Toronto Maple Leafs: Best upgrade and worst downgrade in team history

Owner Harold Ballard of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images)
Owner Harold Ballard of the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images) /

A member of the Original Six, we take a look at the best upgrade and worst downgrade in franchise history for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

As we near the end of our series here at Tip of the Tower, the Toronto Maple Leafs are up next. The Maple Leafs have won 13 Stanley Cups, but the last championship was back in 1967.

It’s a year that fans know all about and are constantly reminded of by other fans. They’ve made numerous playoff appearances since, but they’ve come up short every single time.

After Toronto’s final cup run, the team suddenly fell apart. A costly move in the ownership position would come back to haunt the Maple Leafs for many years to come, but once the most despised man in Toronto was gone, someone else came in and immediately turned the team’s fortunes around.

The biggest upgrade in franchise history

Let’s go with an important transaction that saw the Toronto Maple Leafs hire Cliff Fletcher in 1991. As the general manager, chief operating officer, and president, Fletcher inherited a team that was sitting at the bottom of the NHL standings.

Fans needed something to get excited about; then a blockbuster trade happened. Midway through the 1991-1992 season, the Leafs acquired Doug Gilmour from the Calgary Flames.

The deal for Gilmour rejuvenated Toronto to be a competitive hockey team once again. Fletcher would then hire Pat Burns as head coach for the upcoming season.

The moves Fletcher made had a positive impact on Toronto. In his second year as general manager, the Maple Leafs set team records with wins (44) and points (99). The Maple Leafs would make it to the conference finals in 1993 and 1994, falling short to the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks respectively.

Gilmour emerged as a superstar who scored a franchise-high 127 points. He would finish as the runner-up for the Hart Trophy but won the Frank J. Selke trophy.

Burns would win the Jack Adams Award. Fletcher was named the Man of the Year and the Executive of the Year by The Hockey News.

Fletcher would remain in his role with Toronto from 1991 to 1997. One of the most respected executives in hockey was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame as a Builder in 2004. He would find himself back with the Maple Leafs as the team’s interim general manager in 2008, before Brian Burke took over.

The upgrade: Floyd Smith to Cliff Fletcher as a general manager.

The worst downgrade in franchise history

There’s too many to choose from for worst downgrade. Going from Pat Quinn to John Ferguson Jr. as general manager is a starter.

Roger Neilson, being asked to wear a paper bag over his head, is in the running, and so is Tukka Rask for Andrew Raycroft. With all of these moves are tough to look back on, none of them compare to the biggest villain in Maple Leafs history.

More from Toronto Maple Leafs

This honour belongs to one man, Harold Ballard, and he has a history of fans despising him due to his actions. Before gaining control of the team, he outmaneuvered John Bassett to pursue full ownership from the club away from Stafford Smythe.

First, Ballard refused to have player names on the back of their uniforms. Then, he even allowed general manager Punch Imlach to trade Lanny McDonald to spite Darryl Sittler.

Sittler’s response to the trade showed his frustration with the situation by tearing his “C” from his jersey, renouncing his captaincy. An infuriated Ballard likened Sittler’s actions as akin to burning the Canadian flag.

Soon enough, Sittler would be sent out of to the Philadelphia Flyers in 1982. Trading both future Hall of Famers dismantled the franchise throughout the eighties.

Writers note: Ever wondered what happened to the old Stanley Cup banners? (See below.)

Well… that goes to show what kind of a man he was. A good reason why karma came back to get him. 

Shortly after taking over the Leafs, Ballard stood on trial for 49 counts of fraud. He was accused of using funds from Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. to pay for renovations to his home. In the end, Ballard would be sentenced to three consecutive three-year terms in Millhaven prison, but he only served one year.

The downgrade: Smythe family to Ballard (principal owner, 1971.)

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What are your thoughts on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ top moment in franchise history? Is there another one that should be considered? Similarly, is there another forgettable one which should be included? Let us know in the comments below.