Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Russ Courtnall for John Kordic was a good trade. No, I'm not drunk.

Russ CourtnallAs we approach the trade deadline, let's take a look back at one of the most infamous deals in Leafs history: the 1988 deal that sent Russ Courtnall to the Canadiens for John Kordic.

All things considered, this was a good deal for the Leafs.

(Sound of needle screeching off of a record.)

Yes, you read that right. I defend the Courtnall-Kordic deal. And yes, I realize I'm the only person in the world who does.

Everyone else thinks it was a terrible deal. Even Gord Stellick calls it a bad trade. In fact, it's become the gold standard of bad Leaf deals, even above the ridiculous "Tom Kurvers for a first round pick" deal that set the franchise back ten years. Even people who don't follow the Leafs and couldn't pick Russ Courtnall out of a lineup will mention it. Do a google search for "Kordic" and "Courtnall" and "Worst Trade" and you get almost 200 results.

So am I right and everyone else in the world is wrong? Yes, actually, and I'll tell you why.

First, the facts.

Fact #1 - The Leafs team of the late 80s had a decent amount of skill. They had three 30-goal scorers (Olczyk, Leeman and Marois) as well as a young Vincent Damphousse, decent second-line talent like Tom Fergus and some skill on the backend with guys like Salming and Iafrate. But they were soft. Like, squishy-donut-filling soft. Like, teddy-bear-right-out-of-the-laundry soft. They were so soft that they're probably the only team in history that could be pushed around by this year's Leafs.

The team did have the undefeated, undisputed heavyweight champion of the universe, Wendel Clark. But this was right in the middle of the three-year stretch where Clark played only 73 games total (including only 15 in 1988/89) so he couldn't help much.

The previous year's team had been soft too, and since then they'd parted ways with Al Secord and Dave Semenko. The 88/89 squad opened the season with one marginal tough guy in Brian Curran, and that was pretty much it. Other than Curran, do you know which opening night Leaf went on to have the most PIM that year? Mark Osborne. That, my friends, is soft.

Fact #2 - The Leafs played in the Norris division. For you youngsters who are too young to remember the Norris, let me try to describe it. Remember those Red Wings vs. Avalanche games a few years ago? That was the Norris division, every night. And with eight games against each division rival, the Leafs spent almost half their schedule playing Norris games.

Here are some players on Norris division teams that year: Bob Probert, Basil McCrae, Joey Kocur, Mark Tinordi, Kris King, Shayne Churla, Link Gaetz, Todd Ewen, Dave Manson, Bob McGill, Craig Coxe and various Sutters.

And again, the Leafs had Brian Curran and, um, Mark Osborne. See a problem here?

OK, this next one is important, so pay attention.

Fact #3 - Russ Courtnall wasn't that good. Yes, I said it. Courtnall was a decent player with great speed, who showed occasional flashes but was generally inconsistent and soft. And that's about it.

Here are some quick facts about Russ Courtnall. Keep in mind that he played during the highest scoring era in hockey history.

  • He had one 30-goal season in his entire career. One. Tom Fergus had two. Daniel Marois had two. Marion Statsny had two. Russ Courtnall, who everyone thinks was really good, had one.

  • He never had a point-a-game season. Not once. His career best season was 80 points.

  • He wasn't on the Habs team that won the Cup in 1993. This is really irrelevant, but it bugs me. He played for the North Stars in 1993. You just think he was on the Habs because he was still on their top line in NHL 93.

  • When the Leafs traded him, he had two points in nine games.

So why does everyone think he was superstar? Largely because the Toronto media feels a need to ridiculously over-rate any young player who the Leafs trade away. They did it with Courtnall. They did it with Kenny Jonsson. They're doing it now with Brad Boyes, even though he's halfway to his goal of playing for every NHL team in his career.

The bottom line
Imagine this scenario: You're an NHL GM. You have a lineup filled with reasonably skilled but generally soft players, playing in the toughest division in hockey. You need a heavyweight to protect them. You have a chance to acquire one, but it will cost you a skilled young winger who's shown flashes of brilliance in his early years. Are you a dummy if you make the deal? Would it be one of the worst trades ever? If you said "yes", then you owe Cliff Fletcher an apology, because he made the exact same deal three seasons later when he sent Daniel Marois to the Islanders for Ken Baumgartner. See, you fell right into my trap! I'm so frightfully clever. If anything, Marois had been a better player in his career before being traded than Courtnall ever was -- he was two years removed from a 39-goal season. But the Leafs needed a heavyweight, Fletcher made the deal, and it worked out brilliantly for the Leafs. Marois was out of the league within a few years and Baumgartner was a small but crucial piece of the early 90s Leafs resurgence.

Kordic, meanwhile, did everything the Leafs asked of him for two season, going toe-to-toe with any heavyweight he could find. But he had severe personal problems (which the Leafs may or may not have known about when they made the deal) and died in a drug-related incident when he was 27. So why is one deal applauded and the other is the "worst ever"? Hindsight, of course. Now we know that Marois had peaked, and Courtnall would have a solid career, and Baumgartner would become a crafty veteran, and Kordic was a ticking time bomb. It's easy to look at trades in hindsight and pick winners and losers. But that's not the way that NHL GMs have to make deals. They have to go based on what they know, and what they can project, at the time the deal is made -- with all the risk and uncertainty that involves. It's not fair to evaluate a trade any other way.

So fall back on 20/20 hindsight if you want to. But at the time the Kordic-for-Courtnall deal happened, it was absolutely the right move for the Leafs.


  1. I KNEW IT!

    That is a much better case for the trade being good than any I have seen for it being the WORSTEST TRADE IN SPORTS!

  2. Sorry, I saw the words "donut" and "Kyle-Wellwood-tummy" and I got distracted. Dangit, I'm such an ass.

  3. Kordic was so awesome.

    I do take issue with lumping Boyes in with Courtnall and Jonsson, though. The Nolan trade was utterly fucking horrible and there is literally no way to defend it. Courtnall and Jonsson ended up having nice careers, and I've always liked Kenny, but we got the awesome (and needed) Kordic back for Courtnall, we got the awesome Clark (and Schneider) for Kenny... what did we get for Boyes? 80 games of Owen Nolan?

    The trade looked God-awful then and it looks worse now. McCauley put up a Selke-caliber year immediately after the trade, Boyes is having a 40+ goal year at age 25, and giving up that pick in that year's draft was retarded.

    I'm definitely not one of those 'dump everyone for kids regardless of who they are' people, or one of those 'never trade your kids no matter what' people, either. It's all about hanging on to the right people and filling the needs on your team - the Nolan deal did neither. If that trade never happens, we might not be in the situation we are now.

  4. The Nolan deal is definitely one we'd like back. Even at the time of the deal, Quinn seemed like a guy who knew he'd overpaid.

    I'm going to wait and see on Boyes, though. He's having a great year, but he's been dealt so many times that you have to wonder what other teams are (or aren't) seeing in his game.

    The funny thing about Nolan is that he seems to be following the Larry Murphy career path: superstar player comes to Leafs, hits the wall, end of a great career, etc. Then they move on and get their mojo back. Maybe it's something in the water in Toronto. If Jason Blake gets moved at the deadline and scores 50 next year, we'll know something's up.

  5. Great post.

    I thought the Nolan trade was good at the time - aren't you falling into the hindsight trap? Injuries really ruined his time here, but when he scored that hat-trick in his first game, I thought the Cup was finally coming.

  6. Hey Godd... welcome to the blog, I'm a big fan of your work at Cox Bloc.

    I think the Nolan trade was borderline bad at the time, and definitely bad in hindsight. The Leafs already had a lot of what Nolan brought to the table -- grit, experience, scoring. They needed defensive help, and instead they cashed in the few chips they had to add a power forward.

    I'm a big fan of "go for it" deals (I think Muckler has cost the Sens one or two Cups by refusing to make that sort of deal.) But you generally only have enough ammo to get one stud, and it needs to be the guy who will help you most. Nolan wasn't that guy, even though he'll always have a special place in my heart just for the "boo-hoo" quote.

    On the other hand, I thought the Brian Leetch trade the year after was a great deal. You could argue that it didn't work out since they didn't win the Cup and lost him to the cancelled season, but at the time it was a good trade. Maybe JFJ's only one.

  7. I put my fist through the wall on the Nolan trade, still have a nice little scar from it. I've never been a fan of the guy and had a 6th sense type feeling that he'd be a waist of skates. Being drunk didn't help....

  8. I think hindsight makes the Nolan deal look worse, but if I had been near a non-concrete wall when news of the deal broke, my fist would have been going through a wall too. I've ALWAYS liked Owen Nolan and I even liked him here - but a horrible trade is a horrible trade, and like Sean said, Nolan wasn't the guy to add to this team. Not at that exorbitant price.

    Would I have taken Nolan if it was more like a Leetch deal (which I loved, btw)? Absolutely. But I hated the price from day one, and it only looks worse now.

    As for Boyes, yeah, there might be something up there. At least two of the trades can be chalked up to managerial incompetence, I'd think (leaving Toronto and Boston... I have no idea why San Jose traded him), but I'm not sure why he is always considered expendable. Still, he's turned out better than the three we did keep (Wellwood, Stajan, Steen), and a young guy who can score NOW is something that we really could use right now. Maybe he doesn't turn out being a consistent 40 goal scorer (he probably won't, actually), but wouldn't you just love to have a young 40 goal guy on this edition of the Leafs?

  9. There's nothing wrong with blogging while drunk.

  10. That's true. But if I was actually drunk, I would be making posts like "Things to do with a pair of pliers, a blowtorch and Kerry Fraser's genitals".

  11. sean, I wouldn't need to be drunk to want to bbq Fraser's genitals. Come to think about it, someone already did.

  12. My goal with this site is to go as long as possible without posting about the Fraser non-call. Because when I eventually do, it's probably going to be 30,000 words long, get me fired and then put in jail.

  13. The funny thing about Nolan is that he seems to be following the Larry Murphy career path: superstar player comes to Leafs, hits the wall, end of a great career, etc. Then they move on and get their mojo back.

    I always thought Murphy got a bad rap while in T.O. - he was never fleet of foot, even in his youth. His game always involved stretch passes to quick moving wingers that were stretching opposing defences and creating passing lanes; as quick moving wingers were a commodity in short supply among his Leaf teammates, there was never any room for him to make "his" passes. When he was traded to the Wings, who had that kind of personnel - well, you know how that worked out.

    As for Courtnall/Kordic, it's true that Courtnall's stock had started to fade by the time of the trade, and it's also true that the Leafs needed an enforcer. I don't quarrel with the theoretical premise for the trade, but I do have a beef about the player the Leafs got in return. Kordic was a terrible fighter; he was tough and he had the stones to step up and dance with guys like McRae, Odjick and Probert, but my memory is that he regularly got handed his lunch by each one of them. This was so while he was playing for Montreal, too. In other words, we traded a serviceable player for an incompetent fighter; that was always my take on the trade, and I have always (from the day it was announced) said so. If you're going to trade for a fighter, he needs to be able to instill respect; I don't believe that Kordic was ever truly feared by any of the other teams' big boys. End result: Courtnall for an ineffective enforcer; analysis: bad trade.

  14. Thanks for the comment, Junior.

    Murphy probably got a bad rap in the same sense that every whipping boy gets a bad rap. Even McCabe and Raycroft aren't as bad as they're being made out to be, and Murphy was the same way.

    That said, I remember a buddy of mine making a joke during the All-Star Skills competition that year. During the breakway competition, he suggested that they should have Larry Murphy skating three strides behind each guy, just to make Leaf fans feel at home.

    As for Kordic, I remember him being one of the top tier heavyweights. His youtube highlights seem to back that up, and he even did well in a scrap against Wendel ("did well" meaning he didn't die).

    Then again, I always think the Leaf wins every fight. I try to be objective everywhere else, but I'm still a homer when the gloves come off.

  15. re: Larry Murphy in the breakaway competition - that's some kinda funny!

    Best thing to come out of this little debate: I now have a reason to cruise YouTube looking for Kordic fight clips and I can tell my wife I'm doing "research." My recollection is that Kordic was usually second-best in the fight.

  16. Dude, Kordic only played 104 games with the Leafs following the trade, and even did a brief tour with the Newmarket Saints.
    Courtnall was indeed overrated, but this trade was still shit for Toronto. Courtnall went on to score 13 pts in 21 playoff games with Montreal that season, although they ended up losing in the Cup final to Calgary.

  17. This is crazy.

    Because Stellick was negligent in picking up a dime a dozen enforcer the previous off-season it becomes acceptable to trade away one of your best young skill players, who your organization drafted with its first pick a few seasons earlier, for a dime a dozen enforcer?

    Oh wait a minute! You're not saying it was merely acceptable. You're saying it was a good move.

    Did John Brophy write this shit?

  18. Your logic is no doubt skewed when you look at Rusty's numbers against Kordic's, and the impact each had on their respectives squads.

    As a Montreal fan, I welcome all of these so-called "good trades" the Leafs make with the Habs.

    Unfortunately, these days it seems the Leafs only want to make these kind of deals with the Bruins :)

  19. Kordic was tough as nails and crazy as shit. I don't know who's saying he didn't instil fear in his opponents- dude was a top flight goon. He was nuts because he didn't have any game. If he was on the ice, I mean…. holy shit, the gloves were coming off and everyone knew they were about to skate into the line of fire. Kordic never "had his ass handed to him" as a Maple Leaf. It's outrageous to even type that he did. He was possessed and I miss him. Thanks for the memories, John. RIP.

  20. There is no way we needed to trade our top scorer just to get a tough guy. If you can't see that then there is no hope for you.