The Maple Leafs and the Legacy of the Muskoka Five

February 11, 2012 was a bittersweet night for LeafsNation. Mats Sundin, the classy and consummate captain, was honoured with his #13 raised to the rafters. A familiar face in Tomas Kaberle took the ceremonial face-off. The Toronto squad was horribly overmatched on the night, losing 5-0 to the Habs. A number of Leafs had poor nights, and the loss only served to heighten speculation trades could be made at the deadline to bolster the team’s playoff chances. But with Sundin and Kaberle (and other former Leafs) in the building, the minds of some fans turned back to February 2008 and the legacy of The Muskoka Five.

muskoka five Kaberle Sundin Tucker

Things were different then. As much as fans wanted playoff hockey, a growing number saw an aging squad with little young talent in the organization. At the February 26, 2008 trade deadline, the team was 27-28-9 and some felt trades could net some good, young players to begin a rebuild. It was not to be. The Leafs made only 3 deals… Hal Gill, Wade Belak and Chad Kilger traded for a net 3 draft picks in 2008 (rounds 2, 3, 5) and a 5th round 2009 pick. The team went 9-7-2 to close the season, missing the playoffs again. The focus fell onto 5 players who had no-trade clauses (given by former GM John Ferguson Jr.), and had refused to waive them. These players were thought the Leafs’ most valuable commodities; trading one or all could potentially restock Toronto for the future. Mats Sundin, Tomas Kaberle, Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe and Pavel Kubina. They’d come to be known as The Muskoka Five.

The District Municipality of Muskoka is a well-known as cottage country, a few hours north of Toronto. Huntsville and Gravenhurst are only 2 of the towns surrounded by innumerable lakes and waterways, forests and rocky shorelines. The moniker ‘Muskoka 5′ implied that veteran players in Toronto were too comfortable, content to play out the season and spend summers by the lake. No one could figure why anyone would pass up a chance to be playing for the Stanley Cup to stick around the Leafs.

LeafsNation holds Sundin in the highest regard. There isn’t any lingering feeling that refusing a trade was disloyal. Sundin, as well as the other 4 veterans, had negotiated their deals in good faith, and were by no means obligated to accept a trade, no matter how the organization rationalized the request. Yet, looking at how these players eventually left Toronto, one wonders what may have been.

Darcy Tucker: Tucker had seen his production drop from 28 goals and 61 points in 2005-06 to 18 goals and 34 points for 2007-08. Still, his grit and experience could have proved valuable to a playoff team. He was bought-out during Cliff Fletcher’s tenure as interim GM, and signed as a free agent with Colorado on July 1, 2008. After 2 seasons in Colorado, he retired. The Leafs will deal with a $1M cap hit from the buyout until the end of 2013-14.

Muskoka Five member McCabe

Bryan McCabe, now with the Rangers. (BridgetDS/Flickr)

Bryan McCabe: McCabe had been an offensive force, scoring 19 goals and 68 points in 2005-06, which net him a 5-yr, $28.75M deal. But in the post-lockout NHL, McCabe had lost his physical effectiveness, and had difficulty adapting to the new obstruction rules. He posted 57 points in 2006-07, but in 54 games in 2007-08, he scored just 5 goals and 23 points with 81 penalty minutes. On September 1, 2008, Toronto paid McCabe a contractually-obligated $2M bonus. On September 2, he was waived his no-movement clause and was traded to Florida, along with a 4th round pick (Sam Brittain) in exchange for Mike Van Ryn. Unfortunate for Toronto, Van Ryn played only 27 games before retiring due to injury and surgery.

Mats Sundin: Toronto decided Sundin would not be in the plans going forward, and offered Montreal and the Rangers the chance to acquire him before the trade deadline. Sundin made it clear he believed the Leafs would make the playoffs, and would not accept a trade. Sundin became a free agent, and turned down a $20M offer from the Vancouver Canucks as he contemplated retirement. He eventually signed with Vancouver on December 18, 2008, and retired following the 2008-09 season.

Pavel Kubina: Signed as a free agent in 2006 for 4 yrs/$20M, some felt too much for his 40 point contributions. Kubina, a powerplay specialist, was misused in Toronto, stuck behind the first powerplay pair Kaberle and McCabe. Brian Burke eventually traded Kubina to clear cap space, sending the defender to Atlanta with Tim Stapleton for Garnet Exelby and Colin Stuart on July 1, 2009. Exelby and Stuart were not factors with the Leafs, though Burke used the cap room in part to sign Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin. Kubina now plays for Tampa Bay.

Tomas Kaberle: The Kaberle Saga played out over a few years in Toronto. Finally, on February 18, 2011, Burke and Peter Chiarelli made a deal sending Kaberle to Boston in return for Joe Colborne, Boston’s 1st round choice in 2011, and Boston’s 2nd round choice in 2012. It was exactly the kind of deadline deal hoped for back in 2008. Toronto got a big centre who may lack a mean, physical presence, but has shown decent offense. Colborne will likely compete for a top-9 spot in 2012-13, and already has a goal and 4 assists in 10 NHL games. Burke was able to package Boston’s first round pick and his own second to move up, selectng Tyler Biggs, another big forward who may help solve some of Toronto’s ‘size up front’ issues. Boston’s second round pick was sent to Colorado for Kaberle’s replacement in John-Michael Liles, who has 21 points in 40 games this season, and recently signed a 4 year contract extension. Kaberle won a Stanley Cup with Boston, signed a free agent contract with Carolina and was traded to Montreal.

It’s pure speculation as to what Toronto might have received if all 5 of these players were traded at the deadline in 2008. There weren’t many blockbuster deals that season, though some were significant. San Jose acquired Brian Campbell and a 7th round pick from Buffalo for Steve Bernier and a 1st round pick. The Penguins sent Colby Armstrong, Erik Christiansen, prospect Angelo Esposito and a 1st round pick to Atlanta for Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis. Colorado re-acquired Adam Foote in return for sending a 1st and 4th to Columbus.

Could Toronto have received similar returns for trades involving Tucker, McCabe, Sundin, Kubina and Kaberle? Quite possibly. It’s not as simple as saying if the player had waived his no-trade, the Leafs would have made deals. True, Tucker and Sundin were nearing retirement, and McCabe seemed on the decline. Yet, as veterans with playoff experience, any one of them could have played a role for a team hoping to win the Cup. Perhaps no deals were offered because it was widely known the players would not make themselves available. Still, it’s reasonable to think a package of 2 players could have brought a prospect and a high draft pick, or that Sundin may have been worth a top-9 forward and a first round pick.

Had Cliff Fletcher had the ability to make deals, the Leafs may have been that much closer to building a playoff team. Interestingly enough, two of Brian Burke’s major transactions recently has seen Toronto acquire 2 players from the 2008 first round in Colborne (BOS – 16th) and Jake Gardiner (ANA – 17th). In the grand scheme, no amount of speculating will change the events of the 2008 trade deadline. Leaf fans are long past holding grudges against these players. Still, some wonder what could have been if things had gone a little differently in the late winter of 2008.

  • Tax guy.

    There is lingering resentment to Sundin refusing to be traded at the end of his last year as a leaf.  It still bugs me.

    • Mark Ascione

      Fair enough. I should have said that for many people, there isn’t.

      Admittedly, I had wished Sundin would accept a trade, the Leafs would get some good prospects or a young player ready to play, and then Sundin would re-sign and finish out in Toronto. All in all, it’s unfortunate things worked out as they did, there was a decent opportunity for the franchise to get better.

      Thanks for the comment!