The Maple Leafs entered the 1996-1997 NHL season with the hopes of making the postseason for the fifth consecutive year. Mike Murphy was hired prior to the season as the head coach replacing interim coach Nick Beverley and continuing the revolving coaching position. Murphy was the 18th coach since the Leafs had last one the Stanley Cup 30 years earlier.
The team played mediocre for most of the season and missed the playoffs for the first time since 1992. The 1996–97 Toronto Maple Leafs season would be Cliff Fletcher’s final season as General Manager of the Maple Leafs. In one of his final moves, Fletcher traded Doug Gilmour to the New Jersey Devils for Steve Sullivan, Alyn McCauley and Jason Smith.
It was actually Don Giffin who had initially filled in the vacuum when Ballard was fading that gave Fletcher sweeping powers to send his way into contention. Stavros who was himself rather frugal initially objected but relented when the Leafs came close to qualifying for the finals in 1993. It appeared that Cliff Fletcher was losing his touch and he too was let go by Leaf ownership. The reality was Fletcher was forced to sell off assets which stripped the team of badly needed talent. The payroll had ballooned to $40 million before being stripped down.
The biggest deal was the one not made. Cliff Fletcher wanted to sign Wayne Gretzky prior to the season. Gretzky was a free agent having left St.Louis and wanted to finish his career in Canada. When Fletcher presented a proposal to sign Gretzky to the Leaf board, it was rejected. Steve Stavros was having money problems was also looking to take MLG private.
The Toronto Maple Leafs had reached great heights early in the decade falling just short of reaching the finals twice. But now it was time to rebuild yet again. They had one young star, Mats Sundin and a decent goalie in Felix Potvin but that was about it.