TORONTO - Draft together, drink together from the Stanley Cup.
That’s the ideal team-building formula in the NHL and the way most young players want their careers to unfold — from boys to men and life-long friends, travelling the same road to fame.
The Canadiens, Flyers, Islanders, Oilers, Devils and Red Wings have won the bulk of post-universal draft Cups by keeping their core together. The salary cap era has made that a more daunting challenge for general managers, but Pittsburgh and Washington try to keep their best players and are still knocking on the door every year.
The Leafs? They have the longest Cup drought in the league of 44 years and have traded many youngsters in a failed attempt to win. But they did give the homegrown method a try many times. The remnants of a past in-house project will be on hand Thursday night when the early 2000s class of Carlo Colaiacovo, Alex Steen and Brad Boyes are in town with the St. Louis Blues.
Steen and Colaiacovo were traded two years ago in the Lee Stempniak deal just before Cliff Fletcher handed the keys to Brian Burke.
“Five or six years I’ve been with Carlo and maybe four with Steener,” Stajan said on the day of the deal. “Where does the time go? You take it for granted. One afternoon, a phone call comes and they’re gone. But you look back at the good times and turn the page.”
About a year later, Stajan and his draft pal Ian White were out, too, in a trade with Calgary and the Leafs are still looking to get back in the playoffs for the first time in six years. Now the Leafs see their future in names such as Luke Schenn, Tyler Bozak, Christian Hanson, Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri and Jonas Gustavsson.
Here’s a look at some promising draft classes for the Leafs and what became of them:
Lanny McDonald, Ian Turnbull, Bob Neely, Borje Salming.
With Darryl Sittler already aboard and Tiger Williams and Mike Palmateer coming after, GM Jim Gregory added Swedish free agent Salming and had a Cup contender by 1977. But Sittler, MacDonald, Salming, Turnbull and Palmateer, were wrenched apart by a combination of owner Harold Ballard’s impatience and GM Punch Imlach’s crusade to break Sittler’s clique.
Craig Muni, Bob McGill, Fred Boimistruck
A promising defence thrown to the wolves, to be followed in succeeding drafts by Jim Benning and the injury-cursed Gary Nylund. Letting them all go through a baptism by fire in a hard position to master might have been tolerable if it were not the Toronto fishbowl and lack of team coaching resources.
The Hound Line of Wendel Clark, Gary Leeman and Russ Courtnall was a rare delight of a terrible decade and the arrival of Al Iafrate. Ken Wregget, Allan Bester and Todd Gill made them all instant celebs around town. But too many kids were caught in the crossfire between over-protective GM Gerry McNamara and fiery coach John Brohpy.
Scott Thornton, Rob Pearson, Steve Bancroft.
Drafting three first rounders from the same team, in this case the Belleville Bulls, has never been tried before or since. The trio had some good individual years with the Leafs and other clubs, though defenceman Bancroft never developed. Meanwhile, among the first-rounders that got past the Leafs’ three-pick bonanza were Bill Guerin, Bobby Holik, Olaf Kolzig and Adam Foote. Detroit scooped Mike Sillinger, and from 53rd spot on, Nicklas Lidstrom, Kris Draper, Sergei Fedorov, Dallas Drake and Vladimir Konstantinov to feather their future Cup nest.
Yes, there was some attempt to accommodate youth in the Fletcher-Pat Burns “draft schmaft” years, such as Brandon Convery and Grant Marshall. Toronto also picked Kenny Jonsson in ’93. But all eventually were sacrificed in trades for the elusive veteran to put the Gilmour-era Leafs over the top.
To no one’s surprise, new man Mike Smith went for a Euro-facelift after two years without a first round pick. He took Nik Antropov, Petr Svoboda, Alexei Ponikarovsky, as well as influencing the Luca Cereda pick the year before he was replaced by Pat Quinn. Antropov and Ponikarovsky did enjoy a measure of success as linemates before another house-cleaning.
Hopes were high after a run to the ’02 conference final that the Leafs could restock with kids to play behind Mats Sundin, Gary Roberts and Darcy Tucker. But Erie Otters Boyes and Colaiacovo, picked first a year apart, were broken up when Boyes went in the Owen Nolan deal. Colaiacovo, Steen, Stajan and White were a tight-knit group but none were stars and Fletcher and Burke eventually sent all four packing.