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You can’t expect a miracle (e.g. Phaneuf) from Burke every year: Looking at 10 major Leaf deals over the past 50 years

It’s fair to say Brian Burke pulled two rabbits out of his hat in the last year: one was acquiring Phil Kessel, a player he had publicly longed for; the other, of course, was Dion Phaneuf.

We expected the Kessel move; we were shocked by the Phaneuf trade, because we just didn’t expect it. Given how rumours are leaked nowadays in the hockey world, how could something like that happen?

The price tage for Kessel was high—very high. The price tag for Phaneuf, on the other hand, was not (though I like Ian White, and have for years), particularly when you consider that the Leafs also obtained a fairly skilled penalty killer in Sjostrom in that deal.

So while Leaf fans have, understandably, been pining for more—as in the acquisition of a truly elite forward, they aren’t easy to come by and we likely shouldn’t be holding our breath.

One of the fun things about being a “fan” is when a major trade is made. Big deals often provided a jolt for me as a fan, whether they happen in the summer, or during the season/prior to the deadline.

Off the top of my head, a number of trades stand out as particularly eventful in Leaf history in my lifetime.

1) Red Kelly: Kelly was a superstar with the Red Wings, having helped them win 4 Cups in the 1950s. But he had a falling out with management and after blocking a trade to the Rangers, came to Toronto for young defenseman Marc Reaume. Reaume, my first favorite Maple Leaf when I was a kid in the '50s, had a standout minor-league career but didn’t have many opportunities in the big-time. Kelly went on to play center for Punch Imlach and earned four more rings with the blue and white.

2) Andy Bathgate and Don McKenney came to Toronto in return for Dickie Duff, Bob Nevin, Rod Seiling and Arnie Brown. The Leafs gave away a huge chunk of their future to get the two veteran Ranger wingers in the late winter of 1964. But Bathgate and McKenney certainly helped secure the last of those three Cups in a row in the early ‘60s. The question will always be: how many might they have won if Duff, Nevin and Seiling had stayed with Toronto? Nevin and Seiling were backbone players for a really good Ranger team in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Duff went on to win 4 Cups with Montreal.

3) Marcel Pronovost and Larry Jeffrey came to Toronto for Bathgate and Billy Harris, who went to Detroit in the summer of ’65. Pronovost was nearing the end of his career, but became yet another aging guy that played some fine hockey for Imlach. In fact he was tremendous in the spring of ’67 when the Leafs were upset winners of the Stanley Cup. Jeffrey was a hard-working guy who really contributed but was injured at the end of the semi-final series against Chicago that year. (It can be argued, as I have mentioned in previous posts, that the Bathgate-Duff deal helped the Leafs win two Cups, not just one, because of the Pronovost/Jeffrey impact.)

4) Frank Mahovlich, Pete Stemkowski, Carl Brewer and Garry Unger to Detroit in February/’68 for Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson and Floyd Smith. Stemkowski was a key figure for Toronto in the previous year’s Cup win. Mahovlich (pictured above in early 1960s game-action against Charlie Hodge and the Habs) needed a change of scenery and eventually helped Montreal win two Cups. Unger had a long run with the St. Louis Blues and became the NHL ironman. Brewer came out of retirement and was an All-Star with the Wings before joining the St. Louis Blues. Ullman was solid for Toronto until he left in 1975. Henderson made a name for himself because of Team Canada ’72, but jumped to the WHA not long after.  Smith later coached the Leafs.

5) In early 1971, Jim Gregory acquired goaltender Bernie Parent for Mike Walton, who went to Boston (and Rick MacLeish to Philly in the three-team trade). My favorite Leaf trade of all time. Parent should have played ten years with the Maple Leafs, but the WHA came calling and he was gone before we knew it. He became a Hall of Famer when he returned to the NHL and the Flyers. It still stings.

6) Dan Maloney joined Toronto from Detroit for Errol Thompson and two first-round draft choices. I had my eyes on Maloney for years before he came to Toronto. He was a major factor in the Leafs upsetting the Islanders in the spring of ’78, just affer he arrived, but beyond that, he didn’t quite have the impact many of us had hoped for. I hated losing the draft choices, but Maloney was a tough winger who could score. Leaf fans of that era well recall that he later coached the Leafs.

7) Lanny McDonald (pictured at right with Colorado) to Colorado for Wilf Paiement. This one still hurts. Under most any other circumstance, getting the rugged, high-scoring winger Paiement would have been fantastic. Giving up McDonald, a future Hall-of-Famer and Darryl Sittler’s linemate, made no sense. Punch Imlach was back in town as GM and was determined to dismantle Sittler’s hold on the dressing room. It worked. The Leafs struggled throughout the ‘80s.

8) Darryl Sittler to Philadelphia in 1982 for someone. Sittler had played long and hard in Toronto, and was maybe not the dominant presence he had been earlier, but like many before him (Mahovlich, Mike Walton, etc.) he needed to get out of Toronto and away from, in his case, Harold Ballard—though Imlach was the guy who initially yanked Darryl’s chain.

9) Russ Courtnall for John Kordic. Short-tenured Leaf GM Gord Stellick has always taken flack for this one, but then head coach John Brophy wanted a tough guy in the mid-later 1980s. Courtnall was a speedster, but not exactly rugged and not always a consistent presence or a great all-around player in his early days. Kordic worked hard, but had a troubled life, unfortunately, away from the rink.

10) Wendel Clark for Mats Sundin. Oddly, the guy I hated losing most in that deal (no offense to those who loved Wendel) was Sylvain Lefebvre, who I admired as part of Pat Burns’ blueline in those great years from ’93-’95. It’s hard to argue with Fletcher’s foresight, though, in grabbing a superstar center who would headline the Leaf show for the next decade.

The Doug Gilmour for a bunch of guys deal in the early ‘90s was in a league of its own, in some ways. He was clearly the catalyst that led the Leafs to their best moments in recent memory—the near advance in ’93 to the finals. They would have faced the Habs in the Stanley Cup finals. We’re still waiting for that match-up, almost twenty years later.

The Gilmour trade brings me full circle to what Burke pulled off when he netted Phaneuf from the Flames. I still don’t understand the deal for Calgary, or many other moves Sutter made last season, but it gave the Leafs a new kind of leader. How effective Phaneuf will be in that role, we’ll see.

But again, we can’t expect Burke to make that kind of stunning move again, at least not soon—though Leaf fans can hope, right?

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