Welcome to "Great Trades in Maple Leaf History", a new, semi-regular series I’ll prepare, which will go back into the annals of history to dissect those moments when the Leafs actually managed to pull off a trade in which they were the clear winners. We’ll examine the circumstances surrounding the trade, the pieces involved, and what became of them.
Without further ado, onto Volume 1!
A quick note for all fans; If your team is ever rumoured to be in talks to trade its franchise player, start drinking. Heavily.
When your team starts looking at trading its best and most recognizable player, it never ends well, usually on two fronts. First, there’s the emotional attachment. Having watched somebody lead your team for several seasons, it’s incredibly jarring to suddenly see them wearing enemy colours. You can’t help but feel that the whole situation is just wrong; that guy belongs on your team’s bench, not theirs.
Second, most of the time these trades end up in horrible failure for your side. This might stem from the fact that these trades often come about as a result of the player’s request to be traded, but if you’re trading an elite player, you’re almost never going to get somebody of equal value back. You’re going to get players who aren’t of the same caliber of what you’re trading, you’re going to get draft picks, and you’re going to get young players with a marginal chance to become a great player.
Most of the time, these types of players don’t pan out. They might develop into capable pros, but not on the same level as the player you traded away for them.
But what you trade away your franchise player, and in return get the young kid who blossoms into your new franchise player?
Maple Leaf fans know the answer to that one, and it’s our first Great Trade in Leaf History.
In the summer of 1994, the Maple Leafs were flying high. They had just come off of two consecutive Conference Finals appearances. They had a GM who had been swindling teams left and right, one of the best young goalies in the league, a superstar coming off the two best seasons of his career, and a grizzled veteran who was the heart and soul of the city. Wendel Clark had given everything he had to the team for his entire career, but it was taking a massive toll on his body. He’d missed significant time in the last season due to injuries, and in his absence, Doug Gilmour had raised his game to a new level. The team, long since belonging to Wendel, was slowly becoming Dougie’s Team, and with a team hoping to finally get over the hump and make their first Cup final in nearly 30 years, the team couldn’t risk one of its stars missing significant time due to injury.
So on June 28, GM Cliff Fletcher made a stunning trade with the Quebec Nordiques.
1994 1st Round Pick
1994 1st Round Pick
Let’s get all of the other pieces out of the way quickly, because this trade really boiled down to Clark for Sundin.
The pick Toronto acquired (originally Philadelphia’s pick, sent to Quebec in the Eric Lindros/Peter Forsberg deal) was dealt that same day to Washington in the Mike Ridley trade. Butcher had had an adequate career as a tough guy defenceman, splitting 93/94 between St. Louis and Quebec. He played 45 games in the lockout-shortened season with the Leafs (1G, 8A), and then retired. Warriner was another young kid acquired, who ended up having a pretty respectable career as a checking winger. He played 253 games for the Leafs over parts of six seasons (36G, 48A), before being dealt to Tampa Bay in 1999-2000.
The Nordiques used the Leafs pick to select defenceman Jeff Kealty, who never played a game in the NHL. Wilson was the Leafs’ 1st round pick the year before, but his career never panned out the way he hoped. He played 7 games for Colorado (after Quebec moved), but has played just 375 games in the NHL to date, accumulating 119 points.
Lefebvre was in his prime as a stay-at-home D, playing 165 games over the past two seasons since the Leafs acquired him from Montreal. He stayed with the team in their move to Denver, winning a Cup with them in 1996, and went on to play 945 games in his career, before retiring in 2004.
The Leafs clearly sold Clark on at the peak of his abilities, coming off a 76 point (in 64 games) season in 93/94. He scored 30 points in 37 games in the lockout season for Quebec. After that season, the Quebec franchise moved to Denver and became the Colorado Avalanche, but Clark would never wear their jersey. He was dealt in a three-team deal to the New York Islanders in the deal that brought Claude Lemieux to Colorado. The Avs won the Stanley Cup that season; by the end of that year, Wendel was back in Toronto.
As for Sundin, over 13 seasons in Toronto he became one of the greatest Swedish-born players in the league’s history, as well as one of, if not the greatest Maple Leaf of all-time. His 987 points in 981 games in a Maple Leaf uniform is the most in club history. He is currently 25th all-time in points scored, 20th in goals, and 32nd in assists. His 15 regular season overtime goals Is tied with three other players for the most ever.
The Maple Leafs were the clear winners of this trade; far and away, they acquired the best player, and got the most production out of their return; of the players the Nords received, only Lefebvre played more than one season with the club. However, the Nordiques has assembled a massive young stable of talent (accelerated by the Lindros trade), and within two years of this trade they won the Stanley Cup, using Clark to trade for a player that was an integral part of that championship. Still, one might wonder how that team would have fared had they not traded away Sundin.
The Milbury Scale
The MIlbury Scale is a tool used for comparing the impact of trades, based on how lopsided the trade eventually became. The scale goes from 1 to 5; 1 being a minor advantage that is not overly damaging (example: the Rangers getting a fifth round pick for Hollweg), 5 being a colossal failure that sets the team’s fortunes back years.(the Chara/Spezza/Yashin trade)
Quebec gets: Wendel Clark, Sylvain Lefebvre, Landon Wilson and a 1st round pick
Toronto gets: Mats Sundin, Todd Warriner, Garth Butcher and a 1st round pick
It’s hard to penalize Quebec too much considering the fact that they became a perennial Cup contender the year after this trade. But this trade was a key turning point in the modern history of the Leafs. The team had belonged to Wendel for several years, and after a few forgotten seasons, the team officially became Mats’. The torch was passed on this deal, and now we wait to see just who takes up the vacant seat.