February 20, 2010
'94 Cup hopes sunk into Pacific
By LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency
25. Cup hopes sink into the Pacific
May 24, 1994
For the second time in as many springs, the Leafs found they lacked the tools to get to the Stanley Cup final.
This time, they couldn't point to a suspect non-call by a referee or the individual brilliance of a Gretzky to ruin the chance, but their own dearth of secondary scoring, size and clutch goaltending.
The apex of the Cliff Fletcher era ended with a double-overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks, fatigued by of their second straight series on the West Coast. They blew a 3-0 lead in that fifth game after failing to sweep the first two at home of the 2-3-2 format.
Losing all three in Vancouver had the Leafs grumbling about changing conferences, though that wouldn't happen for another four years. The most significant fallout was the decision to go after a second centre to take the pressure off of Doug Gilmour, leading to the Mats Sundin-Wendel Clark deal a month later.
26. Free agents shun Leafs lock-up
July 1, 2002
The unshackling of NHL free agents after the mid-1990s should have been a bonanza for the Leafs. They had the financial resources to out-bid all but a small group of teams in a non-cap system and they were a flagship franchise in a beautiful city with a new arena.
Some big names were lured, but most others stayed away. Convinced the Leafs were being too cheap, too plodding or both just weeks after lack of depth sank them in the conference final, fans and media wanted GM/coach Pat Quinn's head in the summer of 2002. The biggest names -- Bill Guerin, Darius Kasparaitis and Bobby Holik -- were snatched up before the Leafs opened their wallet.
"We put our bids in, but what really blew everybody away was the length of the contracts that were being signed," Quinn said at the time in his defence. "The fourth and fifth years (which would follow the coming year-long NHL lockout and salary cap in '04) were very, very scary. We're being prudent ... not to bury this organization with a lot of contracts that you can't get rid of."
But when John Ferguson Jr. came to power, he had his own problems. He couldn't give popular Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk the same deals, so they bolted. Determined to be a man of action where Quinn dithered, Ferguson threw away big money in bad free-agent years, binding the club to players such as Jason Blake. His successor, Cliff Fletcher, also over-paid for unknowns such as defenceman Jeff Finger.
27. Big M, big trade, big trouble
March 3, 1968
Frank Mahovlich was a popular, graceful player who was so near to becoming the first Leaf to crack 50 goals in addition to being part of four Cups.
But he was drained from fighting autocratic GM/coach Punch Imlach, who felt the star was not always giving 100% and objected to his asking a raise for a new contract in 1962-63. That led to the famous $1-million offer from the Blackhawks, made over a few drinks in a hotel room, which lasted until the sober light of day when the Leafs reneged.
Imlach belittled his star by mispronouncing his name and though the Leafs won another Cup in '67, it came at the expense of a bout of depression that landed Mahovlich in hospital.
He became the centrepiece of a deal that sent him, Peter Stemkowski, Garry Unger and the rights to Carl Brewer to Detroit for Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson and Floyd Smith.
Ullman and Henderson didn't disappoint, with Henderson representing the Leafs on Team Canada '72.
But to this day, the Big M's fans are steamed he was driven away, starting a trend that saw many Leafs stars end their careers with other clubs. Mahovlich flirted with 50 goals again as a Red Wing, but it would be another seven years before a Leaf would score more than 40.