Talking Red

Niedermayer A Leaf? Almost. October 16 In Devils History

Posted in on by Dan Pennucci

By Dan Pennucci (@dpennucci)

Remember when Tie Domi elbowed Scott Niedermayer in the 2001 playoffs? 11 years before that incident, there was a good chance Niedermayer could have been a Maple Leaf if events had transpired differently.

The Toronto Maple Leafs seem to be haunted by everything from Don Cherry deriding the team for its number of American college players, to paltry goaltending, a demanding fan base and the fact that they couldn’t beat the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Finals back in 2002. The Leafs remain the only NHL franchise not to make the playoffs since the lockout before the current lockout, but the Buds have had some quality players over the years in Mats Sundin, Wendell Clark, Al Iafrate and Doug Gilmour, to name a few. However Scott Niedermayer could have been a Maple Leaf were it not for Tom Kurvers and the New Jersey Devils.

On October 16, 1989, following a season-opening win over Hartford, the Devils shipped Kurvers to the Leafs for Toronto’s first pick in the 1991 draft two full seasons down the road. It was a foregone conclusion that Oshawa Generals’ uber-prospect Eric Lindros was going to be the first pick in that draft, and the Devils wanted to secure a high spot with the hopes of grabbing Lindros. There was no No. 1 selection for New Jersey in 1991, but the pick acquired from Toronto ended up third overall. With the Leafs’ draft slot, the team settled for a defenseman lighting up the Western Hockey League named Scott Niedermayer before drafting a hard-shooting left winger, Brian Rolston, at No. 11. (New Jersey’s own pick).

As for the trade itself, the Devils had several valid and specific reasons for shipping Kurvers to Toronto in 1989, most notably having several superfluous defenders thanks to the essential defection of Slava Fetisov from Russia and coinciding arrival of Reijo Ruotsalainen. However, it was also the “emergence of Bruce Driver as the team’s most consistent offensive defenseman,” as noted by Alex Yannis of The New York Times. Driver had several productive seasons before Stevens arrived in New Jersey and Kurvers was looked at as an asset that could be moved.

Kurvers was a solid player for the Devils as one of their higher scoring defensemen after coming to New Jersey following stints with Montreal (who drafted him in 1981 out of Minnesota-Duluth) and Buffalo. Kurvers posted a 66-point season in 1988-89, was considered a player with market value and Toronto had a need for a quality playmaker. Devils GM Lou Lamoriello realized the predicament and invested in New Jersey’s future. “The situation dictated we had to reduce the number of defensemen and at the same time get true value,” Lamoriello told The New York Times. ”Kurvers was certainly worth a No. 1 pick and we wouldn’t have settled for anything else.”

While the Devils cashed in on the Kurvers trade, it was not easy to ship away a productive player, Lamoriello told The New York Times, noting “this was an extremely difficult decision to make because Tommy has contributed so much to the Devils and has done everything we’ve asked.”

In hindsight, and understandably so, the trade for Kurvers is not remembered too fondly by those that know the Leafs well,  according to Julian Sanchez (@mlse) of Pension Plan Puppets, “[The Kurvers trade] is still among the top 15-20 clubs with which Leafs fans are bludgeoned non-stop. The worst part is that knowing that the [Leafs] had taken a huge step back (injuries played a big role) and were headed towards [1991’s] No. 1 overall pick.” Sanchez continued to quip that San Jose isn’t mocked for their passing on Niedermayer with 1991’s No. 2 pick, opting instead to make Pat Falloon the first draft pick of their franchise.

“If San Jose had had the good judgment to pick Niedermayer instead of Falloon (gee, they never get hammered for that pick) the Leafs would have gotten off the hook. Of course, that could never happen for Toronto,” continued Sanchez.

Kurvers lasted just one-plus season in Toronto, potting an impressive 52 points in 1989-90 prior to being shipped to Vancouver during the 1990-91 season, ultimately finishing out his career with the Islanders and Anaheim before ending it in Japan in 1996.

While Toronto was still a few years away from making noise in the playoffs (notably some epic series in 1993 against Detroit, St. Louis and Los Angeles), the Devils were laying the foundation for their success in the 1990’s with the acquisitions of Niedermayer, Martin Brodeur and Stevens.

Through this trade, the Devils and the Leafs are forever linked, but this trade has also made Toronto fans a little sketchy about trading picks for veterans. “[The Kurvers trade] forms part of the Leafs’ record of trading futures for players and the futures turning out amazing,” said Sanchez. “I think it’s played a big part in the way that Leafs fans look at trades for futures. There is a large section of the fanbase that has no interest in doing anything other than saying ‘Welp, just like the Kurvers trade.’” The verdict is still out on Phil Kessel and Tyler Seguin, but it’s impossible to say Kessel has not done his share for Toronto.

While Niedermayer was essential to New Jersey’s success, it is not difficult to imagine him in another uniform, as he donned an Anaheim sweater from 2005 until his final season in 2010. It’s not difficult at all when you consider it was a foregone conclusion that Niedermayer was all but finished with New Jersey following the 2004-05 lockout after several acrimonious contract disputes with Lamoriello. It went so far in 1998 that Niedermayer suited up for five games with the International Hockey League’s Utah Grizzlies before returning to The Swamp and notching 46 points in 72 games. Scott Niedermayer has won essentially every team prize in competitive hockey including the Memorial Cup (with Kamloops in 1992, playing only four games with New Jersey that season), two Olympic Gold Medals (2002, 2010), four Stanley Cups and the Canada Cup. Niedermayer’s number was retired in Newark last season in early December but it’s a jersey he almost never got to wear were it not for Toronto and San Jose.