Video: 1992-93 Leafs Team | Sergei Berezin | Wendel Clark
Cliff Fletcher was unlike any of the previous general managers of the Leafs in the 1980’s in that he had previous success in building a winner. Fletcher started his hockey career in the Montreal organization and then built an expansion team in Atlanta from scratch, improving each year to an eventual Stanley Cup with Calgary in the 1988-89 season. Having reached that pinnacle, he was looking for new challenges and was hired to rebuild the Toronto Maple Leafs.
One of Fletcher’s first moves was to make a huge seven player trade with the Edmonton Oilers that would bring a proven goalie in Grant Fuhr and high scoring winger Glen Anderson to the Leafs. It was obvious that Fletcher looked for players who had won before and would bring their winning attitude to the Maple Leafs dressing room. Fletcher’s next major transaction was a bombshell. He traded former 50-goal scorer Gary Leeman to the Calgary Flames in a gigantic 10-player trade that would prove to be one of the steals of all time. The big name coming back was spunky Doug Gilmour who would be the face of the Leafs for the next few years. In order to strengthen the defence, Fletcher was somehow also able to extract veteran Jamie Macoun from the Flames as well. None of the five players that the Leafs sent to Calgary had any great impact. This was a novelty for Leaf fans as they were used to coming out second best in the trades of the 1980’s.
Cliff Fletcher was the architect of the Leafs success in the '90s.
But Fletcher wasn’t finished yet. During the 1992-93 season, in what was another excellent move, he shipped his number one goalie Grant Fuhr to Buffalo for Dave Andreychuk, Darren Puppa and Buffalo’s first round pick in the Entry draft. Trading your number one goalie was always a risk but Fletcher knew that he had a young goalie in the system called Felix ‘The Cat’ Potvin who was ready to play in the NHL.
The Leafs finished the 1992-93 regular season in third place in the Norris Division with a team record 99 points, which was an astounding 32 points higher than the previous season. That was a huge turnaround and Fletcher was being hailed in Toronto as a genius. But the Leaf brass and the players knew that to establish themselves as a top-echelon team, they had to have some success in the upcoming playoffs to act as a building block.
The Detroit Red Wings, who finished second in the Norris Division, were the Leafs’ opponents in the first round. The Red Wings took the first two games at home by 6-3 and 6-2 scores. Incredibly, the Red Wing players were heard mocking the Leafs as unworthy playoff opponents.
But this was a different Leaf team than in previous seasons for sure. Coach Pat Burns would not let the team quit. Captain Wendel Clark came back to play an outstanding series and spiritual leader Doug Gilmour showed why he had captured the adoration of Toronto fans. This Leafs edition had a rock-solid defence with offensive prowess helped by newly acquired Dave Andreychuk, who with Doug Gilmour as his centerman, became a 50-goal shooter with the Leafs.
Doug Gilmour almost led the team to the Stanley Cup Final.
The series eventually came down to overtime in the seventh game at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena when the Leafs’ diminutive right-winger, Nik Borschevsky, scored to send the Leafs into the next series. Of course, Doug Gilmour not only scored the tying goal late in the third period to send the game into overtime, but also helped set up the overtime goal.
After Toronto ousted the St. Louis Blues in seven games, the Leafs went the full seven games with the Los Angeles Kings before losing the chance to meet the Montreal Canadiens in the finals and possibly win the Stanley Cup.
Most fans will remember seeing Doug Gilmour being clipped by Wayne Gretzky’s stick in overtime in Game 6 at the L.A. Forum. Referee Kerry Fraser would not call a penalty on the ‘Great One’, and Gretzky eventually scored the winning overtime goal to force Game 7 where the Kings beat the Leafs 5-4. The Leafs were denied making the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1967, but were now looking forward to carry their new success into the next season.
The Leafs started the 1993-94 season with a 10-game winning streak and finished the season with 98 points. They made the ‘final four’ again before being eliminated by the Vancouver Canucks in five games. A disappointed Cliff Fletcher started to contemplate what moves he had to make to put the Leafs over the top.
Prior to the start of the 1994-95 season, Cliff Fletcher shocked Leaf fans by trading away hometown favourite Wendel Clark along with steady defenceman Sylvain Lefebvre, rookie Landon Wilson and a first round pick for young Swedish centre man Mats Sundin, Garth Butcher, Todd Warriner and a first round pick. It took a lot of courage for Fletcher to trade the popular Clark. But the GM reasoned that although the Leafs had experienced success, they were not yet good enough to win the Stanley Cup. Also, by acquiring the younger Mats Sundin, the Leafs would have a potential superstar for the next 10 seasons.
Despite this bold deal, the Leafs lost in the first round in the 1994 playoffs to the Chicago Black Hawks and the Leafs started to decline. With the Leafs in a prolonged slump late in the 1995-96 season, Fletcher fired coach Pat Burns. Eventually, captain Doug Gilmour was traded to New Jersey with Mats Sundin taking over the captaincy. The Leaf GM made other moves to no avail and it was apparent that Cliff Fletcher was losing his touch and he too was let go by Leaf ownership. The Leafs then went on to miss the playoffs in both the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons. 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.
With new coach Pat Quinn together with free agent goalie Curtis Joseph in net, the Leafs rebounded by reaching the ‘final four’ again in the 1998-99 playoffs but lost in the conference finals to the Buffalo Sabres. On February 13, 1999, in a significant historic moment for the Maple Leaf franchise, the Leafs played their final game at Maple Leaf Gardens. A week later, the Leafs played their first game at the new Air Canada Centre with the hopes that their devoted fans would once again see their team win the coveted Stanley Cup.