I hate to keep harping on the Chicago Bears after their bewilderingly disastrous 2017 NFL draft, but if there ever was a model for embarrassing draft mistakes, it’s them. It’s so them. I mean, surrendering three draft picks to move up one slot in the first round and then take a mediocre quarterback out of a basketball school with the second-overall pick? Either somebody was drunk at the Bears’ table of or there’s something more nefarious afoot.
But, you know what? It happens. No one pro sports team is immune from mistakes, the Toronto Maple Leafs included. And Lord knows they’ve made some horrendous blunders over the years that made you wonder what in the world they could have possibly been thinking.
Maybe they panicked when notified they were “on the clock,” but clearly some of these draft moves were massive flubs they’re still looking back on with regret. You know what they say: Hindsight is 20/20.
As we prepare for another NHL draft coming up near the end of June (and with Toronto once again out of the playoffs early), maybe the Maple Leafs brass will heed the errors of their past if they relive these 15 draft mistakes that they should STILL be embarrassed about.
15 JEFF WARE, 1995 (15TH OVERALL)
To lead this list off, I present to you draft flop extraordinaire Jeff Ware. Actually, I take that back. Ware wasn’t a flop, he just never should have been drafted at all, let alone 15th overall in the very first round.
All Ware did in two junior seasons in the MetJHL and OHL was score 23 points and serve 161 penalty minutes in 100 games, which makes you wonder what then-GM Cliff Fletcher saw in him.
By the end of his tenure with the Maple Leafs organization, Ware spent far more time in the AHL than he was supposed to, and during his 15 total games with the Maple Leafs, he managed a grand total of zero points and 6 penalty minutes. He ended up being nothing more than a career minor-leaguer and was out of the game less than seven years after becoming a first-round pick.
14 THE BRIAN LEETCH TRADE
So John Ferguson, Jr. is probably the worst GM in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ history, right? I mean, he made some real stinker moves, signed some egregious contracts and overall, somehow seemed to make the team worse year after year.
One of the most terrible moves, though, was in 2004, when he sent not just prospects Jarkko Immonen and Maxim Kondratiev to the New York Rangers in exchange for an old Brian Leetch, but they threw in their first-round pick in 2004 and their second-round pick in 2005. At the time, it might have been considered a fair swap if you squinted your eyes and tilted your head just right.
But the Hall of Fame Defenseman Leetch only played 15 games in a Maple Leafs uniform because of the 2004-05 lockout and ended up signing with the Bruins for his last year in the league. That’s a gigantic, embarrassing waste, folks.
13 KAREL PILAR, 2001 (39TH OVERALL)
Sometimes, NHL teams will have a dark-horse pick that they’ve scouted out for a couple of seasons, hoping no one else noticed him, before snatching him up in the second round the way the Maple Leafs took Czech Republic native Karel Pilar in 2001.
It was a bold strategy. They were drafting defense that year. In fact, their first four picks in 2001 were all defensemen. Unfortunately, despite his respectable numbers in two seasons in the Czech League, Pilar was mediocre at best in North America. And apparently, the team never delved into his medical history, because later on, after a couple of subpar seasons bouncing back and forth between the Leafs and their AHL farm team, it was discovered that Karel had a rare viral infection that was attacking his heart.
He tried to make a couple of comebacks, but he only made 90 NHL appearances over three seasons and never made it back after the 2003-04 season.
12 STUART PERCY, 2011 (25TH OVERALL)
The Leafs tried to make Stuart Percy work. They really did. But you can only disguise the obvious for so long, and the Toronto’s first-round pick in 2011 was obviously not NHL-caliber material no matter what excuses you can offer.
The defenseman out of Ontario had two very productive seasons with the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors of the OHL in 2009-10 and 2010-11, but after four seasons with AHL Toronto and just 12 appearances with Maple Leafs over two seasons, no one could deny it any longer: Percy was an embarrassing first-round bust whose development never progressed. After his entry-level contract expired in 2016, the Leafs parted ways with him, and he signed a two-way contract with the Penguins last season, playing in 37 games and scoring 8 points with AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
11 BRANDON CONVERY, 1992 (8TH OVERALL)
Instead of snatching up names like Sergei Gonchar or Martin Straka in the 1992 draft, the Maple Leafs used their eighth-overall pick to take Ontario native Brandon Convery, a stud junior player who had 115 points in 100 games with the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL.
After one more season in the OHL, Convery played his first pro season, a successful one, with the Leafs’ AHL team in St. John’s, posting 71 points in 76 games during 1994-95. That earned him an 11-game stint in the NHL the following season and a 39-game one the season after that, before being traded to Vancouver in 1998.
Despite his early success, he never made it work at hockey’s top level, and the former first-rounder only managed a total of 72 NHL games, scoring 28 points and a -12 plus/minus rating. Ouch.
10 JIRI TLUSTY, 2006 (13TH OVERALL)
Czech-born forward Jiri Tlusty caught the eye of John Ferguson, Jr. in 2006, who used his first-round draft pick to take Tlusty after just 44 games with Kladno of the Czech League during the 2005-06 season.
Once drafted, Tlusty made the move to the U.S. and had a pretty good junior year with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in the 2006-07 season, but that’s pretty much where his accolades end. He never did turn in a first-round-worthy NHL performance and bounced around from the AHL to the NHL until the 2011-12 season, when the Hurricanes gave him a full-time job as a second-line winger. He topped out with 38 points in 2012-13 and most recently played in the Finnish Elite League last season, scoring 5 points in 14 games.
9 JUSTIN POGGE, 2004 (90TH OVERALL)
With their first pick in the 2004 draft, the 90th one overall, the Maple Leafs settled on 18-year-old Alberta goaltender Justin Pogge, who was a member of the Prince George Cougars of the WHL. At the time, he had played 44 games for Prince George and compiled a 17-18-2 record with a 2.83 GAA and a .900 save percentage with three shutouts.
Now, obviously you can’t know everything about every draftee you select, and you have to rely on what limited scouting has been able to gather, but Pogge was quite the gamble. A solid pick but still a gamble. Unfortunately, he never really developed into an NHL talent and played two more seasons in the WHL and three in the AHL before only appearing in seven games for Toronto, posting an ugly 1-4-1 record and a 4.36 GAA during the 2008-09 season.
8 TRADING THEIR 2003 1ST ROUND PICK
In 2003, the Maple Leafs thought it prudent to trade not only that year’s first-round draft pick but also former first-rounder Brad Boyes and Alyn McCauley in exchange for a regressing, aging 31-year-old Owen Nolan.
What it meant for that summer’s draft was that the Leafs wouldn’t pick until the 57th overall selection. With that draft slot, they took John Doherty, a Massachusetts native with only 11 games with the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs of the EJHL under his belt.
I don’t need to tell you that Doherty never even played in the AHL, let alone The Show. After being drafted, he played parts of four seasons bouncing around from UNH, to the USHL, to Quinnipiac University, to the ECHL and finally the CHL before finally retiring from the game with all of 31 points at all levels.
7 THE ENTIRE 1999 DRAFT
Isn’t this just the most “Maple Leafs” thing to happen to the Maple Leafs? The team selected nine players in the 1999 draft, including a first- and second-round pick, two fourth-round picks and one in each of the subsequent five rounds.
Now, take a guess – just a random shot in the dark – at how many of those players ended up playing in the NHL. Two? Three? Um, no. Try zero. Well, technically, Pierre Hedin, a Swede the Leafs took in the eighth round, appeared in three games for the Leafs in 2004, but that hardly counts.
Granted, 1999 wasn’t that great of a draft year and Toronto’s first-round pick ended up with a heart condition that prevented him from making it into the league, but for a draft in which the Leafs missed guys like Henrik Zetterberg, Martin Havlat, Jordan Leopold and Ryan Miller, that’s a little embarrassing.
6 LUKE SCHENN, 2008 (5TH OVERALL)
Big D-man Luke Schenn out of Saskatoon was an imposing force in junior with Kelowna of the WHL and was highly touted in the 2008 draft despite the league’s trend toward smaller, faster and more highly skilled goal scorers. Dutifully, the Maple Leafs took him 5th overall that year, and he apparently had a good enough rookie camp to make the team as a 19-year old in 2008-09.
As prescribed, he provided good size and toughness on the Toronto blue line during his first four years in the league, but he disappointingly never finished better than a +2 and never had more than 22 points. The Leafs finally gave up in 2012 and offloaded him in a trade to the Philadelphia Flyers during the offseason prior to the 2012-13 season.
5 TYLER BIGGS, 2011 (22ND OVERALL)
He was supposed to be the latest savior to the lowly Maple Leafs in 2011. After all, he had immense size and strength, and was supposedly could skate and score with the talent of a first-rounder. So, of course, the Maple Leafs traded up 17 spots to snatch him in the first round (22nd overall) in the 2011 draft.
The only problem was that he couldn’t actually skate OR score that well at all. In his two seasons in the USHL prior to being drafted, Biggs had a grand total of 13 goals and nine assists for 22 points and 90 penalty minutes in 44 games. Total first-round potential, huh?
Well, as you might guess, that was six years ago, and the now-24-year-old has yet to play a single minute in the NHL and most recently finished a 32-point season for Kalamazoo two leagues down in ECHL.
4 SCOTT PEARSON, 1988 (6TH OVERALL)
Sometimes thinking outside the box is good; other times, like using your 6th-overall pick in the 1988 draft to select an outsider with a low draft stock, it’s not. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what the Maple Leafs did. Scott Pearson, a forward out of Ontario, had decent numbers during his four seasons in the OHL but was considered more of a mid-draft depth player who could provide good energy for a team who needed a checking-line winger.
As you probably suspected, Pearson did the role-player thing well, but he wasn’t a first-round talent. He also battled endless injuries and never played a full season because of it. He only lasted 63 games for the Leafs, scoring 16 points and putting up a -12 plus/minus rating. What makes the Pearson pick most regrettable, though, is that greats Martin Gelinas, Jeremy Roenick, Rod Brind’Amour and Teemu Salanne all went in order right after him in the draft.
3 TRADING THEIR 1991 1ST ROUND PICK
Unsurprisingly, the Maple Leafs stunk up the league to begin the 1989-90 season. Panicked, they gave up their first-round draft pick in 1991 to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for defenseman Tom Kurvers, which, unbeknownst to them at the time, set off a series of unfortunate future Toronto draft mistakes. Kurvers was good and all, and the Leafs ended up making the 1990 playoffs, thanks in large part to his elite two-way abilities, but the issue was who the Devils ended up selecting with the pick.
Does the name Scott Niedermayer ring a bell? Yes? Well, that’s who the Devils ended up getting with that pick. And obviously Kurvers didn’t help the Leafs win a Cup or anything, so this was an embarrassingly ill-informed trade. And it would actually come back to bite them again in the future.
2 THE ENTIRE 1ST ROUND OF THE 1989 DRAFT
If there’s one draft the Maple Leafs could go back in time and select all over again, hands down, it would be 1989, and more specifically, that entire first round. After some wheeling and dealing, the Leafs owned not one and not two, but three selections in that year’s opening round and what should have been a very bright future with all the inbound young talent.
Unfortunately, that talent never materialized. The Leafs picked 3rd, 12th and 21st in the overall, taking forwards Scott Thornton and Rob Pearson and defenseman Steve Bancroft respectively. Altogether, those three players combined played 225 games for Toronto, scoring just 95 points. In fact, Bancroft only played in six NHL games his entire career.
Oh, and the guys in that same draft the Leafs could have picked? Just some no-namers like Sergei Fedorov, Pavel Bure, Nicklas Lidstrom, Adam Foote.
1 TRADING PEARSON, A 1991 2ND ROUND PICK AND A 1992 2ND ROUND PICK
So if the Scott Pearson pick in 1989 was the shot, here’s the chaser. The Maple Leafs, in all their brilliance, decided in November 1990 to trade their former first-rounder, Pearson, as well as their second-round picks in 1991 and 1992 to Quebec for three no-namers to try and get a little better but also in hopes that the Nordiques would tank, get a high draft pick and make sure the first-round selection the Leafs sent to New Jersey in 1989 (which ended up being Scott Niedermayer) would be later in the round and presumably not quite so great of a player.
If you can follow all that, then you’ll understand the diabolical plan that makes sense on paper. But the Leafs ended up getting worse that season, and obviously Niedermayer, who the Devils got with the 3rd overall pick, ended up being a Hall-of-Fame defenseman who helped New Jersey win three Cups and Anaheim one. Total backfire on the Leafs’ part, eh? Embarrassing.