Looking back at the Maple Leafs' blue-line bandages the past 25 years

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Importing ‘impact’ defencemen acquired by the Maple Leafs is not exactly a new concept. 

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While Chris Tanev, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Jani Hakanpaa could mean stability to what’s been Toronto’s continually tremoring tectonic plate at the position — and on paper at least, just what’s needed come the spring — the best of blue-line intentions the past 25 years have seen the ice keep shifting. 

NHL fates, especially injuries, have ended some careers prematurely, while others were playoff rentals who didn’t come back in the autumn. Others simply failed to meet expectations in Cup-starved Toronto and were moved out, by their choice or in the many management and coaching upheavals. 

Despite the dollars and cap space and loss of outgoing players in trades and draft picks, few of those deals in the past quarter-century were able to justify the expense.

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But maybe there’s strength in numbers this time and some, or all, of this new trio will make a difference.  The Leafs’ faith must be measured against how much of the next six seasons of his contract Tanev can sustain his high degree of body sacrifice, whether OEL’s Cup year in Florida is a true late-career renaissance and how soon Hakanpaa’s knee recovers from a season-ending injury. 

In the meantime, we review the most significant defencemen acquired by the Leafs the past quarter-century:    

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1999 — Bryan Berard (102 GP, 8-41-49, 64 PIM):  Just bad luck for a first overall pick who was not yet 25 before suffering significant sight loss from the accidental follow-through of Marian Hossa’s stick in a 2000 game against Ottawa. 

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2000 — Dave Manson (87 GP 4-8-12, 103 PIM): Low-cost free agent was 33 with his best days behind him. Appeared in two playoff games and was traded to Dallas for Jyrki Lumme (see below). 

2001 — Aki Berg (325 GP, 10-32-42, 172 PIM): The second longest-serving Leaf on this list came under fire for soft play as the years went on and the team slipped. 

2001 — Jyrki Lumme (124 GP,19-29-48, 64 PIM): GM/coach Pat Quinn knew him from Vancouver, but his productive playoff days were over and he left the NHL after this stop.  

2002 — Robert Svehla (82 GP, 7-38-45, 46 PIM): Acquired from Florida for Dmitry Yushkevich. This post-game conditioning enthusiast loved his hot-tub time and kept his ironman streak, playing all 82 games. But this final NHL year was enough for the man who dared wear No. 67 in Toronto as he retired to Czechia. 

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2003 — Bryan Marchment (75 GP, 1-3-4, 106 PIM): UFA was an ideal complement to Tie Domi and Wade Belak on the last Leafs team to have five players with 100-plus PIMs. Played all 13 playoff games, but didn’t return after the ‘04-05 lockout, ending his playing career with 37 games in Calgary. 

2003 — Glen Wesley (7 GP, 0-3-3, 4 PIM): Lamented his slow-healing broken foot which limited his effectiveness in his short stay. 

2004 — Brian Leetch (15 GP, 2-13-15, 10 PIM): Just before a nine-year nuclear winter descended on Toronto’s playoff aspirations, the smooth-passing future Hall of Famer from the Rangers was the most anticipated addition in years. The hope was he’d stay, but the lockout intervened.  

2005 — Alexander Khavanov (64 GP, 6-6-12, 60 PIM): One of the brainiest (he had an engineering degree) blue-liners ever brought in, yet couldn’t bridge more than one season before going home to Russia.   

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2006 — Hal Gill (145 GP, 8-32-40, 143 PIM): At 6-foot-7 and 244 pounds, this was the guy you wanted boxing out opposing forwards or spreading his wing span to kill penalties. But he wouldn’t see playoff action again until joining the ‘08 Cup-finalist Pittsburgh Penguins. 

2006 — Pavel Kubina (215 GP, 32-69-101,258 PIM): A Cup champion in ‘04 with the Lightning, he was effective, but eventually returned south. 

2008 –Jeff Finger (105 GP, 8-25-33, 63 PIM): Interim GM Cliff Fletcher guessed wrong on the $14-million man, who was hurt early and wound up on the Marlies.  

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2009 — Mike Komisarek (158 GP, 2-17-19, 169 PIM) The ‘Komisaurus’ tried to do too much too soon to justify his expensive deal and everyone wound up unfulfilled. 

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2009 — Francois Beauchemin (136 GP, 7-31-38, 49 PIM): A Cup-winner like Kubina (Anaheim in ‘07), he was the right player at the wrong time for the listless Leafs and went back to SoCal.  

2010 — Dion Phaneuf (423 GP, 45-151-196, 598 PIM): Over-burdened expectations were complicated by giving him Mats Sundin’s vacated captaincy. But he did play more than anyone on this list.  

2011 — Cody Franson (236 GP, 20-95-115, 86 PIM): After much fanfare when he signed, coach Ron Wilson sat him to start the regular season. Had some big moments, but also didn’t see playoffs until returning to Nashville. 

2011– John-Michael Liles (104 GP, 9-29-38, 24 PIM): A plus-4 in four games of the 2013 series against Boston as Leafs returned to the playoffs under Randy Carlyle.   

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2012 — Mike Kostka (35 GP, 08-8, 27 PIM): Low-risk local signing. Kostka’s fluke goal for Norfolk helped knock the Marlies out of the previous spring’s Calder Cup final, but his first in the NHL didn’t come until he was playing for Chicago — against the Leafs.  

2013 — Paul Ranger (53 GP, 6-8-14, 36 PIM): After three years away from the game for unspecified reasons, he re-started his NHL career and was the club’s Masterton Trophy nominee before heading to Europe.    

2014 — Tim Gleason (39 GP, 1-4-5, 55 PIM): Acquired from Carolina for Liles and went right back the next season. 

2014 — Roman Polak (240 GP, 12-33,45, 215 PIM): In the first of two Toronto stints, he became one of the team’s most feared defenders, but suffered a terrible leg injury in the ‘17 playoffs just as the Leafs were throwing a scare into Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals.  

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2015 — Eric Brewer (18 GP, 2-3-5, 12 PIM): Well into his 30s, his short stint coincided with his 1,000th NHL game, but Toronto wasn’t interested the following autumn and Brewer was done in the NHL.   

2016 – Jared Cowen (Did not play): Part of the Phaneuf trade with Ottawa, it was hoped the former first-round pick would eventually come back from a knee injury, which turned into a protracted NHLPA grievance when the Leafs bought him out.  

2016 – Nikita Zaitsev (223 GP, 12-51-63, 87 PIM): A sought-after free agent from the KHL, he put in some good years, but managed just two assists in 18 playoff games from three lost series. Hung around the NHL ever since, but just re-signed this week in the KHL.  

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2017 — Ron Hainsey (161 GP, 9-37-46, 41 PM): Missed only a couple of games as a Leaf after arriving from Cup-champion Pittsburgh, but was on his way to retirement and an NHLPA job. 

2018 — Igor Ozhiganov (53 GP, 3-4-7, 14 PIM): Departed for Russia almost as quickly as he arrived. A benching by Mike Babcock didn’t help.    

2019 — Jake Muzzin (187 GP, 18-63-81, 10 PIM): GM Kyle Dubas’ first big splash to give the Leafs a blue-line presence was admirable, but Muzzin was hurt in the ‘20 playoffs and a couple of years later, was forced into retirement in the aftermath of cervical and concussion problems. 

2020 — Zach Bogosian (45 GP, 0-4-4, 49 PIM): Another who came to the Leafs right after a Cup (Tampa Bay) and promptly returned. 

2022 – Ilya Lyubushkin (50 GP, 2-8-10, 31 PIM): A two-time playoff rental not retained. 

2023 – Luke Schenn (15 GP, 1-0-1, 13 PIM): Sentiment for the much-celebrated homecoming of Toronto’s physical first-round pick from ‘08 couldn’t compete with more dollars and the lure of the Nashville Predators. 

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