The Leafs traded Randy Carlyle in 1978--and lived to regret it.
Maple Leafs management felt optimistic during the 1978 off-season. A loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the semi-finals was the longest Stanley Cup run Toronto enjoyed since hoisting the trophy in 1967. General manager Jim Gregory and coach Roger Neilson believed the team was a defenceman or two away from becoming a legitimate contender.
Of the two defence-bolstering deals the Leafs made in June 1978, one went down as one of the worst deals in franchise history. It also marked the first time Randy Carlyle, who was fired as the Leafs’ coach yesterday, departed the team.
Drafted 30th overall in the 1976 NHL entry draft, Carlyle sparked a bidding war between the Leafs and the Cincinnati Stingers of the World Hockey Association. Alternating between Toronto and its farm club in Dallas over the next two seasons, he clashed with Neilson in both cities over his rushing style. “Roger was always on his ass,” teammate Jim McKenny told the Globe and Mail in 2014. “Roger would give him hell about going with the puck.” Though not Neilson’s ideal player, Carlyle gained much knowledge from him, and would later use Neilson’s drills during his own coaching career.
Meanwhile, the financially shaky Pittsburgh Penguins shopped around star defenceman Dave Burrows. A GTA native and two-time all-star, Burrows was one of the best skaters in the league during his seven-year stint in Pittsburgh. Burrows compensated for a modest physical presence with skill, especially agility and speed, making him the sort of player a Stanley Cup contender desired. Never mind that injuries he suffered during the 1977/78 season were cited as a factor in the Penguins’ failure to reach the playoffs.
Negotiations to bring Burrows to Toronto began after the Leafs were eliminated from the Stanley Cup race. Penguins general manager Baz Bastein wanted Carlyle, who was impressive filling in for Borje Salming during the playoffs. “Carlyle is the one guy who had to be involved or there wouldn’t have been any trade,” he told the Pittsburgh Press after the deal was announced on June 13, 1978. Besides Carlyle, the Penguins received forward George Ferguson, who observers believed had never reached his scoring potential over six seasons with the Leafs.
Burrows welcomed the news. “Toronto is on the way up and I feel they have a lot of direction there,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He appreciated the Leafs’ efforts to build for the future, as opposed to Pittsburgh’s panic-driven trades. Asked about the differences between fans in both cities, Burrows was blunt: “In Pittsburgh, the people who criticized hockey didn’t know anything about hockey. But here, if you play bad, you’re not fooling anybody. You can’t hide it. I don’t think I could have come to any better team, but if playing in Toronto goes to your head, it could be the worst thing that ever happens to you.”
Carlyle learned about the deal while dining at a Chinese restaurant in the Sudbury area. Sore feelings and questioning why it happened troubled Carlyle for years. “It hurt,” he told the Star in 2013. “It’s an empty feeling that someone doesn’t want you.” He suspected that his wild lifestyle and ego might have played contributing roles.
Some Toronto sports pundits felt that the Leafs had, along with the acquisition of tough guy Dave Hutchison from the Los Angeles Kings, built a champion. “The Leafs might just have traded themselves into the Stanley Cup final,” declared the Globe and Mail’s Scott Young. Regarding the price of losing Carlyle, Young noted that “a young defence is a luxury not many Stanley Cup contenders can afford, if there’s a way to trade future potential for experience combined with excellence. That description fits Burrows.”
When both teams opened the season in Pittsburgh on October 11, 1978, Burrows received a standing ovation. He aided his new team with two assists in a 3-2 Leafs victory. It was among the few highlights for Burrows that season; he sat out 15 games after stretching his knee ligaments in a collision with Bob Dailey of the Philadelphia Flyers. He admitted near the end of the campaign that, following the injury, his confidence and timing weren’t up to par.
The following season (1979/80), Burrows played a full 80-game schedule and participated in the NHL All-Star game as a replacement for Salming. The team’s promise vanished due to a series of spiteful, misguided trades by new general manager Punch Imlach. Injuries hampered Burrows at the beginning of the 1980/81 season, while a series of acquisitions left him the odd man out on defence. “I’m happy to go somewhere I’m wanted and somewhere I like,” he told the Pittsburgh Press after being traded back to the Penguins on November 18, 1980 with Paul Gardner for two non-entities. Burrows retired following the season.
The players the Penguins acquired for Burrows in 1978 prospered. Ferguson scored at least 20 goals for four seasons in a row. Carlyle achieved the potential Toronto saw in him, capping the 1980/81 season by winning the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenceman. During the award ceremony, presenter Larry Robinson cracked about the success ex-Leafs enjoyed in Pittsburgh (which included Lady Byng Trophy winner Rick Kehoe). Referencing Toronto owner Harold Ballard, Robinson joked “Baz Bastien wants to meet with you after the awards luncheon, Harold. He wants to know if you’ve got anyone else you’d like to trade.”
Reflecting on the trade, Carlyle felt it ultimately benefitted his career. “It was depressing,” he told the Star in 1980, “but, in view of everything that’s gone on since, I now feel the Leafs did me a favour. I really question whether I’d be at the stage I’ve reached if I’d stayed in Toronto.” He remained active as a player until retiring as a member of the Winnipeg Jets in 1993.
Additional material from the June 15, 1978, September 8, 1978, October 12, 1978, June 10, 1981, and March 3, 2014 editions of the Globe and Mail; the June 14, 1978 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; the June 14, 1978 and November 19, 1980 editions of the Pittsburgh Press; and the April 4, 1979, December 4, 1980, and April 13, 2013 editions of the Toronto Star.