The Devastation of the 2004 Toronto Maple Leafs by the NHL Salary Cap

TORONTO, CANADA - DECEMBER 23: Alexander Mogilny #89 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates up ice against the Atlanta Thrashers at Air Canada Centre on December 23, 2002 in Toronto, Ontario. Mogilny scored a hat trick as the Maple Leafs defeated the Thrashers 5-1. (Photo By Dave Sandford/Getty Images/NHLI)
TORONTO, CANADA - DECEMBER 23: Alexander Mogilny #89 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates up ice against the Atlanta Thrashers at Air Canada Centre on December 23, 2002 in Toronto, Ontario. Mogilny scored a hat trick as the Maple Leafs defeated the Thrashers 5-1. (Photo By Dave Sandford/Getty Images/NHLI) /

Do you remember the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs won a playoff round?  It was way back in 2004 (18 year ago).  Times were much different back then.  There were no smart phones, there were no shows streaming on Netflix, and there was no NHL salary cap.

From 1992 to 2004, the Toronto Maple Leafs had a good thing going.  Sure, they didn’t win any Stanley Cups, but they went to the Conference Finals four times and only missed the playoffs twice.  They were the best Leafs teams of the past 50 years (or since they last won the Cup).

The team made a lot of money, and they could spend a lot of money.  No body really cared if players were overpaid if that’s what it took to get great player into a Toronto Maple Leafs uniform.  There wasn’t much risk to free agent signings.  “Draft Shmaft” was coined by Cliff Fletcher since you could build a great team through trade and free agency without building through the draft.

It wasn’t fair to the small market teams who couldn’t afford to spend like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings or New York Rangers, but that’s how it was.  That’s how the Leafs of that era were built until the lockout of 2004-05.

How the 2004-05 lockout dismantled the Toronto Maple Leafs

During my 30-odd years as a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, there have been a lot of on-ice disappointments, but there haven’t been many off-ice situations more depressing than the full season lockout of 2004-05 which ended with the salary cap decimating the Toronto Maple Leafs.

With the cap on player salaries going from an unlimited amount to a mere $39 million, the Toronto Maple Leafs were forced to shed more than one third of their approximate $62.5 million payroll (which was a lot back then).  It 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 during the 2004 playoffs, five of them were gone.  Alexander Mogilny, Gary Roberts, Brian Leetch, Joe Nieuwendyk, Owen Nolan, Tom Fitzgerald and Bryan Marchment all signed with different NHL teams when the Leafs couldn’t afford them.

Many players also either decided to leave the NHL immediately to avoid the labour dispute or wound up playing over seas when NHL teams were tapped out and couldn’t afford them.  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 call it a career and retired during the lockout.  Ron Francis was 41 years old, but he still had some game left as he put up 10 points in 12 games after the Leafs acquired him at the 2004 NHL Trade Deadline.  He also didn’t announce his retirement until just before to 2005-06 season which makes me think he was looking for a team to sign with.

Not all of these players would’ve necessarily re-signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but the  Leafs were strapped and couldn’t offer anything.  Francis and Leetch were brought in at the trade deadline to help the Leafs go for one last Cup run before their dismantling, but “rental players” were easier to sign with no cap.  There was also the huge contract dispute with Owen Nolan.

Watching all these players leave over the course of a year with no hockey to watch was devastating as a fan.  Imagine if half of today’s Toronto Maple Leafs best players left with nothing coming back in return.

What good came from the Salary Cap for the Toronto Maple Leafs?

The salary cap is great for the league and everyone has gotten used to it.  It hasn’t done much good for the Toronto Maple Leafs though considering they missed the playoffs for seven consecutive seasons after the cap was implemented (10 seasons total since the lockout) and haven’t won a playoff round.

The salary cap does make things more interesting though and it frees up cash for big market teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs to use on procuring better training staff and facilities which can be enticing when luring free agents.

There were a few things I found interesting when the 2005-06 Toronto Maple Leafs team was formed.  The signings 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 J.S. Aubin.  Most of them didn’t pan out, but they were cheap low risk deals.

The Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t exactly have a stock pile of young players and prospects in 2005, but it was great to see a more youthful team gain experience and spotlight.  Rookies like Alex Steen, Kyle Wellwood, Ian White and Carlo Colaiacovo were given great opportunities in 2005-06 as well as young guns like Matt Stajan, Nik Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky.

Looking back, it would’ve made more sense for the Toronto Maple Leafs to sell off all of their aging players before the 2005-06 season to tank and rebuild through the draft.  Instead of patching holes with Lindros and Allison, they should’ve ripped the band-aid off by trading Mats Sundin, Ed Belfour and Tie Domi instead of waiting until they left for nothing.

dark. Next. Whatever Happened to Dmitri Yushkevich?

It would’ve been nice to move up the 2006 NHL Entry Draft and/or use the picks they would’ve gotten from trading Sundin and Belfour to get players like Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom or to use only one first round pick to get Phil Kessel.