In 1993-94, the Devils and their sensational rookie goaltender, Martin Brodeur, had established themselves as one of the best defensive teams in the NHL. By most objective measurements, it’s been argued here that this was the first great Devils team. While we came up short in gut-wrenching fashion that year, our hunger was satisfied in the follow-up, 1995 season, when the Devils took their first cup. The Mickey Mouse organization was finally etched into NHL history.
For an encore, we had one of the most disappointing seasons in Devils history — missing the playoffs despite the #2 defense in the league due, in part, to the falling production of their veteran forwards like Stephane Richer, John MacLean, and Neal Broten. In 1996-97, it was on the Devils to prove that 1995 was the beginning, not the end, of their time as an elite organization in the NHL.
By the all-star break, the Devils were 22-16-5. Then they lost only 1 of their next 15 games. They had some momentum, but needed something to put them over the edge. Meanwhile, the Toronto Maple Leafs were set to miss the playoffs for the first time in 5 years. Their priorities were on building a team around 25-year-old Mats Sundin. That set the table for a move that would help propel the Devils to a return to the postseason and the first of several Division Titles in franchise history.
The Devils sent Jason Smith, Steve Sullivan, and the rights to Alyn McCauley to Toronto in exchange for Doug Gilmour, Dave Ellett, and a conditional draft pick (became Andre Lakos).
In this piece we’ll examine the trade from the perspective of both teams, and from Gilmour himself. We’ll start with the story with which you’re likely least familiar — the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Maple Leafs
Let’s start this story in 1991. The Leafs are coming off a last-in-the-division finish, and headed towards another in GM Cliff Fletcher (father of current Flyers GM, Chuck). Fletcher has inherited a coach who has installed 25-year-old Wendell Clark as the captain, and the team is struggling to find a true identity. Cliff Fletcher was the founding GM of the Atlanta Flames expansion franchise before coming to Toronto, and rumors were circulating that Doug Gilmour and management were on the outs. In a historically lopsided trade that was the largest ever in the NHL at the time, Fletcher acquired his former player, Gilmour, and 4 other pieces in exchange for their former 50-goal-scorer, Gary Leeman, and 4 other pieces.
The next season (1992) Pat Burns (familiar to Devils fans, no doubt) is the head coach, Doug Gilmour wins the Selke and finishes 2nd in Hart voting, and the Maple Leads return to the postseason, making it all the way to the Conference Finals — losing in 7. The year after, Gilmor finishes 4th in Hart voting and 2nd in Selke voting — and the Leafs make the playoffs again, and again lose in the Conference Finals. Consecutive seasons in the final 4, with one of the best players alive, had reinstalled a sense of hope to the franchise. Gilmour is captain and Clark is traded to the Nordiques in exchange for exciting young forward, Mats Sundin, but hope waned as the Leafs saw 5 consecutive years of drops in PTS% and, ultimately, the firing of Head Coach, Pat Burns.
It’s now 1996-97. Fletcher has tried to recapture the magic by reacquiring Clark (now with the Islanders after a one-for-one trade for Claude Lemieux), but has fallen way short. Gilmour is still a solid two-way forward, but his time atop the scoring leaderboards seemed behind him. Fletcher decides it’s time to retool around the 25-year-old Mats Sundin to whom Gilmour would pass the torch. In acquiring Clark they had given top defensive prospect, Kenny Jonsson, and a first round pick which would become Roberto Luongo (ouch). They wanted to restock by trading 33-year-old Gilmour with only a year left on his deal, and acquirnig young talent like 22-year-old Steve Sullivan (who got Calder votes that year); 23-year-old former 1st round pick, Jason Smith; and 19-year-old forward who had been tearing up the OHL to the tune of 112 points in 50 games, Alyn McCauley.
In a sense, the Maple Leafs broader plan of rebuilding around Sundin did have some payoffs. Toronto made the playoffs every year from 1998-2004, but did so without Cliff Fletcher who didn’t make it out of the 1997 season, and did it largely without any footprint of the 3 players involved in the trade — they lost Sullivan to waivers, flipped Smith for picks, and made McCauley a small piece of the trade to acquire Owen Nolan. All told, this trade was a loss, but one that most GMs at the time probably would have made. Especially in the situation Gilmour put Flethcer in. Because, as we’ll find out, Gilmour had his own story.
Gilmour was not a blue-chip prospect, but did have a highly productive draft year in the OHL averaging almost 2 points per game and scoring 6 goals and 9 assists in the 5 playoff games with the Cornwall Royals. That only earned him the 134th overall selection in the NHL draft, though, as scouts worried that the 5’9’’ forward wouldn’t be able to handle the NHL game. Gilmour would have to scratch and claw for every opportunity. In his first year after being drafted, he led the OHL in scoring by 30 points with 70 goals an 107 assists in 68 games — winning league MVP. That earned him a shot in the NHL the very next season and he never looked back. He immediately established himself as one of the best young two-way forwards in the game, regularly garnering Selke votes, and by 23 he began producing a point per game consistently as well. The Blues, however, decided to deal Gilmour to the Flames. Some, including Gilmour, believe this was due to public and graphic allegations made against him at the time of the trade (Sources: Los Angeles Times, Washinton Post, Chicago Tribune), though the Blues denied those claims.
In Calgary, he kept up the same level of production (point per game + Selke buzz) and helped them to their first an only Stanley Cup in 1989, putting up 22 points in 22 postseason games en route to the Championship. However, A frayed relationship with Flames brass forced him out, again. A bitter arbitration process, an overheard conversation, and dramatic game of chicken later, Gilmour was a Leaf. All of that and more are described in Gilmour’s biography “Killer” (co-wrote with Dan Robson and titled after his nickname).
Gilmour once again, with his 3rd consecutive team now, was scoring a point per game and getting Selke respect. A native of Kingston, Ontario, Gilmour considered the Leafs his hometown team and had really settled into a leadership role — especially after the departure of Clark and the stitching of the “C”. But, for the first time in his career, his production started to decline. And for the 3rd time in his career, he was being shopped.
Gilmour dedicates a full chapter to the from the Leafs trade and the circumstances around it. He describes the mindset of the team and himself as embaressing:
“On the ice, I was back up to a point-per-game player in 1996-97. I was skating on a line with Tie Domi and Wendel Clark ... I was happy to have Clark back in the locker room, but it wasn’t really our team anymore. Mike Murphy has taken over as head coach. We were on our way to a last-place finish in our division, and frustrations were boiling over. We were inconsistent. We were finding ways to lose. We were even being booed at home. It was embaressing”
Gilmour goes on to talk about how Fletcher told him very frankly that the team was not going to re-sign him and even though he didn’t want to trade him personally, there were offers on the table. Gilmour understood, but there were some caveats. He didn’t want to go to another Canadian team because he was tired of the media, and he wanted to stay East to be close to home.
Fletcher had an offer for a young prospect at the time named Markus Naslund, but Gilmour turned it down because Vancouver met neither of his requests — they were Canadian and Western. There were three other teams interested, the Flyers, the Panthers, and the Devils. Gilmour approved all three, and the Devils won the bid. He also reflects on how his decision prevented them from getting the best return:
“In hindsight, my request probably cost the Leafs the best deal the could have made for me ... [Naslund] would go on to become a focal point of the Canucks franchise — a team captain, a first-team all-star, and even a Lester Pearson Award winner as the players’ choice of MVP”
Doug Gilmour — in his continuous search to prove his skeptics wrong, immediately becomes one of the most productive players on the Devils. He out up 4 points in his first game after the trade and was 2nd on the Devils in scoring after the trade with 22 points (behind only MacLean’s 25). The Devils go 16-5-2 the rest of the season and enter the playoffs the #1 seed in the East. After dispatching easily with the Canadiens, the Devils lose just as quickly to Our Hated Rivals in 5 games — Gilmour had 0 goals and 0 assists in the series, finishing the playoffs without a single goal.
In 1998 Gilmour once again was an integral piece to the Devils, leading the team in points per game with 53 in 63 games while playing in all 3 situations. For the 14th time in his 15 seasons, Gilmour was headed to the postseason. The 1st-seed Devils drew the barely-500 Senators in the first round and this time, Doug did everything he could to keep the Devils alive. The Devils score only 12 goals in those 6 games, and Gilmour was involved in over half of them. His 7 points that series more than doubled any other Devils player. He shot 41.7%, only to see the rest of the team shoot a catastrophically inept 4.3%. Gilmour did his best, but his season was done, as was his time with the Devils.
Gilmour would play 2 seasons each with 3 more new teams before being traded back to his hometown Leafs, with whom he would retire after suffering an injury in his first game back in the white and blue.
His career spanned 20 years over which he played for 7 different teams and compiled a total of 1414 points which is currently 19th all-time in NHL history. In 2009, the Maple Leafs retired his number, #93. And in 2011 he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Where we left our heroes at the intro to this piece, the Devils were 22-16-5. It’s important to realize that, this team — even though they had just won a Cup in their 6th consecutive playoff appearance just 2 years prior — did not have the allure of an elite organization. The franchise is in its 22nd year at this point and has won over half its games in the regular season only one time (1994). Also, as is the case with any sustained period of success, the main pieces of their previous era were either gone (Driver, Richer, Fetisov, Lemieux), or in their 30s (MacLean 32, Stevens 32, Daneyko 32).
The 23-year-old Scott Niedermayer was already a great puck-moving complement to Stevens, and 26-year-old power forward Bobby Holik was the team point leader. Oh, and of course, we had best young goalie in the league in Martin Brodeur. But for every deteriorating veteran, there was another unproven youngster knocking on the door. The 22-year-old sophomore Steve Sullivan was one of the best producers on the team with 22 points in 33 games, 3rd-year former 1st rounder Brian Rolston was finally becoming a contributor, and 20-year-old Czech forwards Petr Sykora and Patrik Elias are flirting with the NHL.
The forward corps in particular needed a shot in the arm. The established talent was declining, and the young talent wasn’t quite there yet. The needed an elite producer that also could buy in to Devil hockey (200-ft game) to mentor the younger players until they were able to take the reigns. Players that contribute both of those elements were exceptionally rare, so when Lou Lamoriello found out Gilmour was available, he was willing to give up some the young pieces to acquire an immediate leader for the team.
A Devils team that had been averaging a paltry 2.64 goals per game pre-trade — a pace that would be only 5 goals above the worst in the league over an 82-game season. After the trade, they averaged 3.26 goals per game — a rate that would make them the 4th-highest-scoring team in the league over the full season. Gilmour completely revamped the questionable offense — especially Johnny Mac who had put up 29 points in 59 games before the trade and led the team with 25 in 21 after.
Gilmour played all over. When he took shifts with MacLean and Zelepukin, he was a potent offensive driver, whereas when he played with Pandolfo and McKay, he could single-handedly force a draw with the opponent’s top line and allow the NJ top-6 to run roughshod over what was left.
With a defense that was already proven, an all-world goalie, and a reinvigorated offense. The Devils team was read to contend for the Cup once again and prove that 1995 was the beginning of an era, not the end of one.
In the first round against a hapless Habs team, the plan was right on track. The Devils had multi-goal victories in all of the first 3 games and Montreal needed triple-OT just to take one before the series came to a merciful end in game 5. Among the highlights were exciting prospect Patrik Elias putting up 4 points in 5 games, MacLean continuing his strong production, and Martin Brodeur scoring a goal! Unfortunately we could not say the same about Gilmour who fails to score a goal and registered only one even-strength point all series (2 PPAs and 1 SHA).
The Devils could withstand a lull from Gilmour against a Canadiens team that recorded a -27 goal differential in the regular season, but if he came up empty again, the +27 Rangers team would make us pay. As you remember from Doug’s story above, that is indeed what happened. After winning game one 2-0, the Devils scored just 3 goals over the next 4 games. Despite outshooting the Rangers 183 - 128 (58.8 SF%), Mike Richter’s absurd 0.978 Sv% kept the Devils from ever sniffing the 3rd round. Gilmour was held pointless on the series and so finished the postseason with less goals than Marty.
Gilmour was the strongest offensive player again in the 1998, but then his contract was up, and it was time again to hand the keys over to the youth. The next season, the A-line was born, and an era of Devils offensive excellence was on its way.
The disappointing finish notwithstanding, the Devils had turned the page from their era as the scrappy bunch of upstart kids under the shadow of NY, to a powerhouse organization. This franchise has played 44 complete seasons. In the first 22 years before the Gilmour trade, they were favored to win a playoff series just 3 times. In the 22 years after, they’ve been favored in 22 playoff series. Doug Gilmour was absent for almost the entirety of that era of dominance, but he was there for the beginning. And if modern Devils fans understand anything, it’s the importance of establishing institutional memory. It is extremely difficult to start to win without a legacy of winning on the roster already. That was the parting gift provided by the Doug Gilmour trade.
How do you remember this trade? How do you remember Gilmour’s time as a Devil? What do you remember about the Devils of the late 90s? Thanks for reading and let us know how you recall the events of this piece in the comments section below!