(Ed. Note: It’s the NHL Alternate History project! We’ve asked fans and bloggers from 31 teams to pick one turning point in their franchise’s history and ask ‘what if things had gone differently?’ Trades, hirings, firings, wins, losses, injuries … all of it. How would one different outcome change the course of history for an NHL team? Today, it’s Yahoo Canada’s own Mackenzie Liddell on the Toronto Maple Leafs! Enjoy!)
By Mackenzie Liddell
The Toronto Maple Leafs have been stuck in Stanley Cup purgatory for half a century, so there are a number of franchise-altering hypotheticals to choose from.
The missed call on Wayne Gretzky’s high stick on Doug Gilmour in Game 6 of the 1993 conference final cuts the deepest, but Leafs fans bear many wounds. What if infamous owner Harold Ballard was rightfully forced to sell his shares in the team? What if the Leafs didn’t hire Gord Stellick or John Ferguson Jr.? What if they signed Gretzky, traded “The Muskoka Five” or didn’t claim Martin Gerber off waivers?
There are prosperous possibilities in all of these alternate realities, but when it comes down to one Stanley Cup-stunting decision it has to be the Tom Kurvers trade in 1989, which resulted in Scott Niedermayer joining the Devils instead of the Leafs.
First, a little context.
The 1980s were a lost decade for the Maple Leafs. They spent the majority of it trying to rebuild through the draft, picking in the top-seven for nine straight years (’81-’89) while mixing in the odd playoff appearance thanks to an abysmally weak division.
In August 1989, the Leafs hired Floyd Smith to replace outgoing GM Gord Stellick, who resigned after one unsuccessful year under Ballard’s tutelage. After starting his first season at the helm 1-4-0, Smith wasted little time and made a move to bolster his team’s porous back end. On Oct. 16, 1989, the Leafs sent their first-round pick in 1991 to the New Jersey Devils for Kurvers, changing the course of history for both franchises.
Was it the worst trade ever? No. Kurvers, then 27, was a quality offensive defenseman coming off a career-best 66-point season and helped the Leafs return to the playoffs after chipping in 15 goals and 52 points in his first year. Was he worth a first-round pick in the hyped Eric Lindros draft from a team that spent the last decade at the bottom of the standings? Definitely not.
The Leafs went south the following season, finishing just ahead of the woeful Nordiques in the NHL basement, while Kurvers was shipped off to the Canucks for forward Brian Bradley in January. With San Jose joining the fray for the 1991-92 season, the Devils wound up picking third overall in the 1991 draft, where they scooped up Niedermayer after the Sharks went with Pat Falloon at No. 2.
The trade was a horrible miscalculation by Smith, who was fired ahead of the draft, and would haunt the Leafs for more than a decade.
What makes this one move stand out above all the other horrid moments in franchise history is how it impacted the team during their most current competitive window.
Niedermayer made a quick transition to the NHL, joining the Devils full time in 1992-93 and finishing with an impressive 11 goals and 40 points. That same year, the Maple Leafs came within one goal and a Kerry Fraser whistle from reaching the Stanley Cup Final. Adding Niedermayer to the mix, even at his age, would have been a big boon to Toronto’s defense, which was a solid group anchored by Dave Ellet, Todd Gill and Jamie Macoun.
But that was only the beginning. As Niedermayer began to blossom into one of the NHL’s best defensemen, the Leafs were enjoying some of their most successful years since their glory days of the 1960s. From 1998-99 until the lockout, the Leafs were among the top teams in the Eastern Conference and made two trips to the conference final, losing to the Sabres in 1999 and to the Hurricanes in 2002.
Would Niedermayer alone have changed the outcome of those series? Maybe, maybe not — but he certainly would have helped their chances.
The ’98-’99 Leafs nearly made the Cup Final with a top-four of Dmitry Yushkevich, 21-year-old Bryan Berard, Sylvain Cote and Alexander Karpovtsev. Niedermayer was an all-star and top-pairing defenseman on the best team in the East.
In 2002, the Leafs could have had one of the best top-fours in the NHL with Niedermayer, Yushkevich, Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe. It might not have mattered against the juggernaut Red Wings, but it could have put them over the top against the Hurricanes.
Then you have to factor in how this trade transformed the Devils into an Eastern Conference powerhouse and playoff foil for the Leafs for years to come. Niedermayer, along with Scott Stevens and Martin Brodeur, was a cornerstone of the Devils during their reign — his importance to those teams can’t be understated.
He played a big role in helping the Devils eliminate the Leafs in Round 2 of the playoffs in both 2000 and 2001 en route to back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup Final, where they beat the Stars and lost to the Avalanche. Would these series have ended the same if Niedermayer was wearing a Leafs sweater instead?
Niedermayer would go on to capture a third Cup with the Devils in 2003 and won the Norris Trophy in 2004 before signing with the Ducks after the lockout. The Leafs, meanwhile, lost to the Flyers in the 2004 semifinals and wouldn’t return to the playoffs for another nine dreadful years.
Whether Niedermayer would have delivered a Stanley Cup to Toronto is debatable, but there’s no doubt he would have significantly strengthened their odds during some of their best years, while weakening those of a direct rival.
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