Sunday, September 14, 2008

Is this the worst it's ever been? Part one.

John Ferguson. The Mats Sundin saga. Paul Maurice. Bryan McCabe. Jeff Finger. Rask-for-Raycroft.

If you're a die-hard Leafs fan, these have been dark days. It's bad right now. No doubt. But how bad? Have we ever been down to these depths before?

I'm not sure. So this week, I'm going to take a look back over Toronto Maple Leafs history and try to answer the question: Is this the worst it's ever been?

As always on Down Goes Brown, "Leafs History" is defined as beginning when I was old enough to be a fan. That takes us back to the early 80s, and that's where our three-part series begins.


This picture is all kinds of awesome.
The good: Rick Vaive scores 50 goals for the third straight year. Bill Derlago chips in 40, which is neat since as a kid I always liked him because I thought his name was "Builder Lego". Tough guy "Razzle" Basil McRae was briefly on the team. Gary Leeman debuts, which ends up being important eight years later.

The bad: The team misses the playoffs for the second time in three years, following a streak of eight straight appearances. The team used five goalies, including teenaged rookies Allan Bester and Ken Wregget, and the departing Mike Palmateer. Harold Ballard is alive.

How bad was it? 80/100. The team is terrible, Ballard is a menace, and fans were starting to lose hope. Rightfully so, as it turned out.


The good: Al Iafrate debuts, and immediately begins going bald. A rookie named Steve Thomas arrives, and proceeds to play for the Leafs off and on for the next 30 years. They use the first overall draft pick to choose some farmboy defenceman from Saskatchewan who turns out to be pretty good.

The bad: The team was a laughingstock, managing only 48 points and finishing last overall. They scored 253 goals which would be good today but was awful back then. Harold Ballard is alive.

How bad was it? 90/100. This was in the "fans wear paper bags" days.


The good: The Leafs make the playoffs thanks to a pathetic 40-point season by the Red Wings and even manage to win a round by upsetting the Blackhawks. Wendel debuts, leading the squad with a team rookie record 34 goals and killing and eating every tough guy in the Norris. The Leafs draft Vincent Damphousse, who I refer to as "Damp House" for about two years before my dad corrects me.

The bad: The team manages only 57 points. Harold Ballard is alive.

How bad was it? 70/100. The team was still awful, but Wendel-mania has begun.


The good: The John Brophy era begins, and the sight of an angry white-haired man in a derby scares the Leafs into earning a playoff spot. This was the second year of the two-year Brad "Motor City Smitty" Smith era. The Leafs manage an upset first round win against a St. Louis Blues team coached by a young Jacques Martin, who vows to only ever be the Leafs playoff fodder like four more times at the absolute most.

The bad: Despite the playoff appearance, the Leafs were still ten games under .500. Nobody on the entire team managed 75 points. Harold Ballard is alive.

How bad was it? 50/100. Make no mistake, the team was still bad. But Brophy was fun and they won a playoff round, and Wendel Clark was punching the blood out of a different guy every night.


The good: The Leafs make a blockbuster deal, sending Rick Vaive and others to the Blackhawks to get Ed Olczyk, who scores 42 goals and leads the team in scoring. Despite only managing 52 points, the Leafs make the playoffs for the third year in a row.

The bad: The string of first-round upsets ends as they lose to the Red Wings. Wendel Clark starts to have some injury problems, but we're sure they're nothing to worry about. Harold Ballard is alive.

How bad was it? 60/100. Wendel's back will be OK after the off-season, right?


The good: Olczyk scores 90 points, showing nice chemistry with Leeman. Daniel Marois scores 31 goals as a 20-year-old rookie. The Leafs rob the Flyers blind, trading semi-decent goalie Ken Wregget for two first round draft picks. They also make the Courtnall-for-Kordic deal. Guess which one of those trades Leaf fans have to hear about constantly for the next two decades?

The bad: Wendel only plays 15 games. Brophy is fired mid-season and replaced by the corpse of George Armstrong. The team misses the playoffs. They have three first-round picks and the best they can do is Rob Pearson. Harold Ballard is alive.

How bad was it? 80/100. Thank god for the Blue Jays.


The good: The Leafs are actually good! Well, not quite, but they're .500 for the first time in the decade. Leeman scores 51 goals, Damphousse has 94 points, the team scores 337 goals and is fun to watch. And best of all, Harold Ballard dies!

The bad: Borje Salming plays an embarrassing final season with the Red Wings this year. Why would a long-time Leaf ever wants to go somewhere else for one crappy year? Must be a Swedish thing. Meanwhile, the Leafs lose in five to the Blues thanks largely to the infamous Sergio Momesso OT goal against Allan Bester. And they trade their first rounder in the 1991 draft for Tom Kurvers, but that's no big deal because the team is good now so it won't be a high pick.

How bad was it? 30/100. In hindsight it was still pretty bad, but this season was a lot of fun.


The good: Remember all that good stuff from 1989-90? Yeah, never mind. Here are the highlights on this season: Peter Ing stops Wayne Gretzky on a penalty shot. That's it.

The bad: Despite hopes that they can build on the previous year, the team starts off 1-9-1. Leeman gets hurt, Olczyk is traded (for Dave Ellett), and Damphousse is the only player on the entire team to crack 40 points. The team prominently features guys like Lucien DeBlois and Dave Hannan. That Kurvers draft pick turns into Scott Niedermayer, who will return to haunt the Leafs in the 2001 playoffs when he vicously headbutts Tie Domi's elbow.

How bad was it? 90/100. It was bad enough that the team was brutal, but it made fans feel like suckers for ever believing things could actually be different.


This guy may be OK.
The good: With the Ballard estate finally out of the picture forever, the Leafs begin to rebuild. They hire a young go-getter from Calgary named Cliff Fletcher to be their GM. He pulls the trigger on a blockbuster deal with the Oilers that lands them Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson, and actual credibility. That turns out to just be the warmup, as Fletcher pulls off The Greatest Trade of All-Time a few months later, landing Doug Gilmour and other useful players from the Flames for Gary Leeman and the spare change in his sofa.

The bad: Oh right, the actual games. The Leafs aren't good, finish in last place in the Norris and miss the playoffs.

How bad was it? 50/100. They weren't a good team... Yet.

Coming up: The Fletcher era and beyond.


  1. Awesome post. A lot of hilarious stuff.

    "Builder Lego". That's so funny. I liked him a lot.

    Bob Probert had a chance of beating a cocaine addiction.

    Is that yours? That's million dollar Gold, that is. You need to put that in a bank!

    Do you remember Brophy taking a puck off his head, but refusing to leave the bench? As the game went on, a spot of red in his white hair grew bigger and bigger until there was a puck-sized patch of blood smearing his bright white head.

    Oh, to be ten games under .500 and still be able to make the playoffs. What an era!

  2. Nice post...for no apparent reason, I'm going to comment as though I'm writing a Steve Simmons column...Be glad you can't remember the first few years of the 80s when Punch Imlach dismantled the team, it was even more heartbreaking...Is it just me, or didn't they call the Osbourne-Leeman-Marios unit the "GEM line" - shouldn't it have been the "GED" line? Hard to believe that the Leafs didn't post a single .500 season for over ten straight years, yet still managed to make the playoffs...Dan Maloney was a heckuva coach and deserved a longer tenure with the Leafs...amazing to think that 20+ years after kicking those milk crates behind the Leafs bench in MLG, Tom Watt has returned to the Leafs in a scouting capacity...and whatever happened to Miroslav Frycer?

    1. "Hard to believe that the Leafs didn't post a single .500 season for over ten straight years, yet still managed to make the playoffs"

      It was easier to make the playoffs in the 80's; you only had to beat one or two teams, depending on which division you were in. One of the reasons why I tell people when they point to the Leafs being 7 years out of the playoffs as proof this is the worst they've ever been that they're wrong; if the NHL had used the current system for seeing during the 80's, the Leafs would have missed the playoffs for the entire decade.

  3. Is it just me, or didn't they call the Osbourne-Leeman-Marios unit the "GEM line"

    The GEM line was Gary, Ed and Mark Osborne, who was actually a decent scorer before he somehow transformed into a checker with no hands.

  4. Do you remember Brophy taking a puck off his head, but refusing to leave the bench?

    I vaguely remember that, but I may be confused with old footage of Ric Flair.

    I do remember the old penalty timekeeper Banana Joe getting hit with a puck and then wearing a helmet for the rest of the game.

  5. I laughed, I cried, I look forward to more. Great stuff!

  6. The GEM line was Gary, Ed and Mark Osborne, who was actually a decent scorer before he somehow transformed into a checker with no hands.

    D'oh! Of course that was it. I can't believe I got that line mixed up...