As 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. Like, Kyle-Wellwood-tummy 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.