After a three-year playoff drought, fans in "Leaf Land" don't have a lot to be excited about. The team is finally in a much-needed rebuilding phase, a process that should have started a long time ago.
Given the current state of things, now is as good a time as any to look back at the events that now leave Toronto Maple Leaf fans with little more than hope for a brighter future.
1) The Salary Cap
This is the most obvious place to start. When the salary cap was introduced as part of the new collective bargaining agreement, it was well known that certain teams would have a harder time adjusting to the new economic environment of the NHL than others. The Toronto Maple Leafs were one of those teams.
The reason the salary cap was put in place was to level the playing field between teams that could afford to throw money at free agents and those who couldn't.
For many years before the introduction of the cap—and after the Harold Ballard years—the Leafs were one of the "Have" teams of the NHL. The Maple Leafs' free-spending philosophy put them in a bad position, with very little room to maneuver once the cap was imposed.
However, the salary cap alone is not sufficient enough to explain the considerable woes Leafs fans have been forced to endure over the last three seasons. The Detroit Red Wings were another team that it was thought would be negatively affected by the cap—but as all fans of the NHL surely know, they were able to adjust, whereas the Leafs have floundered.
In order to explain Toronto's decline, we must look back a little further than the introduction of the salary cap.
2) Short-sighted Trades
After the Salary Cap was introduced, it quickly became apparent that teams loaded with young talent were better suited to deal with the realities of a salary cap than those bloated with expensive veterans. Until this season, the Leafs' farm system was sorely lacking depth of any sort. The Leafs had very little young talent to move or develop at the time.
The reason for this, in my opinion, can be attributed for the most part to two trades—one in each of the two years prior to the lockout year.
The first is the Owen Nolan trade. As a fan, I was excited about the prospect of bringing in a player like Nolan at the trade deadline in '03. However, hindsight is always 20/20—and in hindsight it is now clear that this trade helped put the Leafs in a hole that they are still trying to dig themselves out of.
In exchange for Nolan, the Leafs sent Alyn McCauley, Brad Boyes, and a first-round pick to the San Jose sharks. Nolan ended up playing only 79 regular-season games and seven playoff games during his short and injury-plagued tenure in Blue and White.
Second, at the '04 trade deadline, the Leafs sent prospects Maxim Kondratiev and Jarkko Immonen, a first-round pick in the 2004 draft, and a second-round pick in '05 to the New York Rangers for defenseman Brian Leetch. This trade made no sense to me at the time, and makes even less sense in hindsight. Brian Leetch played a total of 27 games for the Leafs—14 regular season and 13 playoff games.
in these two trades, the Leafs dealt four prospects, two first-round picks and a second-round pick in exchange for two players who played a staggering total of only 112 games in a Leafs uniform. Their farm system is just beginning to recover from these blow now.
Certainly, there were other moves that contributed to the downfall of this once great franchise. However, these two trades were the first swings of a wrecking ball that has reduced this franchise to the state in finds itself in now.
3) John Ferguson Jr.
John Ferguson Jr. was hired to lead the Leafs into the new age of the NHL. Unfortunately, his decisions only led to grief for fans of the Blue and White.
This man single-handedly led the Leafs into the toilet. In all fairness, Ferguson can't be blamed for the Owen Nolan trade—that was Pat Quinn's handy work—but the responsibility for the Leetch debacle falls squarely on his shoulders.
It was Ferguson's contracts that dealt the death blow to an organization already in trouble. The most notable of these contracts was the one offered to Ed Belfour just one season before the lockout. The writing of a salary cap was already on the wall when Ferguson extended Belfour for two years at $8 million per.
Ferguson then went ahead and extended Bryan McCabe and a slew of other veterans for big-money deals, most of which included the "no-trade clauses" that have given the current Leafs brass so little room for movement, and so much grief in rebuilding.
The damage done by Ferguson gave the Leafs absolutely zero room to maneuver under the cap after it became clear his plans for the team were not working out. There was little anyone could do once the damage was done.
Between the crippling contracts that Ferguson incurred and the two trades that sent a big chunk of the future of the franchise out of town for essentially nothing in return. it became clearer and clearer that Leaf fans were going to be mired in the long period of disappointment that we are now seeing in Toronto.
These three factors in my opinion are where the wheels fell off and things really started to go sideways for the Toronto Maple Leafs. The salary cap forced the team to change their "buy a Cup" mentality. The Nolan and Leetch trades decimated the farm system, crippling the team's ability to grow under a cap environment. And bad contracts painted the Leafs into a corner they couldn't get out of.
However, there is hope for the future. Cliff Fletcher is an astute hockey man who knows that at this point there is little that can be done—except to start building from the ground up.
The Leafs are once again beginning to load up on prospects and are finally looking to the future again. How bright that future is going to be is entirely dependent on the franchise's ability to learn from their past mistakes.