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Phaneuf in, a bunch of guys out: Some historical parallels?

Well, if you can’t get emerging superstar defenseman Tyler Myers from the Sabres, picking up Dion Phaneuf from Calgary rates as a pretty close second.

Leaf fans are no doubt thinking right away about the Cliff Fletcher deals of the early ‘90s, when he was faced with trying to re-shape a roster that simply wasn’t good enough.

He made two major deals, first bringing in Grant Fuhr and Glenn Anderson- future Hall-of-Famers on the downside of their considerably skilled careers (a young Vince Damphouse went the other way). Fletcher later acquired Doug Gilmour in the more famous exchange, sending Gary Leeman and others to Doug Risebrough’s Calgary Flames.

Because of the Calgary-Toronto connection popping up again, we’re all making that link.

Interestingly, while Gilmour had been a fine player with St. Louis and helped Calgary win a Cup in 1989, I would suggest many Leaf fans had no idea who he was when he joined the Leafs around this time of year in 1992.

We sure knew who he was twelve months later.

Now, there was no way of knowing that Gilmour would become the player—and leader—he did become for Pat Burns and the Leafs. However, it happened, and that trade will always be remembered as critical to the Leafs making it to the “final four” two years in a row.

As for this (Phaneuf) deal, well, the old adage about “whoever gets the best player wins the deal”, suggests the Leafs got the better of this trade. (If Phaneuf was at the top of his game, I can’t imagine Calgary would have moved him. And we all realize a trade can’t be judged for several years. But picking up a top-tier defenseman who is not yet 25 is so hard to do, and I’m stunned the Leafs were able to do this.)

Between this deal and the move to acquire Giguerre (who can’t possibly be the goalie he was in 2003, when he was unbelievable in the playoffs, but should prove useful side-by-side with young Gustavsson) the Leafs didn’t give up a single “top-six” NHL forward or top-four NHL defenseman. Yet they acquire a first-pair defenseman, a guy who will play 25+ minutes a night here.

I like Ian White and everything he has given in Toronto, but it’s hard to know where he will fit on another team in terms of being a big-minute player.

I’ve been trying to think about other “major” Leaf trades over the past fifty+ years. My thought was—have they ever been able to bring in an elite defenseman in the prime of his career? Off the top of my head, the answer is no, but let’s look at some of the big deals through the years:

• In the early-to-mid-1940s, the Leafs acquired future Hall-of-Famer Babe Pratt from the Rangers. Pratt had amazing offensive numbers, for a defenseman, with the Leafs, but didn’t stay in Toronto long.

• The Leafs gave up five pretty good players for superstar center Max Bentley in the late 1940s. Bentley made a good team even better and helped the Leafs win some Stanley Cups.

• In 1959-’60, Punch Imlach nabbed another future HOF player, defenseman Red Kelly, giving up young d-man Marc Reaume. The Leafs won 4 Cups with Kelly, though Imlach made him a center during his years with Toronto.

• When the Leafs brought in Andy Bathgate and Don Mckenney to help them get over the hump and win the Cup in 1964, they gave up a lot of their future. They gave away Dick Duff and Bobby Nevin, two excellent young forwards, but as importantly gave up Rod Seiling and Arnie Brown, who went on to have solid NHL careers with the Rangers.

• A trade that often has gone under the radar screen in Leaf history is one that did bring in a quality defenseman-Marcel Pronovost. Imlach made this move in the summer of 1965. Pronovost joined the Toronto club, along with gritty Larry Jeffrey and young Eddie Joyal for Bathgate and slick center Billy Harris. Pronovost was already 35 when he became a Leaf, but helped them win the Cup in ’67.

• The Mahovlich trade in 1968 was huge (see photo of Mahovlich and Imlach at right), as he went to Detroit with Pete Stemkowski, young Garry Unger and the rights to then retired all-star defenseman Carl Brewer. The Leafs got a full line in return - Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson and future Leaf coach Floyd Smith. The Leafs ‘lost’ a good defenseman in Brewer, but he was not going to play for Imlach again (though, amazingly, he did return in his 40s during the 1979-’80 season).

• In early 1971, then leaf GM Jim Gregory made an outstanding trade, giving up a player who wanted out of town (Mike Walton) and Bruce Gamble for a future Hall-of-Fame goalie in Bernie Parent. That would have been one of the best Leaf trades of all-time, if Parent had not skipped two years later to the fledgling WHA.

• Acquiring goalie Wayne Thomas from the Habs in the mid-’70s seemed like a steal for a while, but that deal was ‘unofficially’ tied in to the Leafs giving up the rights to Doug Jarvis (in a ‘separate’ transaction), who was a star for Montreal for years.

• In the late 1970s, Gregory acquired guys like Dave Burrows (solid defender) and Dave Hutchison (tough guy), but they weren’t impact players in the way Phaneuf is.

• When Imlach returned and dismantled the Leafs in 1980, Lanny McDonald and young defenseman Joel Quennville went to Colorado for Pat Hickey and Wilf Paiement, both forwards. The Leafs were entering a decade of futility, triggered by Punch, so that was an awful deal. Lanny won the Cup in Calgary in 1989, and became a Hall-of-Fame player.

• In the early ‘80s, Tiger Williams and Jerry Butler went west with the Leafs taking back two young forwards- Bill Derlago and Rick Vaive from the Canucks. Vaive scored 50+ three times, so the Leafs, long-term got more mileage out of that deal, though no significant team success.

• I loved Al Iafrate’s talent as a young defenseman with Toronto, but when he was traded to Washington for Peter Zezel and Bob Rouse, the Leafs got two absolute backbone, character players who were huge in their two ‘final four’ appearances.

• After the above-mentioned Fuhr and Gilmour deals, the Leafs picked up Dave Andreychuk from Buffalo for Fuhr. That worked out very nicely. They also picked up, years later, defenseman Larry Murphy in 1996 when he was 34. Leafs fans were expecting more than what they saw after he had won two Cups with the Penguins, and booed him out of town. Murphy won another Cup with the Wings (the Leafs got nothing in return.). Sometimes, for an athlete, it’s all about location, location, location.

I’m sure there are significant Leaf trades that I’m forgetting…picking up Brian Leetch and Owen Nolan seemed brilliant at the time, with the Leafs making a run to the playoffs in the early 2000s. People are still upset that Toronto gave up Brad Boyes, a fine offensive player, but in fairness, he has been traded several times in his career, so the Leafs weren’t alone in feeling he was an asset that could bring in something different.

The bottom line is, I can’t recall, over several decades, another trade where the Leafs acquired this kind of impact defenseman, still in hockey-playing prime.

If you can think of one, let us know!

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