The devastation of the 2004 Toronto Maple Leafs by the NHL salary cap
Do you remember the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs won a playoff round? It was in 2004 (18 years ago). Times were very different back then. There were no smartphones, there were no shows on Netflix, and there was no salary cap in the NHL.
From 1992 to 2004, the Toronto Maple Leafs had it good. Sure, they didn’t win a Stanley Cup, but they made it to the Conference Finals four times and only missed the playoffs twice. These are the best Leafs teams of the last 50 years (or since their last Cup victory).
The team made a lot of money and could spend a lot of money. No one really cared if players were overpaid if that was what it took to get a great player to wear a Toronto Maple Leafs uniform. There wasn’t much risk for free agent signings. “Draft Shmaft” was invented by Cliff Fletcher because you could build a great team through trade and free agency without building through the draft.
It wasn’t fair to the smaller teams in the market that couldn’t afford to spend like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings or New York Rangers, but that was the way it was. That’s how the Leafs from that era built until the 2004-05 lockout.
How the 2004-05 lockout dismantled the Toronto Maple Leafs
In my nearly 30 years as a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, there have been many disappointments on the ice, but there have not been many off-ice situations more depressing than the lockout of the full season of 2004-05 that ended with the salary cap decimating the Toronto Maple Leafs.
With the player salary cap dropping from an unlimited amount to just $39 million, the Toronto Maple Leafs were forced to lose more than a third of their payroll of approximately $62.5 million (which was a lot at the time). This resulted in a total of 17 players leaving the roster between the 2003-04 and 2005-06 seasons.
They weren’t all fringe players either. Of the Leafs’ top 10 scorers in the 2004 playoffs, five were gone. Alexander Mogilny, Gary Roberts, Brian Leetch, Joe Nieuwendyk, Owen Nolan, Tom Fitzgerald and Bryan Marchment all signed with various NHL teams when the Leafs couldn’t afford them.
Many players also decided to leave the NHL immediately to avoid the labor dispute or ended up playing overseas when NHL teams were pulled and couldn’t afford it. For the Toronto Maple Leafs, Robert Riechel, Mikael Renberg, Trevor Kidd, Karel Pilar, Drake Berehowsky, Harold Druken, Josh Holden and Pierre Hedin all left to play in Europe.
Ron Francis and Calle Johansson also decided to make a career out of it and retired during the lockout. Ron Francis was 41, but he still had some game left as he had 10 points in 12 games after the Leafs acquired him at the NHL’s trade deadline in 2004. He also didn’t announce his retirement just before the 2005-06 season, which makes me think he was looking for a team to sign with.
Not all of those players would have necessarily re-signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but the Leafs were tied down and couldn’t offer anything. Francis and Leetch were brought in at the trade deadline to help the Leafs make one last Cup run before they were disbanded, but “rental players” were easier to sign without a cap. There was also the huge contract dispute with Owen Nolan.
Seeing all of these players leave in a year without hockey to watch was devastating for a fan. Imagine if half of the best players in today’s Toronto Maple Leafs left with nothing in return.
What good is the salary cap for the Toronto Maple Leafs?
The salary cap is great for the league and everyone is used to it. That didn’t do much for the Toronto Maple Leafs, considering they missed the playoffs for seven consecutive seasons after the cap was put in place (10 seasons total since the lockout) and they didn’t win a playoff round.
The salary cap, however, makes things more attractive and frees up money that big market teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs can use to procure better training staff and facilities that can be attractive to attract free agents.
There are some things that I found interesting when the 2005-06 Toronto Maple Leafs team was formed. The signatures had to be more creative. Expensive players left and low risk contracts were given to high risk players like Eric Lindros, Jason Allison, Mariusz Czerkawski and JS Aubin. Most of them were unsuccessful, but they were cheap, low-risk deals.
The Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t exactly have a supply of young players and prospects in 2005, but it was great to see a younger team gaining experience and getting noticed. Rookies like Alex Steen, Kyle Wellwood, Ian White and Carlo Colaiacovo had great opportunities in 2005-06 as well as young talents like Matt Stajan, Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky.
In retrospect, it would have made more sense for the Toronto Maple Leafs to sell all of their aging players before the 2005-06 season to refuel and rebuild during the draft. Instead of patching the holes with Lindros and Allison, they should have ripped the band-aid off by trading Mats Sundin, Ed Belfour and Tie Domi instead of waiting for them to leave for nothing.
It would have been nice to move on to the 2006 NHL Draft and/or use the picks they would have gotten from trading Sundin and Belfour to get players like Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom or just to use only one first-round pick. to get Phil Kessel.