along the way, that young fast explosive team became a team made up mainly of checkers and offensive guys who couldn't score.  It was bloody depressing.

The silver lining came that summer.  Floyd Smith was relieved of duty and the Leafs shocked everyone by naming Cliff Fletcher as their new GM. 

Dawn of a new era.

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