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So where are all these great prospects the Leafs “gave away” during the Quinn years?

Leaf fans are now in the midst of the annual gnashing of teeth over a) whether we need to make a big trade before the deadline (many think the Leafs can stand pat and wait for the young Marlies to step in next season and beyond…) and b) if so—who can we “afford” give up?

Yes, there is always a lot of futtzzing about in Leafland at this time of year, perhaps largely because we seem to believe that the organization has consistently just thrown assets (draft picks and great young players) away for a short-term fix.

I’m certainly not suggesting every move the Leafs made over the past dozen years years has turned out marvelously well, but I’m not convinced that most of those moves were “just plain dumb”, as people are sometimes wont to say about how the Leafs have gone up making moves over the years.

Heck, before too many stones are cast at a guy I’m going to talk about in a minute, let’s not forget we’ll be watching Tyler Seguin and Doug Hamilton play for the Bruins (with their Cup already firmly in hand, whether they ever win another one or not…) for likely the next decade. That was Burke, of course, if we're "counting".


My point? The Gardiner/Lupul and Phaneuf/Aulie deals aside, you generally have to give something to get something, eh?

And for for the record, right now, we’re all also watching Carlo Colaiacovo and Alex Steen (when healthy) perform very well for one of the best teams in the league these days, the St. Louis Blues.  (Fletcher gets "credit" for that one…)

Probably most of us, as Leaf fans, at one time or another over the past twenty or thirty years, rued the day that the team had traded away what we perceived as great prospects for some kind of short-term “fix”.  (Hey, it's always easier for we fans to fixate on an unknown draft pick or prospect with great potential, than it is for that "player" to actually become a legitimate top-end NHL player...)  And we all know, as Leaf people, that, whatever players have been brought in through those years (starting with say, Dan Maloney in 1978—and without him, we would never have upset the Islanders that spring…) it’s never been enough to get the Leafs over the top and actually win the much-coveted Stanley Cup.

But I’ve been mulling over for some time now, this idea that the Leafs continually kept “selling” off their future to try to “win now”.  (Yes, I will acknowledge that acquiring Tom Kurvers for the draft pick that turned out to be Hall-of Famer Scott Niedermayer didn't quite work out for us.  Kurvers was a good player, but well, we all know the rest of that story...though I should add, the Leafs probably would not have picked Niedermayer anyway.)  


That all said, my focus today is primarily on the Quinn years, specifically during his time as General Manager from the summer of 1999, I think it was, through the summer of 2003, when John Ferguson arrived.  I have already long declared my bias toward Quinn in this space, but I hope you will hear me out today.

I don’t have all the big trades in front of me, but I recall that there was immense criticism at the time, and through those years, that the organization was too often giving away its future for aging, sometimes not very helpful players.  It’s worth remembering, though, that the objective each of those Quinn years was in fact to not just be competitive or slip into the playoffs (which is the very low hanging fruit we seem to accept as good enough these days in Leafland…), but to have a legitimate shot at taking a run at the Cup.  That we didn't quite get there doesn’t mean the intent, in my view, was off-base.  Goodness knows, only what I still believe must have been a “act of God” prevented the Leafs from getting to the finals in the spring of 2002.  (Maybe it was that awful Mogilny pass in overtime in Game 6 against Carolina, but I prefer to think in terms of the former possibility…)

I will rely on those with far sharper short-term memory than myself to dispute my accuracy and assertions here.  My perspective is I have almost zero problem with the guys they brought in over those years, from Robert Reichel to Owen Nolan, etc.  (As I recall, Brian Leetch and Ron Francis were deadline deals in 2004, when Ferguson was in charge…but I'll come to those in a moment.)

Let’s look at some moves:

In March of 2003, Nolan was acquired for what we complained was a huge price, Alyn McCauley, Brad Boyes and what turned out to be defenseman Mark Stuart.  McCauley was a nice but replaceable player who had a relatively brief and OK career in San Jose.  People have cited “Boyes” as representing an example of the awful decision-making of the Quinn era. But the guy has played for what, five teams?  And he is not a factor in Buffalo—and they want to move him now, too.  Stuart, for his part, has been a useful NHL defenseman.  Fair enough.

So was that really such an awful trade, given that the team was trying to win a Stanley Cup?  Was it Quinn’s fault Nolan got hurt when we needed him to be healthy?  I’d say no, though I realize many will vehemently disagree.

OK, who else was there?

Well, acquiring Aki Berg, a former top-five overall pick himself, I think it was, for two players who turned out to be Adam Mair, a solid fourth-line guy (but there were lots of them around at the time) and a second-round choice that turned out to be Mike Cammalleri.  Terrible, right?  Well, who’s to say the Leafs, with that pick, would have taken Cammallari?  He’s had a nice, but uneven career, in my mind.  I’m guessing we would have been dissatisfied with him at various points in his time in Toronto had he come here in the first place.

For his part, Berg, while much maligned, was a guy who played a lot of minutes here and helped the Leafs win some playoff series.  Was that so bad?

In fact, we got a young player ourselves (Bryan MacCabe) in the fall of 2000 for Alexander Karpotev.  Karpotsev was at the end of his NHL career, and McCabe had already seen three teams give up on him.  But Quinn saw something in all-over-the-map youngster.  In Toronto, he became an end-of-season All Star and World/Cup Olympic level NHL’er.  Not bad.  And we had him in his prime.

Hey, I loved Danny Markov, an all-guts guy, and hated seeing him dealt.  But he returned Robert Reichel and Travis Green.  The Leafs were looking for depth and experience up the middle, and each player provided that.  And Markov never really blossomed the way a lot of us thought he might.

In 2003, Glen Wesley cost us, as a rental, a second round pick named Kyle Wharton.  Wharton did not play in the NHL.

Even the Ferguson moves at the deadline in ’04 to obtain Francis and Leetch were, in my view, defensible.  How terrible was it, really?  Francis cost a fourth-round pick, Jarred Boll.  The players who ended up being traded or later drafted in Leetch deal were Max Kondratiev (much ballyhooed at the time…), Jarko Immonen, Kris Chucko and Michael Sauer.  It sounded like a huge give-away at the time.  But was it, for a chance to go big that spring at playoff time?  If we had been able to get by a very good Flyers team....

My point today is not simply defending Quin,, though I do think he was grossly over-criticized for what I thought was a pretty darn good tenure those four years as GM.  No, the broader point is that while many of us have been raised in the hockey world to think draft choices should never ever be dealt, or prospects for that matter, giving them up doesn’t always come back to bite you in the back side.  In fact, quite often it doesn’t.

For all the moves I cited above (and as I mentioned, by all means correct any factual inaccuracies or include any big deals I have forgotten about…) I’m trying to think of which players I feel, in retrospect, were just a huge mistake to have ended up “losing” (keep in mind we did not give any of them away—in each case, we got something back, if only for a playoff run…)

Now, if you want to complain about losing little Steve Sullivan for nothing on waivers, well…I'll concede that one...

In any event, all of this leads me to say:  yes it’s nice that Burke has built up a mini-war chest of assets.  And yes you never want to give away top prospects, especially young defensemen who may develop slowly and then play solidly elsewhere for a decade or more.  But sometimes you can choose to expedite the building process—and it’s not always a bad idea to give up a bit of "the future".

14 comments:

  1. Michael, I'm willing--with much reluctance--to give Burke the benefit of the doubt with some of his moves. That said, patience is wearing very thin. It's been 8 yrs...8 freakin' years since we have had an opportunity to watch playoff hockey in what do they call this...the centre of the hockey universe?? 8 years!

    I agree with a lot of what you said about the Quinn years. He was a very good GM with his finger on the pulse, so to speak, and likely one of the last of a breed who quite well handled the dual role. While some of us criticized some trades, the bottom line is Quinn iced competitive teams in almost all of his years. So based on that, and as you have said, based on how the departing players have generally fared, I have no problem with Quinn's efforts. Of course, having suffered over the last few years, it's perhaps what prompts more appreciation of Quinn and Fletcher.

    It's a sad fact that the Leafs drafting record has been quite poor in the '90s and the '00s. And as you wrote, even if they hadn't traded those picks in the '90s, it's not likely they would've used them wisely to take a Niedemeyer or Cammillari. And the jury is still out on Burke's recent drafts. Given the difficult trade market in this age of parity, I'm not sure what he can really pull off the next few days that will get us to the next level, i.e., a playoff appearance, for starters. He keeps talking about not wanting to squeak in and show up for a round, but hey, you gotta' start somewhere!

    *As for other moves I can think of...not sure who was at the helm, but I will say that letting Roberts and Nieuwendyk go was not good at the time and may have started the downward spiral??

    Cheers.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic, Caedmon. Well said, as always. I know some will dispute my defence of Quinn's four-year run as GM, but I really believe the facts tell a different story than some of the myths that are re-counted as gospel (including the criticism of him as a coach that he didn't like young players, etc..). One historical note: I am pretty certain Ferguson was the GM who chose not to re-sign both Niewendyk and Roberts.

    The Burke effort is still a work in progress, so it will take some time to assess it fairly. He no doubt feels the "nation's" impatience....

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  3. If Al Strachan's book is to be believed, 'insiders' say Quinn was a terrible coach unable to motivate the players of today. I have no idea about this, but like you, Michael, I find it hard to find fault with many of his moves as GM. The money woes of Stavro that forced the 'cuts' of the 90's were over by Quinn's tenure...what would have happened had Pat been on the winning side of the MLSE power struggle and stayed on as GM and brought in his own coach? Imagine Tukka Rask firmly entrenched as #1, and at the very least we would all be asking with complete sincerity 'JFJ who?'

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  4. Sean, thanks for posting on this. As for the columnist/author you cite, I'll simply make a broad statement, not necessarily in reference to him: some individuals seem to have axes to grind that may be personal in nature, but the public will never fully have the inside story as to why. In Quinn's time here, there were perhaps three or four such media people who, for various reasons, constantly found fault with Quinn as either GM or coach. Opinions are fine. We all have them. Informed opinions are even better.

    There were a few "reporters"/columnists who managed to find fault with Quinn as the head coach of the Gold-medal winning Canadian Olympic team in 2002. To those critics, Quinn supposedly did little and the great thinking was all done by Hitchcock and Martin. Yet Quinn received the criticism when the team failed in '06. Seems odd, eh?

    As for his time coaching the Leafs, he sure managed to motivate and inspire a not very great team in the spring of '99, a team similar to the squad a year before that missed the playoffs entirely. They went to the semi-finals.

    He also took the Leafs to the final four in 2002, despite significant injuries.

    A fair question to ask is: who was coaching the Leafs when they beat the Senators four times in a row in the playoffs, when the Sens were the favourites most of those years?

    Wayne Gretzky once said Quinn was the best bench coach in hockey. Trevor Linden thought the world of Quinn. It only takes a few unhappy players, with the right agent or media connections, to spread negative thoughts, it would seem. Then the public buys it as gospel.

    Oh well....

    On the GM question, you and I would share the same thought: if Quinn had been allowed to stay in both roles, or could have picked his own replacement as coach, I believe we would not have gone through 8 years without a playoff berth- just my opinion.

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  5. Had Quinn not been usurped: "We would not have gone through 8 years without a playoff berth" (Michael). I think that is probably correct, as is: "Letting Roberts and Nieuwendyk go was not good at the time and may have started the downward spiral(Caedmon)." Then again, much of the Leafs success in that period had to do with no cap salary restrictions and the ability to outbid on free agents. Is that statement correct? It seems to me that JFJ was unprepared for the salary controls and unable to respond before the Leafs future had swung wildly out of control.

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  6. Hope in the Big SmokeFebruary 17, 2012 at 8:53 AM

    The problem with Quinn wasn't the assets that he moved it was his terrible drafting record. If you take a look at the selections he made while general manager of the Leafs, you'll see that he really hamstrung JFJ moving forward. In comparison take a look at the pieces Burke inherited (Gunnarsson, Kulemin, Frattin and Reimer) from JFJ, and you'll realize that the inability to properly assess talent during the Quinn regime has had a significant impact on the Leafs' struggles these last years.

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  7. Thanks Bobby C...I think Ferguson worked hard but shifted from trying to help the Leafs win in '04 to a fairly sudden "re-build". Whether that was his decision, or he was being pushed by ownership, we don;t know, eh?

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  8. Hope...I always respect your view but we probably differ on this one. During the Quinn era as GM, the Leafs never had "high" picks near the top of any round because they always finished so high in the standings. Despite this reality, during his time as GM (2000-2003) and responsible for the draft, they picked up some solid future NHL'ers, including Colaiacovo, Steen, Boyes, Bell, Harrison, Welwood, Kronwall, Mitchell, Tellqvist and of course Ian White as a very low pick, which was a great selection. Every one of these guys played in the NHL, most still are in the league and many are solid NHL'ers to this day and will be for years....

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  9. I can remember Mogilny serving up the OT winner to Gelinas in game 6 2002 like it was last night. In can remember Cuj skating away off the ice with his stick over his shoulder like he was a travelling hobo ready to start his next journey ('Wings give me the best chance to win now'). I remember thinking that that was it, that was our closest chance we'll have for a long time. Our window had all but closed but Pat Quinn at least gave us a window, can't say the same for any of the Mgt since. I will always look fondly on Quinn's years, he gave us what he thought was our best chance to win THE CUP, not just win games. He certainly always had the big picture in his mind and I will always respect him for that

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  10. While I agree with the fact that the Leafs never had the high draft picks during that time, Quinn never drafted anything more than spare parts with the 46 selections he made. Can all the blame be placed on the fact that they didn't select in the top 15 picks? Ferguson didn't have the benefit of high picks either (mostly his own fault), but still managed to acquire more than serviceable parts with his selections past the 1st round. Keep in mind Quinn was the victim of some bad luck as Luca Cereda and Karel Pilar (perhaps the Quinn pick that had the most upside) both had their career shortened due to heart problems. As always though a great read.

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  11. Thanks LeafluvrCC. Very well said. My view is the bar since he was removed as GM is very, very low (as in, "improving" and making the playoffs. Leaf fans, while, yes, hoping the Burke "build" will net a consistent winner, can look back to the Quinn era and realize that that is precisely where we already were- every year. In other words, if Burke manages to make the Leafs a contender year after year, we will still only (finally) getting back to where we were - and always should have been.

    If be brings us a Cup, then I'll applaud.

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  12. Hope...I always love your perspective, even when we disagree. Many thanks.

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  13. great read michael... what're your thoughts on our current prospects? are they as formidable as we leafs fans believe, orrrrrrr are we suffering from leafs lime-lite biasis?

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  14. Thanks for that Alex C...I can't suggest I'm an expert on the "kids", but my observations of Frattin suggest he's a player, for sure. He seems to have some "power" moves, if I can put it that way. I think he will be a two-way guy, but one that can put the puck in the net. And I always love players who can fly in on their "off" wing. I think the jury is still out on Kadri. I think he will definitely play, but how much "impact" he will have is too early to say, at least for me. Same with Colborne.

    Beyond that, others likely have a better sense (those who follow the Marlies really closely) on youngsters like Blacker, etc...

    So no, I don't think we are deluding ourselves...that said, pretty much every NHL team thinks they have tremendous youngsters down on the farm. Some end up having a huge impact, some are contributors, some never quite get there...I don't much believe in those organizational prospect "rankings" that are put out. A "prospect's" status can change awfully quickly....

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