Tuesday, June 15, 2010

43 Years of Maple Leaf Frustration: 1989-90 Season

When Gord Stellick resigned in August of 1989, Harold Ballard offered the Leafs’ GM job to Frank Bonello, who was the GM of the Marlies Club that won the 1975 Memorial Cup. At the time Bonello was Director of the NHL Central Scouting Department. But Bonello asked for too much money and too much control for Ballard's liking. He tried Alan Eagleson who also said no. So Ballard did what he always did, look down the hall for a familiar face. That turned out to be the Chief Scout, Floyd Smith. At the Amateur Draft the Leafs pick Scott Thorton, Rob Pearson and Steve Bancroft all in the first round. Not one of the three make a significant contribution to the Leafs as professionals.

During the previous season under Stellick, the Maple Leafs finished 28-46-6, good enough for 62 points and the division-bottom finish Maple Leafs fans had become oh-so-accustomed to throughout the 1980s. But things changed when Smith assumed the post.

As the 1989-90 season progressed, the light went on for several of the Leafs’ players. Gary Leeman scored 51 goals (the second Leaf to reach 50 goals). Daniel Marois added 39, and Vincent Damphousse and Ed Olczyk (obatined in a trade for Rick Vaive) knocked in 33 and 32 respectively. Al Iafrate scored 21 from the blueline, and Tom Kurvers (yes, that Tom Kurvers) added 15 in the only season in which he looked to be worth the first-round pick that was exchanged for him. The Leafs finished 38-38-4 and made the playoffs, a remarkable turnaround from the previous season. The accomplishment was all the more astounding given that Wendel Clark played in only 38 games due to injury.

Part of the success was attributed to new coach Doug Carpenter who installed a run-and-gun type of offence that made the Gardens fans hop. The Leafs achieved a .500 record for the first time in the 1980’s and the team scored a whopping 337 goals, which was the second highest in the NHL. The Leafs had the 12th best record in the 21 team league. But unfortunately, the Leafs also allowed 358 goals against that season which was the third highest in the league. The team was undisciplined defensively and had weak goaltending, which was a recipe for disaster in the playoffs. Not surprisingly, the Leafs were eliminated in the first round in five games to the St. Louis Blues to end a decade of futility.

One of the most infamous bad trades in the history of the Leaf franchise went down on Smith's watch: a first round pick to New Jersey for Tom Kurvers. The deal was pulled off by Smith in the fall of 1989 when the Leafs were a mid-pack club. Neither the media, the fans or the club saw what was coming: in his second season as GM, the wheels completely fell off.

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