There’s something in the air in Leafs Nation. Something strange. Something with which Leaf fans have been unfamiliar for some time. And that something is optimism. For the first time in a long time, Leaf fans are feeling optimistic about their team’s future. This season saw the Leafs make the playoffs for the first time in four years and the for only the second time since 2004. Add to that Auston Matthews, who after perhaps the greatest rookie season in Leafs history. looks to be the Leafs’ first genuine superstar and franchise player since Mats Sundin. (You know, if you don’t count Phil Kessel. Which most Leaf fans do not.)
Before this past season, however, optimism was hard to come by. From 1999-2002, the Leafs were one of the best teams in the league, but they never made it past the conference finals. A couple desperate years of buying over-the-hill veterans saw them go into the 2004-05 lockout a spent force. When NHL hockey returned, the game was faster than ever, and the Leafs...were not. Unable to spend their way into the playoffs in the salary cap era, the Leafs spun their wheels for years trying to avoid a full on rebuild. In that time, the Leafs brought in a lot of notable players, often for a brief period. Some played well; most did not. Here are 15 players you forgot once wore the blue and white.
17 Brian Leetch
You’d be forgiven for forgetting that Brian Leetch once suited up for the Buds because he only ever played 15 regular season games in Toronto. Even so, those Leaf fans who do remember him, remember him fondly. But more so for his playoff performances. Leetch tallied eight assists in 13 games in the 2004 playoffs; the last year the Leafs won a playoff series. The Leafs traded two prospects, a first round pick, and a second round pick for Leetch. A steep price for a rental, but none of the prospects or draft picks turned out to be significant players. Also, Leetch wasn’t meant to be a rental. He still had another year on his contract but it was burned by the lockout year. After that, Leetch signed with the Bruins for his last season before retiring.
15 Jean-Sebastien Giguere
Of all the players the Leafs have cycled through this century, more have come into the net than any other position. For about ten years, the Leafs’ strongest position was in goal. From Felix Potvin to Curtis Joseph to Eddie Belfour, the Leafs could always count on their goalies. Until they couldn’t. Since 2006, the Leafs have gone through goalies like most people go through toothbrushes. Perhaps the most accomplished of all these goalies was Jean-Sebastien Giguere. While he wasn’t in his 2003 Conn Smythe winning form, Giguere wasn’t bad as Leaf. But the team as a whole certainly was. Still, he managed to set a record by putting up two shutouts in his first two games.
Giguere was traded to Toronto in January 2010 from Anaheim for a player who we will see later on this list and goaltender Vesa Toskala. Toskala himself could have made this list, but EVERYBODY remembers that goal he let in against the New York Islanders. As for Giggy, an injury early in his second season in Toronto saw him sidelined and supplanted by James Reimer. Giguere signed as a free agent for Colorado in 2011 and would retire there three years later.
14 Owen Nolan
Owen Nolan, if he is remembered at all for his time in Toronto, is remembered as the ultimate failure of a trade deadline player. Sure, Doug Gilmour was technically probably the worst big name veteran the Leafs brought in because he only played two shifts before suffering a career ending injury. But you can’t blame a guy for getting injured and besides, Gilmour is a venerated hero in the 6 for what he did in his first spell as a Leaf. Nolan has never been afforded such good will, even though he, too, suffered from injuries. The Leafs gave up a lot for Nolan but all they got were 50 points in 79 regular season games and a paltry two assists in the playoffs.
The most memorable part about Nolan’s time in Toronto was his exit. Nolan had a unique and legally dubious clause in his contract stating that, were there to be a lockout, Nolan’s final year would be deferred. The Leafs contested this and refused to pay Nolan his claimed $12 million and also alleged that Nolan’s injuries were suffered off the ice and therefore they were not responsible. They whole thing became an ill-natured mess and was eventually settled, confidentially, in 2006.
13 Alexei Ponikarovsky
Mention the name “Alexei Ponikarovsky”, and the most likely response you'll get is, “Oh yeah, that guy”. Which is a bit of a shame, because, for a time, Ponikarovsky was a really important player for the Leafs. Ponikarovsky was second in Leafs scoring in 2008-09 (behind the same mystery player for whom Giguere was traded) and third in 2009-10, despite being traded at the trade deadline. The Leafs traded Poni (who they had drafted way back in 1998) to Pittsburgh and despite some talk of him re-signing that summer as a UFA, he signed with L.A. instead and then bummed around the leg awhile before moving to the KHL where he played for SKA St. Petersburg. Excitingly, Poni now plays for HC Kunlun Red Star, the KHL’s Chinese franchise. But he will be best remembered --if he is at all-- for his time in the 6 where he spent his best nine seasons.
12 Stéphane Robidas
On July 1, 2014, Stéphane Robidas signed a three year, $9 million deal with the Leafs; a very good deal for a man with two fractured legs. Nonetheless, Robidas did OK, playing 52 games. However, he has sat out both of the subsequent seasons due to these injuries. Where has he been all this time? …”Robidas Island!” A term for a contractual limbo in which the Leafs have placed several players over the past few years. Essentially, Lou Lamoriello has found one of his trademark loopholes and has put players on a long term injured reserve, seemingly to ensure that they didn’t help the team actually win a few games and jeopardize their chances in the draft lottery. Joffrey Lupul is currently stuck there and even James van Riemsdyk took a trip there.
People started questioning how genuine these injuries were, especially when players like Alex Stalock and Jared Cowan disappeared. But it worked! The Leafs got Auston Matthews. As for Robidas, his contract ends on July 1 of this year and he’s already taken a job as a consultant with the team. Poor Lupul is still M.I.A., though.
11 Dave Bolland
At the 2013 entry draft, the Leafs traded three draft picks (a second and two fourths) to Chicago for Dave Bolland. Bolland had just won his second Cup with the Blackhawks, and the Leafs were praised for acquiring a hometown boy with a proven record of success and who was, perhaps, the best third line center in the league at the time. Injuries, however, significantly curtailed Bolland’s odyssey in Toronto and he only played 23 games.
In a rare moment of good judgement by Leafs management, they opted not to re-sign Bolland, who inked a 5-year $27.5 million deal with the Panthers. After a so-so first year in Florida, Bolland’s play fell off a cliff. He played only 25 games in 2015-16 and was traded to Arizona the following summer. He has not played for the Coyotes once.
10 Ben Scrivens
On January 29, 2014, Ben Scrivens set an NHL record by posting a 59 save shutout for the Edmonton Oilers. At that time, Leaf fans feared they had another Tuukka Rask on their hands; an incredible goalie they let get away. Scrivens, though, hasn’t been able to consistently play at that level and spent the past year in Belarus with HC Dinamo Minsk of the KHL. In January 2014, however, Scrivens had just joined Edmonton from L.A., where he had ably filled in for an injured Jonathan Quick. But with Quick and then Kings backup Martin Jones both back healthy, L.A. decided to ship him out to Edmonton.
And it was also an injury crisis that first caused the Leafs to call Scrivens up from the Toronto Marlies. And it was more classic Leafs poor goaltending that allowed Scrivens to stay up, playing a total of 32 games. But the Leafs figured they could get a better goalie by trading Scrivens to L.A. And that goalie was Jonathan Bernier. Yeah, that didn’t work out, either.
9 Alex Steen
If you’re not a Leaf fan, you have probably totally forgotten that Alex Steen started his career in Toronto. If you are a Leaf fan, you probably wish you could forget every time you see the Blues play. Steen spent four years with the Buds, with his best year being his rookie season which saw him tally 45 points. In his nearly nine years in St. Louis, he has only once failed to top that mark in a full season. Steen has consistently been one of the Blues best forwards. His is a clear case of the Leafs giving up on a player too soon. It seems that Steen’s progression had not regressed as much as the team around him just sucked. A sucky team the Leafs thought they could improve by trading Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo to St. Louis for...
8 Lee Stempniak
Lee Stempniak. The Steen (and Colaiacovo) for Stempniak trade was not a good one for Toronto. Neither was the deal that saw the Leafs trade away Stempniak either. Not because Stempniak went on to light the world on fire, but because they basically got nothing for him (a prospect and picks, none of which developed). Stempniak scored 61 points in 123 games over the parts of two seasons he spent in Toronto. Decent, but not nearly as good as all the points Steen has racked up over his time in Missouri.
As for Stempniak, after the Leafs traded him to Arizona, he spent a few years in Calgary and since then he seems to be trying to play for every single team in the league before he retires, having played for seven different clubs in the past four years.
7 Mike Komisarek
Mike Komisarek: the poor man’s Brian McCabe. In July 2009, Komisarek made the rare move from Montreal to Toronto when he signed for the Leafs as a UFA for a whopping $22.5 million, five year contract. By the time those five years were up, his career was effectively over. Komisarek finished his time in Montreal strong, with three good seasons and even made the All-Star Game in 2009. However, Big Mike’s first season in the Blue and White was marred by injury, his second season was OK, and his third season was marred by his being utter crap. Four games into his fourth season, the Leafs just gave up on him and sent him down to the Marlies. That's $4.5 million for an AHL player. Toronto bought him out of the last year of his contract and he signed for Carolina. He played 32 games for the Hurricanes that season and then tried out for New Jersey the next summer, but was cut. He subsequently retired.
6 Ron Francis
Ron Francis is so closely associated with two franchises --Hartford/Carolina and Pittsburgh-- that people can scarcely remember that he played the last 24 games of his career with Toronto. “Ronnie Franchise” spent ten years with the Whalers until Hartford perpetrated one of their trademark bad trades and sent him to Pittsburgh in a deal that secured the Penguins two Stanley Cups. Seven years later, Francis re-signed for the now relocated and renamed Carolina Hurricanes, where he now serves as GM and co-owner.
But, for a brief period in the spring of 2004, Francis was not with the ‘Canes franchise but rather with the Leafs. Carolina traded him to Toronto to give him one more go at the Cup. Francis did reasonably well for the Buds, scoring 10 points in 12 regular season games. But his four assists in the playoffs were not enough to help a veteran-laden Leafs team past the second round.
5 Andrew Raycroft
We’ve mentioned Bernier, Reimer, Scrivens, Giguere, and Toskala, but now it’s time for the coup de grâce, the acme of awful goaltending, the epitome of epically bad net-minding: Andrew Raycroft. On June 24, 2006, the Leafs traded for Raycroft, who had won the Calder Trophy just two years prior. But Raycroft had a bad 2005-06 season and lost the Bruins' starting goalie job to Tim Thomas. But the Leafs figured Raycroft just had one bad season. They figured wrong. Raycroft finished the 2006-07 season 49th in goals against average (GAA) and 56th in save percentage. Partway through his second season, Raycroft lost his starting job to Vesa Toskala and was bought out in the summer.
After bumming around Colorado, Vancouver, and Dallas, Raycroft moved to Europe where he played in Italy (Italy!) and the Swedish Second Division. What hurts for Leafs fans? The goalie they traded for Raycroft was Tuukka Rask. What hurts more? According to reporter Steve Simmons, Boston would have accepted Justin Pogge for Raycroft. Pogge would go on to do absolutely nothing in his career apart from also playing in Italy! What hurts most? Boston was planning on putting Raycroft on waivers, so Toronto could have had him for nothing! Ouch.
4 Eric Lindros
When Eric Lindros signed with the Maple Leafs on August 11, 2005, he joked that the sweater they handed him was dusty. Lindros was alluding to the fact that back in 2000-01, while a restricted free agent with the Flyers, it was well-known that he wanted his rights to be traded to Toronto. But then Flyers GM Bobby Clarke refused, possibly to spite Lindros, with whom he had developed an acrimonious relationship after Lindros criticized the team’s doctors for misdiagnosing his concussions. Instead, Lindros was eventually dealt to New York where he had three so-so seasons with the Rangers. After the lockout, Leaf fans were happy to see a star player who had wanted to play in Toronto for so long, finally sign.
They thought Lindros would be another great veteran to add like so many before him. But this wasn’t the same NHL as before and this wasn’t the same Eric Lindros. “The Big E” only played 33 games due to a wrist injury and he signed for Dallas in the summer for one last season.
3 Michael Peca
The Leafs developed a habit in the early to mid 2000s of signing big name players who were at the end of their prime, or well past their prime. In 2006, Michael Peca was coming off a long playoff run with the Edmonton Oilers, so the Leafs felt his experience would be of assistance. Well past his heyday of leading the Sabres and Islanders, Peca settled for a one-year, $2.5 million deal with the Leafs. He only played 35 games for the team, as he suffered a fractured tibia following a collision with Blackhawks defenceman Jim Vandermeer. Peca would miss the rest of the season, finishing with four goals and 11 assists as a Leaf. He would then finish his career with two lackluster seasons in Columbus.
2 David Clarkson
David Clarkson is one of the few players on this list who is currently signed to another NHL team. Though whether or not he counts as an active player is a matter of debate. Clarkson’s story is so common it's almost a cliche. He had an excellent final year of his contract with the New Jersey Devils (though not a career year as it was the 2013 shortened lockout season). As a result, in the off-season he was signed by the Leafs (his hometown team) to a massive seven year $5.2 million per year deal. And it was all downhill from there. In 118 games for the Leafs, Clarkson put up a measly 26 points. Clarkson was so bad that then Leafs GM Dave Nonis was praised for managing to trade Clarkson to Columbus for a player who can’t even play. Leafs got the permanently injured Nathan Horton and sent him to what would come to be known as “Robidas Island” (more on that later). As for Clarkson, his play worsened even more with the Blue Jackets where he’s only played 26 games. Before the 2016 training camp, Clarkson failed a physical and was sent home. He apparently spent the year as the assistant coach of a high school team.
1 Jason Blake
Our mystery man! Jason Blake lead the Leafs in scoring in 2008-09 and was the man they traded along with Toskala for Giguere in January 2010. In the 2006-07 season, Jason Blake played amazingly for the New York Islanders, scoring 69 points and 40 goals. But this was a clear case of a player performing outstanding in the last year of his contract and he obviously would regress to the mean. Anybody could see that. Anybody except then Leafs GM, John Ferguson Jr., that is. He handed Blake a big 5 year, $20 million contract. In October, Blake announced that he had been diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia, a rare, but highly treatable form of cancer.
Now, I don’t want to make light of cancer, because it’s obviously serious and I’m thankful that Blake was able to maintain his health and continue playing; but only the Leafs could sign a big free agent player only for him to immediately announce he has cancer. While Blake’s courage and poise were admirable, his numbers were not. Blake netted a paltry 15 goals for the Leafs despite taking eight billion shots (approximately). After two-and-a-half seasons, Blake was traded to Anaheim where he wound down his career.