Is history repeating or will this time be different?


Brian Burke has done an outstanding job of refacing the Leafs organization in a very short period of time.  I for one am predicting a very surprising season from the Leafs as early as next year or the year after, once again propelling them into the playoffs and a very respectable playoff drive.  The cumulative effort of acquiring several players and prospects that are “NHL ready” is absolutely and positively an impressive feat.  Acquiring a player with the pedigree of Dion Phaneuf for almost zero significant cost was sheer brilliance.  His relentless pursuit of, and ultimate acquisitions of players like Bozak, Hanson and Gustavsson inspire the type of confidence and hope that has been lacking in this city and in this franchise for almost a decade.

Having said all of this, any Leaf Fan old enough to remember the Tom Kurvers for a 1st round pick fiasco are left waking up to night tremors and cold sweats when thinking about the Phil Kessel trade (2 1st round picks + a 2nd round pick).  The Leafs of course finished near the bottom of the standings that season, and although Tom Kurvers was a premier offensive defenseman in the NHL for the Leafs when acquired and on a couple of other occasions thereafter, the organization never did recover from the loss of Scott Niedermayer (drafted 3rd overall).  Now, almost 20 years later, seeing the Leafs season play out in the exact same manner, and worse yet, another 1st round pick to come next year, one has to wonder what the fallout of this transaction will be a few years down the road.  It is quite possible neither Burke nor Kessel will be representing the Leafs Blue and White at that time, yet, the fans may be left, yet again, wondering “what if”???

The New Jersey Devils went on to win several Stanley Cups, defeating the very same Maple Leafs in a hard fought, 7 game semi final series, on the way to the cup in 2000 (a full 10 years after the dreaded trade).  Anyone who watched that series would be telling fabulous and fabricated tales if they could not admit that the series and likely the Cup would have gone to the Leafs had Niedermayer been a Leaf instead of a Devil.  New Jersey won 2 more cups in 1995 and 2003.  Of course, Niedermayer played a key role in those cup victories as well – Leaving Leaf fans to wonder exactly how many cups they may have won over the last 20 years if they had not traded away a high end 1st round pick.  Coming “close” themselves on a few occasions over that same time period, since that dreaded draft day right up until the trade deadline heading into the lockout, the Leafs scoured the NHL in a series of failed transactions and experiments, trying to fill the void left by losing out on drafting Scott Niedermayer.

What is really eerie about this situation though is that the similarities do not end there.  The Leafs had built a very competitive team starting with a trade with Calgary that brought Doug Gilmour to Toronto in exchange for several players that failed to make a significant impact in Calgary after the trade.  The similarities to the Dion Phaneuf trade Burke recently closed with the same Calgary Flames are simply too similar to ignore.

Regardless of the optimism rightfully portrayed by Leaf fans, the reality of this situation is that the ultimate outcome of this trade will not be known for at least a decade.  Over the next 10 years, if the Bruins win one or more Cups, with significant contributions from the players drafted with our high end draft pick(s) then the cycle will have repeated itself yet again.  If the Bruins defeat the Leafs in a hard fought 6-7 game series, with key contributions from assets that “should have” been wearing the Blue and White on the way to winning the cup, how will this trade be looked upon by all that follow the club?  Leaf fans will be compelled to disagree and defend their hope and emotional investment with the typical and anticipated arguments to these statements.  Yet, it has happened before, and, at least to me, seems to be shaping up to happen again.

Personally, I have ZERO doubt that Burke is building a contending and dangerous team in Toronto.  I am eternally grateful for the youth movement that has been initiated and realized in Toronto – and I fully recognize that Burke is to thank for this transformation.  However, the movement of two first round picks (and at least one assured to be a top 1-3 pick) is completely unforgivable for an organization in a full rebuild mode and absolutely wreaks of typical political posturing where the future is neglected in place of immediate public gratification.  This is quite a common tactic in politics, where assets are sold for well below future market value in order to make the immediate and short term bottom line more appealing to  the public (Canadians only need to compare the sale price vs the current market price of assets like Petro Canada and the ETR-407 to understand these comments).  Unfortunately, it is quite possible that Leaf fans will not realize the real impact of this move for almost a decade.  Ultimately however, if the worse comes to fruition and the mistakes are recognized, in typical self preservationist Leaf fan mentality, the moves will be dismissed as ancient history and a new regime will be in place with new hope and new promises – as is typical in Toronto, all previous sins will be forgiven and the eternal fountain of hope will prevail.

I myself am as guilty of this as anyone else.  I will be paying big bucks into the MLSE financial machine for tickets, ad revenue, merchandise, etc – cheering and screaming for the Leafs to win along side everyone else.  But the margin between being a competitor and being a champion is very, very small.  1-2 higher end (or, worse yet, elite) players can easily be the difference between winning and losing a series and a Cup.  In 5-10 years time (or sooner), when the Bruins and Leafs are locked in an epic playoff battle, and I am watching Leaf draft picks bury my beloved Leafs on the way to a Cup victory, I will think back to the Phil Kessel trade and I will absolutely cringe at the thought and understanding that this was ultimately inevitable – and as a full fledged Leafs junkie, I will hope beyond hope that the next GM will not make the same mistake…

The opposite view point also carries some validity and is worth mentioning as it is certainly plausible.  This is a different era, under a hard cap system.  The window to build a contender and ultimately win the cup is much shorter.  Player movement has increased, and although typically teams have locked up their own drafted stars into long term and highly lucrative contracts, it is possible this trend will not continue and more and more of these talented players will be actually available at younger and younger ages – and the possibility exists that MLSE management will maintain the cap flexibility and abundance of home grown and inexpensive youth required in order to accommodate the acquisition of these high profile players via the expensive UFA and trade routes.  The Bruins may not be able to hold onto the picks acquired from Toronto long enough to realize the benefits. The high 1st round pick may end up being a bust, and the immediate results gamble that is Phil Kessel may pay off will result in the Leafs hoisting the Cup.  Bad managerial decisions on behalf of the Bruins, or absolutely brilliant maneuvering from Burke (or the future GM), may negate the cycle from repeating itself.

I am quite hopeful that Burke can overcome this and creatively acquire these high end assets via alternate methods and in the short time frame required to fall within Phil Kessel’s – not too mention his own – shelf life in Toronto.  For a seasoned veteran like myself, I find this unlikely, but, like everyone reading this blog, I maintain hope.