Perhaps the most disheartening moment for Maple Leaf fans in the generally dismal 1980s was the tail-end of the 1986-’87 NHL season. Why so, you may wonder, given that the entire decade was not exactly uplifting for Leaf followers?
The first half of the decade was a virtual write-off- some awful seasons and very little in the way of playoff appearances of note. But after drafting Wendel Clark first overall in the summer of 1985, the Leafs began a bit of a turnaround. By the end of the '86-'87 season they were making legitimate headway. They really found their legs in the first-round of the playoffs against the favoured St. Louis Blues, who were led, in part, by a young and energetic Doug Gilmour. They took out that Jacques Martin-coached St. Louis squad in four games in the best-of-five first-round series, and then went on to face the heavily-favoured Red Wings, coached by Jacques Demers (who had a personal rivalry with Toronto coach John Brophy)—and led by a then very young Steve Yzerman.
How was it that the end of that particular season was so crushing?
Here’s a some of what happened: the Leafs unexpectedly jumped out to 2-0 lead in the series behind kid goaltender Ken Wregget against the Wings right at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. The Leafs lost Game 3 back at home at the Gardens, but squeaked by the Detroiters in overtime at home in Game 4 on a quick wrap-around goal by center Mike Allison.
With a 3-1 lead in games, it looked as though the Leafs, despite a very mediocre regular-season under then head coach Brophy, would be able to advance to the Western Conference finals to face the vaunted offensive machine of the Edmonton Oilers. There was almost a sense of euphoria that the Leafs would get to that next round.
But it wasn’t to be, as the Leafs could not close the deal against Detroit. The Wings came from behind to beat the Leafs, just when Toronto was so close to achieving a degree of success they had not reached in (at the time) a decade—since advancing to the NHL semi-finals against the hated Habs in the spring of 1978.
But even more important, maybe, than losing that particular series to a pretty good Detroit team (who had finished first in the old “Norris” Division that season) I sometimes wonder what happened after that. I raise this because while then General Manager Gerry McNamara was often criticized (and yes, his media manner was not terribly friendly or successful in the ‘80s in his time as the Leaf GM) he had drafted and traded for a lot of good young players.
In goal, we had the aforementioned Wreggtt and little Allan Bester (a guest a while back on our "Leaf Matters" podcast). They had both played for Canadian’s National junior team. Borje Salming was the veteran bellwether on defense. Oh, we had the usual assortment of nice though certainly not spectacular NHL players (like Dan Daoust, Brad Smith, Mark Osborne and Greg Terrion), but importantly, the Toronto roster was sprinkled with quite a few young players who weren’t just “prospects”. They were guys who were actually already pretty solid young NHL players. Have a look at some of the names (with their age at the time on the right):
Al Iafrate 20
Todd Gill 20
Rick Lanz 24
Russ Courtnall 21
Gary Leeman 22
Wendel Clark 19
Rick Vaive 27
Steve Thomas 23
Miro Frycer 26
Vincent Damphousse 18
We also had a sprinkling of other useful performers like defensemen Bill Root (the ex-Canadien), Bob McGill and Chris Kotsopoulos and forwards including Peter Ihnacak, Allison and Tom Fergus.
I’m not suggesting it was a Stanley Cup team, but take a look at what we have now on the current Leaf roster and compare it with the roster I just shared with you. In the context of the time, that ’86-’87 roster, with two solid young goalies (both 22 years of age with tons of NHL experience already) and that talent across the roster…well, it was not bad at all. And I would argue there was a lot of real skill there and legitimate potential—maybe more than what we try to convince ourselves about the current Leaf roster.
So what happened?
I don’t know. I really don’t know. I mean, a guy like Iafrate (right) was one of the most talented young Leafs I've ever seen. Wild, unpredictable, yes- but awfully gifted. The Leafs drafted a big, young 18 year-old defenseman in Luke Richardson that summer, giving them even more youngsters with legit potential. They traded Vaive and Thomas (boy, I hated giving up Thomas) for tough-guy Alan Secord and an emerging star, Eddie Olczyk. Olczyk was a creative offensive player not even in his prime at that point, but Secord was on the down side of his career (and he had been a really, really good power forward who could do it all—score goals, fight, play the corners and the front of the net) and never really contributed a lot in Toronto, unfortunately.
Mostly, I think the team stopped listening to Brophy. In his first full year behind the bench as the head man the season before, he was able to bully and threaten guys and it seemed to work sometimes with a pretty young team. He was a yeller and screamer and I sense the team mostly tuned him out over time. When that happens, it’s never a good thing. So in 1987-’88 the Leafs regressed badly, ultimately finishing the season with a record of something like 20 wins and just over 50 points on the season—which was not good, obviously.
They still had (losing Thomas aside) all that young talent, but something was obviously missing.
By the beginning of the 1988-’89 season, the Leafs got off to another rough start under Brophy. He somehow convinced the team’s inexperienced GM, Gord Stellick, to trade a young, emerging NHL player (a speedster with big-time talent in Russ Courtnall) to Montreal for tough-guy John Kordic, about 10 games into the season. By the 30-game mark, the team was struggling so badly they fired Brophy and brought in former Leaf captain and long-time Marlie junior coach George Armstrong to take over. He did not want the job at all, and it showed.
It was a mess. By the summer of ’89, the team used its first thee draft picks to select players form the same junior team in Belleville. All had nice NHL careers, but mostly not in Toronto. That just led to more criticism about the Leafs and their scouting approach—as in, did the organization even allow their scouts to drive past Belleville, about an hour and a half outside of Toronto—to look at players?
I can’t give you a clear idea of why the team drifted so badly when it looked (as had happened a few times before since the team's last Cup in 1967) as though things were very promising. I check that list of players above and wonder how we could take all that talent (and no, we weren’t the high-flying Oilers of that era, but we had some speed, some grit, some young goaltending…) and essentially, within two years, have to almost start all over again.
It just happens sometimes. We can say it was mismanagement, and that’s part of it, I guess. It wasn’t until Cliff Fletcher became General Manager and ultimately brought in Pat Burns from Montreal (and re-vamped the roster, of course, including acquiring Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk) that we had that tremendous run in 1993 and 1994. But I’ve always felt we had it going a bit after that 1986-’87 season, yet something took the wind out of the organization’s sails. Was it the meddling, headline-seeking owner, Harold Ballard? Poor coaching? Guys not being developed properly, or a team simply not fulfilling its early promise?
I don’t have the answer. But that was a team we should have been able to build with— and should have been a lot better than it ended up being.