With the Leafs set to take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight, I thought it would be fitting to take a look back on one of the weirder trades between the two teams. Almost eight years ago, the Leafs and Bolts executed a trade that basically of no major relevance; yet, it remains one of the weirdest transactions in recent Leafs history.
The Tampa Bay Lightning being under stable ownership is something of a recent trend; for most of their franchise history, that wasn't the case. Early in their expansion days, the Bolts were owned by anonymous Japanese businessmen, and were at one time believed to be a front for the Yakuza. Following a few awkward years of being owned by a religious motivational speaker, the team found respectability (including its only Stanley Cup title to date) under Detroit Pistons owner William Davidson.
On February 13, 2008, however, the ownership carousel began anew as Davidson's company sold the Lightning to Saw producer Oren Koules and developer Len Barrie (father of the Avs' Tyson Barrie). Dysfunction returned to the team rather quickly. Coach John Tortorella called the two new owners "cowboys" after his firing in 2008. In his book The Instigator, Jonathan Gatehouse revealed that forward Brad Richards instigated his departure from the Lightning- entirely due to the new ownership- by texting his agent "get me out of here."
At the best of times, the new owners made questionable decisions, such as hiring Barry Melrose as head coach, or holding training camp across the continent in Victoria, BC (where Barrie owned a resort and the local junior A team) before starting their season in Europe. At the worst of times, the NHL needed to intervene in their affairs basically to keep the two owners from fighting one another. It was a weird time, and a financially unstable one as rumours of money troubles plagued the new owners.
The Leafs, meanwhile, had come off of two straight seasons finishing in 9th place. After trying in earnest to compete for a playoff spot by trading draft picks for Vesa Toskala and signing Jason Blake to a terrible contract, the Leafs struggled and were well out of a playoff spot by January. MLSE responded by firing GM John Ferguson Jr. (remember him?) and installing Cliff Fletcher on an interim basis, then hiring Brian Burke from Anaheim the following season.
Burke's mandate was to start rebuilding the team. For the most part, this meant politely asking the veteran Leafs with NTCs to leave, and then kicking the dirt when they said no. It also meant looking to amass more draft picks.
The Lightning had a rocky ownership situation and needed money. The Leafs had finally accepted they needed to rebuild and wanted draft picks. They'd make perfect trade partners; if only you could trade money for draft picks!
Under the NHL rules, you technically can't buy draft picks; yet that's basically what Burke did.
On March 4, 2009, the Leafs announced they had acquired goaltender Olaf Kolzig, defenseman Jamie Heward, prospect Andy Rogers and a 4th round pick in the upcoming draft from the Lightning for AHLer Richard Petiot. The names are basically of no consequence. Kolzig and Heward were both injured and pending UFAs; neither played a single game in a Leafs uniform. Rogers and Petiot were both low-level defensemen with no real future in the NHL; it was basically swapping bodies in the AHL to give the deal semblance of legitimacy.
What were of consequence were the 4th rounder going to the Leafs and the cap hits of Kolzig and Heward. The trade was, in essence, that the wealthy Leafs took over the obligation of paying the remainder of $2,475,000 in salary owed to two injured players (some $500,000 at that time) from the cash-strapped Lightning, and they got a draft pick in return.
Sure, the Leafs didn't technically buy a draft pick, but this was as close as you could get without circumventing the CBA. If you know anything about Bettman's NHL, it's that they don't take too kindly to people exploiting loopholes (see: Lamoriello, Lou and Kovalchuk, Ilya). There was no official confirmation, but well-held speculation was that this trade made the league, for lack of a better term, pissed.
Taken by itself, the league could not act because nothing either the Leafs or Lightning did technically circumvented the CBA. But, we know Bettman plays the long game.
On a totally unrelated note, in 2008, the Leafs signed a little-known Swedish defenseman named Jonas Frogren. The Leafs treated him as a standard UFA, but the NHL held firm that he was an entry-level player because he was drafted by the Calgary Flames in 1998, and accordingly could only be signed to an ELC. The NHL decided to let Frogren play while deciding the outcome of this dispute.
On April 1, 2009- four weeks after the "Kolzig trade"- the NHL had a ruling. The Leafs violated the CBA on Frogren's contract. For that, they would be fined, which was normal. But the NHL took an extra step and stripped them of a draft pick, which seemed a bit much given the circumstances. In what the NHL would to this day assure you is a complete coincidence, the pick the Leafs were forced to surrender was that very 4th rounder acquired from the Lightning.
To summarize, in the most memorable trade between these two teams in recent history, none of the players actually played and the draft pick at the centre of it was taken away in any event. A weird trade fit for a weird time in each team's history.