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We have van Riemsdyk now, but it will take time for these draft picks to make their mark. Draft day can't help like it used to...

It was a quiet weekend for the Leafs (two solid young defensemen added to the prospect stable), until the deal for James van Riemsdyk.  I'll have more to say on that move once I have thought it through a bit more.  For now, I'll simply say that as interesting a move as it is, it's not a shock.  It almost happened a year ago.  (I should add, for what little it's worth, that two of the things I suggested in my post Thursday night would occur have indeed already happened- the Leafs drafted a defenseman in the first round and Schenn was dealt. Nonetheless, the weekend was mostly about the draft and the kids the Leafs selected in the first two rounds.

Nowadays, with the 18 year-old draft, it’s common to expect most of the youngsters selected on NHL entry draft day to be longer-term “projects”.  That is, while a few elite kids will make the jump to "the show" and have an instant impact, the vast majority will need more time in junior hockey, in Europe or the minors.  In fact, that is usually best for their development (something I wish the Leafs, to this day, had done with their young players much more often, but I’ll save that venting for another day…).

No one is expecting the first two picks chosen by the Leaf brass over the last 24-48 hours to make the big club in the next two seasons. Rielly and Finn will no doubt keep growing and getting “bigger and stronger”, as we hear all the time.  They will show up at Leaf summer camp, attend all the neat orientation stuff and also take part in the main camp in September.  We’ll be told they both look outstanding, have a bright future—and then they will return to their junior teams.  We’ll see the same movie with them next fall, and ultimately they will (hopefully) take their place on the Leaf blueline, after more development time with the Marlies.

It’s all part of the process.  Ultimately, the Leafs may keep them, or trade them, but they are now part of the “asset pool” that will be valuable for the franchise going forward.

This all said, I can’t help but think back to a time when the Leafs were in just as desperate a situation as they are now, but took advantage of a single draft—and a creative off-season—to virtually transform their roster.  (I know it’s a different time and different circumstances, but stay with me…)

Here’s the background.  Under young General Manager Jim Gregory, the Leafs had been re-built significantly from their aging Punch Imlach 1967 Stanley Cup roster.  Long-gone were great players like Armstrong, Bower, Sawchuk, Stanley, Horton, Pronovost, Pulford and younger stars like Mahovlich and Pappin.  By the early '70s (specifically the 1971-’72 team that I’m thinking about), while the club still had oldsters like Normie Ullman and Dave Keon around, youth was taking over.

The defense was young and overall, fairly tough:  Rick Ley, Jim Dorey (later traded) Brad Selwood, Brian Glennie, Mike Pelyk and Jim McKenny were key performers.  The ageless Jacques Plante was in goal, but he shared time with a budding superstar in Bernie Parent. Up front, Darryl Sittler (a first-round pick in the summer of 1970) was just beginning to really emerge, along with other young forwards like rugged Jim Harrison and one of my all-time Maple Leaf favorites, Brian Spencer.

Unfortunately for Leaf fans, just as this promising young squad was finding its form (they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in 5 games in the playoffs in the spring of ’72, but it was a tough series), they were gutted by the birth of the World Hockey Association.  Then Leaf owner Harold Ballard didn’t believe the fledgling league would survive, and he refused to pay up to keep his young talent.  (The Rangers did, on the other hand, and remained a strong team for years.)  Gone suddenly were Pelyk, Selwood, Ley, Parent and Harrison.  Spencer was lost in the expansion draft to the Islanders. Dorey was traded to the Rangers but he, too, jumped to the WHA.

Consequently, the Leafs were awful in 1972-’73.  They missed the playoffs and weren’t very good- at all.

But Gregory turned misery into assets by making trades to acquire some extra draft choices.  He ended up with three selections in the first 15 picks in the summer of 1973.  He was able to take Lanny McDonald, a strong young winger from Western Canada, then grabbed big Bob Neely from Peterborough and Ian Turnbull, shown in action with the Leafs above right, from the Ottawa Juniors.  (Turnbull had actually played several years with the Montreal Junior Canadiens before that.) Interestingly, I had seen both Turnbull and Neely play a lot in junior, and was happy, as a young Leaf fan at the time, with both picks.  I particularly thought Turnbull was a steal, late in the first round.

Then, that summer, Gregory went one step further:  he signed two Swedish players, Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom, to contracts.  The un-drafted Europeans, two guys most of us in the pre-Internet age knew nothing about, brought a unique skill-set to the NHL.

So that’s five players who jumped immediately into the Maple Leaf line-up.  To varying degrees, they all had helped the team throughout the ‘70s, some into the ‘80s. (Under Roger Neilson in 1978, the Leafs made it to the semi-finals but ran up against the best team of that era, the Habs.) 

Salming and McDonald (traded in a bizarre manner by Imlach in his return to the Leafs as GM in the summer of 1979) went on to become Hall-of-Famers. Turnbull, Leaf fans of the time will remember, was a classic enigma—supremely talented offensively, but often seemingly disinterested and lazy, leading to countless unnecessary penalties and miscues.  Neely was miscast by the Leafs as a tough guy because of his size.  With different coaching (and a better work ethic on his part) he could have been a dominant talent, I still feel.  Hammarstrom was under-appreciated because he was finesse and skill in an era when Philadelphia's "Broad Street Bullies" were all the rage.  (Hammarstrom would have fit in beautifully in Montreal, on would think…)

The thing is, McDonald, Turnbull and Neely were all 20 when they were drafted.  Salming and Hammarstrom were pure free-agents and in their early 20s.  It cost the Leafs nothing to acquire those players.  Gregory pretty much knew what he was getting because these guys were way further along their development curve than the 18 year-olds that get drafted nowadays.

Burke didn’t have the same opportunity as Gregory this time around (though apparently we could have had four first-rounders, eh, if he had made those deals he was apparently "offered" about at the deadline…), but he may have to be just as creative as Gregory was as he continues to re-shape his roster, if he hopes to have the kind of success he is looking for.

There is no question van Riemsdyk is a start, but the cost of a young defenseman is one we won't be able to assess for some time.


  1. I think the most important point you made is that the players drafted back in the 70s were 20 years old, and of course much more likely to make an impact within a year or two. You simply can't get overly anxious with an 18 year old prospect whose name isn't Lemieux or Crosby. Many a great future talent has been wasted by teams rushing them into the pressure of the NHL for the wrong reasons.
    Your mention of the signings of the Swedes was also a good point. Nowadays, it's much more difficult to discover a hidden gem anywhere in the world that the rest of the league doesn't know about. Detroit did a great job of European scouting (or just got lucky) with some late round draft picks in the last fifteen years, but I'm not holding my breath that history is going to repeat itself, at least not for us.
    That said, I do think it is possible to turn a team around within a year or two. We've already seen it done in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, to name a couple examples. It comes at a risk and a price sometimes. I commented before on Luke Schenn, and I'll say here that I am sad to see him go, I think his potential is much better than the intense media has given him credit for, and I do believe he will thrive elsewhere. So in that respect, if he becomes an all-star in Philadelphia, we can't cry over that, because he never would have been one here. I see this trade as a win-win. More importantly, I see it as one of those big drastic steps that the Leafs NEED to make if they are to turn things around.
    I will continue to hold out hope that they will hold the line and force Vancouver and Columbus' hands, and turn a couple bad contracts (Komisarek?) and sacrifice some potential (Kadri? Colbourne? Holzer? Ashton?...that list goes on and on) and turn it in to Luongo and Nash. And oh yes, do whatever it takes to land Schultz this week.
    The Leafs do have one advantage over other teams, that is in deep pockets, salary cap be damned. They can afford to take on big actual money with smaller cap hits, and they can afford to bury some bad contracts in the minors if necessary, like they did with Jeff Finger. (Tim Connelly, I'm looking in your direction)

  2. great tale of leafs past michael. i think schenn was miscast on the leafs. management thought he'd be a shut-down defender... as a high-end pick, leafs fans wanted a ray bourque... instead we get a young kid who gave a lot of hits but often made mistakes. hopefully JVR can put some offensive spark back into the 2nd line.

  3. We're very much on the same page, Anon. Schenn was perhaps never going to be fully comfortable here. If he shines in Philadelphia, good for him.

    The Leafs had a need and van Riemsdyk fills one hole.

    I do agree that teams can be re-built fairly quickly. You mention some examples and there are others, too (Florida, Ottawa...).

    This is why it has been frustrating to see Burke make all the moves he has for almost four years, and we still have struggled. We can cite improvements for sure, but it has taken an awfully long time to become an average NHL team under his stewardship.

    Finding those hidden gems is not as likely now as it was 40 years ago, for sure.

  4. The expectations for Schenn were too high, Alex C., agreed. He may well thrive elsewhere.

    No question van Riemsdyk should help on the second line. They still need more up front, tough, f they are serious about playing head-to-head against the really good teams in the East...

    Thanks Alex.

  5. I like this trade...I didn't expect it. I thought we might go months without getting a top six forward and I was concerned that forward might be over the hill.

    I was also worried about Schenn regressing further into a slow, out position pylon, who might have less trade value a year from now. $3.6 million for a guy on the third pairing... that also worried me.

    I doubt any of the draft choices from 2012 will exceed JVR's output, so I can now feel much better about the draft. Grabbing defencemen allowed Burke to deal Schenn from a position of comfort.

    If they grab Schultz then there is even more comfort.

    There are still some bodies to clear out, but Lombardi, Connolly and Armstrong are all in their final years. They could have comeback years and each should be trade-able at the deadline to a team making a push or looking for injury insurance.

    After a day out on the ledge (asking myself why do I put myself through this?) I am ready to come back in and continue giving hoot about the Leafs.

  6. Things often look better 24 hours later, eh, DP?

  7. This trade reminds me of Phanuef trade. The fact is that we got a highly skilled player who hasn't lived up to expectations although we had to give up far more. So far the reviews on Phanuef are mixed at best. He hasn't been bad, just not as good as he was billed to be. I hope JVR can blossom here in TO with more ice time. If Schenn had to be traded (thank you Wilson) they at least got youth and potential. I still think we are going to miss Schenn but I do have hopes for JVR.

    It speaks volumes to where the Leafs are in the NHL right now. There are three power forwards on the market right now and the Leafs had to settle for the least proven and the one with the biggest question marks. Not to say that it won't work out in the long run for us (I truly prefer JVR to Nash but would have liked Ryan) it just speaks to the fact that the Leafs are a long way from a desired location right now.

    As long as the Leafs stay away from Luongo and they make one more trade for a centerman, they might be on the right track. I don't like trading Schenn, but this was the best move they could have made, youth and talent for youth and talent.

  8. I've been thinking about these two weekend trades, and you make some good points Willbur that fall in line with my thoughts.

    Trading young defensemen is hard to do, but we didn't help Schenn in his time here. I'll hopefully post more on this subject tonight...

    Thanks Willbur.

  9. I like the trade. For those who think that the Leafs "gave up" on Shenn, they didn't. All we did was we filled one need (forward) at the cost of another (defence). Yet in Toronto it seems that we are always counting the number of times.players leave the Leafs and go on to have prolific careers. Jason Smith and Steve Sullivan were released by the Leafs and went onto being successful elsewhere. A few years later we were in search for a stay at home defensive tough d man and a second line center to play behind Sundin. Dimitri Khristich and Robert Reichel were not successful here like cory cross and chris mcallister. The difference in this case was that we gave up on Sullivan and Smith. However here in the case of shenn we are getting a guy back who is also young and with the same potential.
    So what I'm getting at is that in hindsight It doesnt matter how well Shenn does in Phile because we did not give up on him like we did with Sullivan and Smith. You have to look at the trade today. Are they equal in potential? If Shenn goes down as the best shut down guy in history, would it be fair to hold the GM responsible for trading him away? Because in hindsight we can always say that if I purchased that stock then and sold it today i'd be rich. I think one should judge a decision when it is made, when the outcome is not prevalent and not afterwards when anyone can see who got the better deal. I am curious to know if you agree with my point or not.
    On a side note.. In the case of the Kessel trade Burke should NOT have overvalued the Leafs thinking they were only a piece away from contending just because they were having a good preseason and so by trading away future high draft picks does not justify that trade. He should have taken the risk into how high a draft pick it could become into account.
    In this instance both shenn and jvr are of equal trade value today and one can only judge the trade as it stands today. Agree?

  10. Ron Wilson (remember him?) can take a lot of the credit for Luke Schenn's uneven time with the Leafs and it's a real shame that Schenn won't be the beneficiary of extended time with Randy Carlyle. I hope Van Reimsdyk helps the cause but a part of me wishes that this trade had not taken place.

  11. You raise an interesting question, bluenwhite (and apologies for the delayed response; I was away from the computer much of today...).

    I don't want to sound like I'm a fence-sitter but in response to your first question: I agree that, as of this moment, it is a straight hockey trade, both teams acquiring something they feel they need. But I believe trades are judged both at the time, and over time.

    A GM's job is to find the right pieces and assets for his team, for the present and future. A trade may look good for a team for the first season, for example, but not so good down the road. My short answer is, it is indeed fair, in my opinion, to judge both the short-term perspective and the longer-term outcome on any deal. That goes with the territory of being a GM.

    I think your argument could also apply in the case of Jason Smith and Steve Sullivan. Yes, the Leafs let them go for nothing, but they perhaps didn't fit the team and system at the time. They thrived elsewhere, but likely would not have thrived in Toronto, at that time. Is it the fault of coaching or management? Not necessarily.

    With regard to Kessel, I believe it was a case of Burke misreading the potential of that particular Leaf team, thinking the choice he would give up would not be that high in the first round.

    Your post got me thinking, bluenwhite. I'll ponder this some more;. Thanks.

  12. BCLeafFan....your comment leads very well into my post may have some thoughts. If so, I look forward to hearing from you.