Toronto Maple Leafs: Year in Review 1995-1996
Record: 34-36-12, 3rd in the Central Division, 4th in the Western Conference and 13th overall out of 26 teams.
Playoffs: First round loss to St. Louis
Special Teams: PP 18.95% (9th); PK 82.63% 11th)
GF: 247 (17th)
GA: 252 (16th)
1995 First Draft Choice: (D) Jeff Ware 15th overall
1995 Best Prospect at the time: (C) Brandon Convery - had a fantastic rookie season in the AHL with 34g and 71pts in 76gp
Coach: Pat Burns/Nick Beverley
GM: Cliff Fletcher
It wouldn’t be summer in Leaf Land without a major Cliff Fletcher trade. Toronto needed better D so Fletcher got future HHOFer Larry Murphy from Pittsburgh for 30 year old (D) Dmitri Mironov and a 2nd round pick in 1996. Murphy was the 5th highest scoring defenceman in NHL history at the time of the trade scoring 946pts in 1152gp. He was a 3 time All-Star, 2 time Norris finalist and 2 time Stanley Cup champion. Sure he was 34 but he played a clever game and no one seemed too worried about it. Yes it meant the Leafs top 4 defencemen were all over 30 years of age, but Murphy would undoubtedly help the Leafs at both ends.
On the same day as the Murphy deal, Toronto also traded 32 year old (C) Mike Ridley to Vancouver for 30 year old (LW) Sergio Momesso and acquired 27 year old, bottom pair defenceman Rob Zettler from Philadelphia for a 5th round pick.
Still not convinced his blueline was sturdy enough, Fletcher made one more trade a month before the season. He went back to Philly and picked up 24 year old Dmitry Yushkevich. In order to bring in a young, top 4 Dman though, the cost was high. Fletcher had to give up his 1st and 4th round picks in 1996 plus a 2nd rounder in 97. Yushkevich was no offensive hero, but he was a coach's dream. He had good size, could play in the trenches, and be a key piece on the PK. He also gave Toronto some young legs to go with still developing Kenny Jonsson.
Getting pounded 8-3 by Pittsburgh on opening night is not the way you want to start a new season. However, the Leafs rebounded and crushed Long Island 7-3 in their home opener 3 nights later. Mats Sundin already had 4g and 6pts! October was mediocre, but November was awesome. Between the 1st and the 21st, Toronto went 7-1-2. Sundin had 26pts in only 16gp. Doug Gilmour already had 8 goals, only 2 off what he scored during the entire 94-95 season. Murphy was exceptional, registering 23pts in 20gp. Dave Andreychuk was averaging a point a game. Mike Gartner already had 12 goals.
Toronto finished 1995 with a 4-3 OTW in St. Louis. Sundin scored 6 seconds into overtime. For the last number of years, the Leafs had always turned it up a notch in January, but not this year. Toronto slid like cheese off a hot pizza going 1-8-3 from January 11 to February 10.
Fletcher tried to trade his way out of things. First he traded 21 year old (LW) Ken Belanger and 26 year old (G) Damian Rhodes to Long Island for 34 (G) Don Beaupre and 29 year old (LW) Kirk Muller. A veteran of over 600 NHL games, Beaupre’s career was near the end. Muller was a beauty! Drafted 2nd overall in 1984 (right behind Mario Lemieux), Muller was much like Gilmour…an absolute warrior! Muller was all heart, will power, grit, toughness, leadership and he was a 5 time 30 goal scorer. It’s a treat to remember that for a time there, the Toronto Maple Leafs had THREE of the best leaders I’ve ever seen in: Gilmour, Muller and Sundin. All of them were clutch and it's a real shame we didn’t win the Cup with these 3 in our lineup. We had so much fortitude and character, our big, brass balls clanked around each rink we skated in. I miss that…
Five days after the trade with the Islanders, Fletcher moved 29 year old (C) Benoit Hogue and 32 year old forward Randy Wood to Dallas for 27 year old (C) Dave Gagner and a 6th round pick. Hogue had been such a disappointment, scoring just 15 goals in 63 games for Toronto. Gagner was a 6 time 30 goal scorer, including a couple of 40 goal seasons.
All these new players had enjoyed very good careers, but they were also making the team older and their best playing days were behind them. Fletcher was going all in on experience.
Every Leafs fan knew Fletcher had made the team better on paper. I’ll never understand why this group didn’t come together and it’s a travesty. Shortly after these two trades, the Leafs then lost 8 straight and only earned 1pt out of a possible 20. After getting blanked 4-0 in Colorado, Fletcher fired Pat Burns. Pat was 133-107-41 with two conference finals appearances and a Jack Adams over his 4 years in Toronto.
10 days later, Andreychuk was shipped to New Jersey for a 2nd round pick in 96 and a 4th round pick in 98. Big Dave had scored 120g and 219pts in 223gp in his Leaf tenure. Also on February 13, Fletcher called on the past to improve the present. Toronto traded for 29 year old (LW) Wendel Clark. Captain Crunch had been gone for less than 2 years. Coming over from the Islanders with Clark were 26 year old (D) Mathieu Schneider and 18 year old (D) prospect DJ Smith. Going to Long Island were 19 year old (LW) Sean Haggerty, 23 year old (C) Darby Hendrickson, 21 year old (D) Kenny Jonsson and Toronto’s 1st round pick in 1997 (NYI used this pick to select Roberto Luongo).
Off the ice, the team was under new ownership. Steve Stavro had become majority owner in 1994 but after a long review and lawsuit, the deal was finally completed in 1996. The whole thing was controversial and Stavro was a hands-on owner. He was constantly behind Fletcher, pushing the GMs controls. It was Leafs ownership that was instrumental in several trades, most notably the reacquisition of Clark.
The Leafs were 5 games below .500 with a month to go in the regular season. Thankfully the new guys amped up the club. Wendel scored 8g and 15pts in 12gp with his new (old) team. Gagner scored 22pts in 27gp. Muller had 25 in 36 and Toronto won 6 of their final 8 games including a home and home sweep of the St. Louis Blues. It was around this time that the Leafs called up Convery from the farm. The big, talented centre had all Leafs fans falling for him immediately when he scored 5 goals in his 11 taste of the NHL. Convery would stay in the lineup for the playoffs.
Toronto and St. Louis both finished the year with 80pts but the Leafs had more wins, so we got the higher seed.
It was only 3 years ago when the Leafs and Blues battled through a classic 7 game series. Back then, Cujo was the guy to beat, now it was former Leaf, Grant Fuhr. The future HHOFer had struggled in his short time in Toronto and for the next couple of years after that. But he found new life under Mike Keenan. Fuhr played 79 games in 95-96, keeping his GAA under 3 and his SP over 9.
The Blues - like the rest of the league and especially the Central Division - were trying to keep up with the record setting Red Wings all year (Detroit set the NHL record for wins in a season with 62 in 95-96) and acquired Wayne Gretzky from LA late in the season. It was a ballsy move by the Blues and it sure made Wayne and his buddy Brett Hull happy.
99 collected 3 apples and Fuhr was steller making 33 saves in a 3-1 Blues win to open the series. Early In the first period of game 2, Fuhr injured his knee when he was run by Leafs (LW) Nick Kypreos. And just like that, Fuhr’s season was over. In comes back-up John Casey. Following the injury, the Leafs took charge and were ahead 3-1 after the first. But St. Louis scored 2PPGs and a SHG setting the table for overtime. In OT, the Blues were called for a bench minor and Mats Sundin was the hero again. On the PP, Dougie banks a pass off the side of the Blues net, right to Mats who one-times a knuckler past Casey. It’s Sundin’s 2nd of the game and now the series is tied.
3 nights later in St. Louis for game 3, Toronto was up 2-0 but the Blue fought back to tie thanks to former Leaf, Peter Zezel’s SHG. 84 seconds into overtime and Shayne Corson made a wonderful pass to a streaking Glenn Anderson (former Leaf) who tipped the puck up over Potvin’s glove and the Blues win 3-2. Not only did we blow a 2 goal lead, but we wasted a goaltending clinic from Potvin. He made 37 saves in defeat.
Game 4 was a blowout. Wayne tallied 3 apples again, while St. Louis scored 2 SHGs to win 5-1. Kirk Muller scored the lone Leaf goal and it came with 2 and half minutes to go, ruining Casey’s 40 save shutout bid.
Veteran leadership and special teams both played huge roles for Toronto in game 5. Facing elimination on home ice, St. Louis jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead. But a pair of PPGs (Gartner and Gilmour) less than a minute apart evened the score. Todd Warriner scored about 3 minutes after that and the Leafs were up 3-2. Zezel and Gartner traded goals in the 2nd and Toronto maintained their 1 goal lead. That lead stood until Al MacInnis fired home a PPG with 13 seconds left in the game, sending another game to overtime. My boy, Dougie G had been called for high sticking with 43 freakin’ seconds to go. I was actually working at my part time job that night so I didn’t see the game, but instead I was calling home every so often to get updates from my Dad. I’m sure if I had seen the penalty to Gilmour, I might have ragged quit right there.
I think it was a bit of a make-up call by the official, but we got a PP in overtime after Murray Baron was called for holding. From the right side, Clark faked a shot that Chris Pronger bit so hard on he stumbled down the ice. This made room for Clark to pass to Gilmour who then slid a cross crease feed to Gartner for a tap in game winner. It was Mike’s 3rd of the game, all on the power play.
As great as it was to win a playoff overtime game at home, there was still work to do. The Leafs were down 3-2 in the series moving back to St. Lou. The three amigos teamed up for the opening goal of the game in the 2nd period. Clark scored a PPG assisted by Sundin and Gilmour. After MacInnis tied the game early in the 3rd, it was Stephen Leach’s goal with only 5:57 left in the game that turned out to be the eventual game and series winner. I felt so bad for Felix. Like always, he looked great making 33 saves in game 6. Although not completely shelled like he was a year ago against Chicago, Potvin still kept the Leafs in it.
Gilmour finished the series with a goal and 8 points in 6 games. Both Mats and Muller scored 3 goals each and Gartner had 4 (but 3 of them came in game 5). The biggest problem was still the defence and especially the special teams. The Leafs allowed 5 PPGs and 4 SHGs to the Blues in only 6 games. That's brutal!
I mentioned this before, I thought the Leafs had a lot of really good pieces in 95-96. Potvin was strong, reliable and according to the eye test, one of the busiest and best goalies in the world. Sundin lead the team in scoring with 33g and 83pts. Gilmour rebounded triumphantly with 32g and 77pts. Gartner led the way with 35g including 15 on the PP. Murphy played a full season and scored 61pts. There was lots to like but there was also this ugly stat: Sundin was the only good player we had that was under the age of 25. Convery had himself a nice little run at the end of the regular season, but then went pointless in the playoffs. He was only 21 and he wasn’t going to get any of the prime spots in the lineup or on the PP with all these veterans ahead of him. There was no way to bet he’d become the star he was in junior and the guy we had all hoped for over the past 4 years.
Toronto came into the 95-96 season with problems on defence and left the season with problems on defence. Our young prospects (that we hadn’t traded away) like Matt Martin and Jeff Ware needed to develop. Murphy, Dave Ellett and Jamie Macoun were all getting older. Getting a full season out Schneider would really help. Between Long Island and Toronto, he racked up 58pts in 84gp (reg season and playoffs).