The 2016 NHL trade deadline is fast approaching, so it’s time to consider what can occur when one general manager rings up another general manager to begin the trade process. Specifically, what we’ll look at is how, once a trade is consummated, it can go very wrong for one team and very right for the other. Think of a trade as your typical business dealing; each side’s goal is to, more or less, get the better end of the deal. And just like every business deal, sooner or later every trade has a winner and a loser.
Sometimes the winner is apparent as soon as the trade is made, other times it takes years for the winner to become clear. The days of trades like the ones we review here are probably in the past. The salary cap puts a real damper on what general managers can and cannot do, but back in the day, before the salary cap, the only limit to a trade was the imagination of management and the depth of the owners’ pockets. Some of these trades were made to get a team closer to the Stanley Cup; some were made because one team wanted to get rid of a “problem,” and some were made for purely financial reasons. So, let’s look at the five worst trades from those days — the trades where one side totally fleeced the other.
5. Cam Neely
The Cam Neely trade is a cautionary tale about giving a young player time to develop in the NHL before shipping him off in a trade. The Vancouver Canucks drafted Neely with the ninth overall pick in the 1983 NHL entry draft. In his three seasons with the team, he scored 31, 39, and 34 points. It was after the 34-point season that the Canucks traded him to the Boston Bruins for Barry Pederson, who the Bruins previously picked 18th in the 1980 draft. Pederson’s numbers were better than Neely’s early in his career. In his first three full seasons with the Bruins, he scored 92, 107, and 116 points.
However, once the trade was made, these two players’ careers went in different directions. Neely became the definition of a power forward. He was a physical force with a scoring touch, setting the stage for players such as Eric Lindros. In his first five seasons in Boston, Neely would score 72, 69, 75, 92, and 91 points. Pederson would score 76, 71, and 41 points in his three full seasons with Vancouver. The last few years of Neely’s career were hampered by injury. Had he been able to stay healthy, there’s no telling how great he could have been.
4. Marcel Dionne
It’s hard to imagine a team trading a player after a season in which that player scores 121 points, but that’s exactly what the Detroit Red Wings did after the 1974-75 season, shipping Marcel Dionne (and Bart Crashley) to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Dan Maloney, Terry Harper, and a second-round draft pick. A contract dispute led to this trade; the Red Wings couldn’t or wouldn’t meet Dionne’s demands, so he was dealt to the Kings. With the Kings, Dionne would go on to lead the Triple Crown line to great success.
The Kings never won the Stanley Cup with Dionne, but it wasn’t due to Dionne’s lack of production. In his 12-plus seasons with the Kings, Dionne scored 1,307 points. To this day, that total puts him first all-time for the Kings. Maloney played three seasons in Detroit and Harper played parts of four seasons with the Red Wings. The most points either player scored in a season in Detroit were 66 scored by Maloney in his first season with the Wings. Dionne’s lowest point total with the Kings was 79. During his time with the team, he scored more than 100 points on seven occasions, including five straight seasons between 1979 and 1983.
3. Phil Esposito
Phil Esposito played four years with the Chicago Blackhawks before the team traded him along with Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield to the Boston Bruins in exchange for Gilles Marotte, Pit Martin, and Jack Norris. The trade took place in May 1967. The Blackhawks didn’t like Esposito all that much. He was seen as a finesse player when the team wanted a more physical force, and well, he was not shy about speaking his mind.
The Esposito trade crushed the Blackhawks and did nothing but benefit the Bruins. Esposito immediately took over in Boston. He had six seasons of 100 or more points, winning the Art Ross Trophy five times and the Hart Trophy once and helped the Bruins win two Stanley Cups. Hodge didn’t do too poorly either, topping 100 points on two occasions for the Bruins and playing on two Stanley Cup-winning teams.
2. Eric Lindros
When the Philadelphia Flyers traded for Lindros, they thought they were making a trade that would bring the Stanley Cup back to Philadelphia. It didn’t. However, it did help the team the Flyers traded with win two Stanley Cups. Today, the trade sounds insane. Lindros went to the Flyers from the team that drafted him first overall in the 1991 draft, the Quebec Nordiques. In exchange, Quebec received Steve Duchesne, Peter Forsberg, Ron Hextall, Kerry Huffman, Mike Ricci, and Chris Simon, as well as two draft picks and $15 million. While you ponder all that, just think about the fact that at the time, the deal didn’t look nearly as lopsided as it does today.
Lindros was supposed to be the next big thing in hockey, combining the goal-scoring touch of Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux with the physicality that skill players were not supposed to possess. Yes, Lindros was the best player in the NHL for a short period of time. Yes, Lindros made a lot of money for the Flyers, as fans packed what was then the CoreStates Center in Philadelphia to see him play. No, Lindros never delivered the Cup to Philly. The team that got the six players would move to Colorado and win the Stanley Cup in 1996 and 2001. Not all of the players that Quebec got in the trade lasted with Quebec/Colorado, but one important one did, and that was Forsberg.
1. Wayne Gretzky
On August 9, 1988, the unthinkable happened, the Edmonton Oilers traded Wayne Gretzky, Marty McSorley, and Mike Krushelnyski to the Los Angeles Kings for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, first-round draft picks in 1989, 1991, and 1993, and $15 million. In speaking to NHL.com, the Oilers owner at the time, Peter Pocklington, said the trade was so poorly received in Edmonton that he received death threats.
While the trade crushed the Oilers faithful, it brought hockey to Los Angeles and made the sport popular with the Hollywood elite. The game was now “cool” in the United States, and it’s probably not a stretch to say that without that trade the NHL’s expansion to non-traditional markets would never have happened. The Oilers won the Stanley Cup one time after Gretzky left, capturing the Cup in 1990. However, Gretzky’s trade opened the door for the dismantling of the Oilers dynasty.
In 1991, Jari Kurri was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers, Mark Messier was dealt to the New York Rangers, and Grant Fuhr and Glenn Anderson were sent to the Toronto Maple Leafs. In 1992, Kevin Lowe was shipped to the New York Rangers. In 1993, Esa Tikkanen was traded to the Rangers, and in 1994, Craig MacTavish was also sent to the Rangers. It’s hard to imagine how much the Oilers could have achieved had the Gretzky trade never happened.
Statistics courtesy of Hockey-Reference.