The 2012 Maple Leafs – Lightning Blockbuster Trade That Wasn’t

Every NHL trade has a story, from the biggest deadline blockbusters to the smallest depth moves to fill out an American Hockey League (AHL) roster. Sometimes that story is of a great veteran player getting one final chance to make a run at a Stanley Cup. Other times, it’s a swap of top prospects who were once expected to be the future of a franchise that ended up no longer relevant in their system.

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As the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning approached the 2012 trade deadline, neither team was where they wanted to be. Both franchises sat in that awkward spot just outside the playoff picture where one or two good weeks could allow them to sneak into a wildcard position, meaning you had to make that tough choice to play out the season or sell and rebuild for the future.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
As the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning face off in Round 1 of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, a look back at a 10-year-old trade showcases a recent miss for both franchises. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

While the Lightning made a number of big deals that helped set up their core for years, the Maple Leafs largely played it safe by only shifting around a handful of fringe roster players. However, there was one significant last-minute trade that would have been a blockbuster in its own right had it taken place just a few years earlier. In this deal, the Lightning sent forward Carter Ashton to the Maple Leafs for defenseman Keith Aulie.

2012 Maple Leafs – Lightning Trade Deadline a Swap of Top Prospects

On the surface, this trade was a swap of prospects that hadn’t locked down a role with their respective franchise, but they were expected to make that jump relatively soon. Both Ashton and Aulie had top-end potential but had yet to put it all together at the NHL level.

Related: 5 Maple Leafs Newcomers and Their 2022 Postseason Impact

First was Ashton, who was one of the top prospects at the 2009 NHL Draft. At 6-foot-4, he was the perfect big-bodied power forward that every general manager dreamed to have in their system. After posting 30 goals, 50 points, and 93 penalty minutes in the Western Hockey League (WHL) leading into his draft year, he was selected by the Lightning 29th overall (after they traded up) and was expected to become a focal point of their rebuild.

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In the following years, he continued playing great hockey in the WHL, and eventually earned a starting role with the 2011-12 Norfolk Admirals, who were Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate at the time. Throughout that season he played well alongside a number of young forwards that would go on to become centerpieces of the Lightning’s core. This depth likely made him an attractive target on the trade market, especially to then Maple Leafs’ general manager Brian Burke.

Carter Ashton
When the Maple Leafs acquired Carter Ashton from the Lightning in 2012, they appeared to get a perfect power forward prospect for their system who could take on top-six minutes in the coming years. (Scott Thomas/Syracuse Crunch)

In order to bring back Ashton, the Maple Leafs gave up one of their top defensive prospects at the time. While Aulie was originally a fourth-round pick by the Calgary Flames back in 2007, his 6-foot-6 frame and upside made him a highly sought-after prospect. When Toronto acquired him in the blockbuster Dion Phaneuf trade, some believed he could go on to be the best player in the deal.

After he was brought in by Toronto, Aulie took on plenty of ice-time with the Toronto Marlies and acted as a call-up for the Maple Leafs. Sure he was never an offensive dynamo, but his gameplay was solid for his age and size, and he was willing to drop the gloves and stand up for his teammates at a moment’s notice. For a team needing a top defensive prospect, he was a perfect addition for the Lightning in 2012.

Neither Ashton nor Aulie Met Their Lofty Expectations

At the moment, this looked like an incredible hockey trade, as the Lightning got a defensive prospect they desperately needed whereas the Maple Leafs got that perfect forward prospect to fit their system. It had the makings to be a win-win for all parties involved, with long-term roster implications for years to come.

Instead, both players struggled to find their place in the NHL. Aulie played less than 100 games with the Lightning before joining the Edmonton Oilers for 30 games and bouncing around the AHL and Europe, where he currently plays with EHC Red Bull Munchen in the Deutsche Eishockey League (DEL) in German.

Ashton, on the other hand, played 54 games over three seasons with Toronto, before bouncing around the AHL (including a return to the Lightning organization) and eventually traveling to Europe to continue his career, where he currently plays for Leksands IF of the Swedish Hockey League.

Related: 3 Reasons the Lightning Will 3-Peat as Cup Champions

So, despite having what appeared to be a perfect trade on paper, neither team received 100 NHL games played by their acquisition. This isn’t a knock against either player, of course, as they not only reached the NHL but continued to play professional hockey for more than a decade, carving out a career around the world.

No, what this is a reminder of is how difficult it is to acquire NHL-caliber talent, either in the draft, free agency, or through trades. Even if you have the right players with the right fit, there’s never a guarantee that things will work out.