Welcome to LWOS Hockey’s summer series. After the historic 2016 NHL Free Agency period, it’s a good time to look at the best free agent signing in the history of all 30 NHL franchises. Up next: The all-time best Toronto Maple Leafs free agent signing.
Make sure to check out the previous articles in our 2016 summer series here.
*Note: as an original six team there is one thing we should note. Obviously was a long period of time when teams signed young prospects to C-Forms, and the recruitment of many young players (outside the 50 mile territorial rights range) was essentially signing free agents. For this series we are looking at the period after the institution of the NHL Entry Draft.
The All-Time Best Toronto Maple Leafs Free Agent Signing
The Toronto Maple Leafs have always had something of a love-hate relationship with the free agent market. In the past decade, they’ve repeatedly handcuffed themselves by locking up mediocre players to albatross contracts. That was fine before the salary cap, but devoting large chunks of valuable space to Pavel Kubina, Jason Blake, or David Clarkson has held the team back for years.
Before the 2004-05 lockout, though, the Leafs were free to throw around their financial weight. In the late 1990s and early 2000s especially, with the team making regular playoff appearances, management was keen to load up with big-name free agents. Players such as Joe Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts, Eric Lindros, and Ed Belfour all came to town on fairly hefty contracts, to try and push Toronto over the edge.
However, no late-90s UFA addition brought more to the table as a Toronto Maple Leaf than this fan favourite.
1998 – Curtis Joseph: Four Years, $24.375 million
Curtis Joseph’s path to the NHL was unusual, going undrafted and ending up with the University of Wisconsin in 1988. His freshman year was impressive, as “Cujo” put up 21 wins in a 38-game season, with a goals-against average of 2.49. He was named to the WCHA Conference All-Star team and caught the interest of the St. Louis Blues, who signed him as a college free agent in 1989. Interestingly, this is Joseph’s second appearance in the top free agent series, as he was also the choice for St. Louis.
It wasn’t long into his first pro season that Joseph saw the ice in the NHL. He was called up midway through the year by the Blues and played 15 regular season games (and six playoff games) as the backup to Vincent Riendeau. Joseph proceeded to claim the net for himself in St. Louis, becoming the regular starter in 1991. It was in 1993, though, that Joseph began to build a reputation around the NHL as an incredible playoff performer. He led the Blues to upset the Chicago Blackhawks in four games, and managed to drag out a tough series with the Maple Leafs to seven games. His efforts in the 1992-93 season earned Joseph his first Vezina Trophy nomination, finishing third in the voting.
Time with the Oilers
Joseph was traded to the Edmonton Oilers in 1995 by a cash-strapped Blues team, after six years in St. Louis. He built on his resume of impressive playoff performances in his three seasons in Edmonton, twice pulling off first-round upsets behind an Oilers team that had seen better days in the previous decade.
Over his career, Joseph developed into one of the world’s most prolific big-game goalies. He backstopped several mediocre teams to huge playoff upsets. Despite the reputation, though, he was never quite able to take a team all the way. Joseph remains the winningest goalie in NHL history to never win the Stanley Cup with 454 career wins.
Joseph is 4th on the all-time wins leaderboard, and 5th in all-time games played among NHL goalies with 943.
The Leafs were in a bit of a slump in 1998, having missed the playoffs for the second consecutive year. They were in a period of transition, with a lot of turnover both in the on-ice personnel and front office management. Wendel Clark had returned to the team a couple of years previously, and captain Doug Gilmour had been shipped out. Both general manager Cliff Fletcher and coach Mike Murphy had been replaced, with Ken Dryden and Pat Quinn respectively.
The new face of the Toronto Maple Leafs, when Cujo came to town, was a 26-year-old Mats Sundin, who had been named captain a year previously. Joseph was brought in to shore up the goaltending, with Felix Potvin coming off a lacklustre year.
Joseph was an instant success in Toronto. He tied for the second-most wins in the NHL in 1998-99 with 35, while posting a .910 save percentage. He was a major factor in the Leafs’ quick turnaround, as they finished the season with 28 more points than the year before. Moving to the Eastern Conference for the 1998-99 year, Toronto finished fourth and made the playoffs again. That postseason campaign was arguably when Joseph emerged as a superstar goaltender in the NHL, as he led the Maple Leafs to the conference finals, where they were defeated in five games by the Buffalo Sabres. Joseph was nominated for the Vezina Trophy for the second time in his career after that performance but lost out to Dominik Hasek in a decision that drew the ire of Toronto fans at the awards ceremony.
The next year in Toronto, Joseph improved on his previous performance. He set a new franchise record for regular season wins with 36, and recorded a .915 save percentage. The Leafs advanced to the second round of the playoffs that year, again buoyed by immense performances from Cujo. Joseph was again given a Vezina nod in June, but was again defeated in the voting process – this time by Olaf Kolzig.
Through those four seasons with the Leafs, Joseph won 138 regular season games, with 32 playoff victories as well. He led the team to the Eastern Conference final twice and defeated the Ottawa Senators three times in the postseason. He’s fourth on the franchise wins list, and seventh among Leafs goalies in shutouts with 17. Cujo was beloved among Toronto fans, both for his powerful on-ice performances and his presence in the community (which earned him the King Clancy Trophy in 2000).
After the Leafs
In 2002, when GM Pat Quinn was unable to reach a deal to re-sign Joseph, the goaltender once again hit the open market. This time, he landed with the Detroit Red Wings. Joseph never quite matched his performances with the Leafs, Oilers, and Blues, though. He bounced around the NHL over the next six years, playing short stints with the Phoenix Coyotes and Calgary Flames.
After the departure of Joseph, Ed Belfour took the net in Toronto, dominating and breaking Joseph’s single-season wins record with 37. He was unable to hold a candle to Joseph’s playoff performances but was yet another fan favourite among the Leafs faithful.
As an unsigned 40-year-old in 2007, Joseph once again caught the attention of the hockey world as he led Canada to a gold medal at the Spengler Cup. The performance in Switzerland earned him a new NHL contract with Calgary. He played nine games down the stretch of the 2007-08 season.
In the summer of 2008, Joseph signed his final NHL deal, returning to the Toronto Maple Leafs for one year. He only played 21 games as the backup to Vesa Toskala. Joseph was able to finish his impressive professional career with the team where he arguably spent his best days. Cujo officially retired on January 12, 2010.
He was only in Toronto for four years. But considering what he did with them, Curtis Joseph is the greatest Toronto Maple Leafs free agent signing of all time.