The Best Player In A Trade

Mick Kern appears courtesy of Live From Wayne Gretzky’s

Can somebody please drive a broken composite stick through the heart of that saying that is trotted out every time a big trade is made in the National Hockey League?

You know the saying; whichever team ends up with the best player wins the trade.

Yeah, says who?

Sam Pollock, that’s who.  The legendary general manager of the Montreal Canadiens worked the phones at a time when it often seemed that half of his fellow GM’s in the league approached their job like it was a hobby, something they did for kicks after the dishes were done.

In this day-and-age, despite what the frothing fan base of a particular franchise may feel, every one of the thirty NHL general managers are top notch.  In this instantaneous over-informed society we live in, there is no way a GM not up to the job would last for any length of time.  They would very quickly be exposed.  Bob Pulford should thank his lucky stars he handled the job at a time when dinosaurs such as Bill Wirtz walked the Earth.

When two teams make a major trade, such as the one the Calgary Flames and Toronto Maple Leafs engineered on the last day of January, some hockey pundit somewhere will bring up that old Sam Pollock saying.

It’s often true; just think of the Montreal Canadiens moving disgruntled goaltender Patrick Roy (along with Mike Keane) to the newly minted Colorado Avalanche in exchange for goaltender Jocelyn Thibault, and forwards Andrei Kovalenko and Martin Rucinsky (December 6th, 1995).

But it’s not always the case.

Steve Simmons uttered the Sam Pollock phrase on “The Reporters” on TSN, citing defenceman Dion Phaneuf as the best player in the Flames/Maple Leafs deal.

If that is indeed correct, then why did Flames’ GM Darryl Sutter trade the best player?  Did Sutter bump his head during a weekend trip to Okotoks?

Of course not; Sutter appraised his team, what it needed and what could be sacrificed, all the time keeping in mind the underlying factor of the salary cap, and its often far-reaching implications.

Maple Leafs’ GM Brian Burke did the same thing to his team, and presto, we had a big trade to discuss.

On paper, or at least on a piece of paper dated January 31st, 2008, Phaneuf is without question the best player in the swap.  But that is a long two years ago.  Since then, Phaneuf has become everybody’s favourite whipping boy, and as the Flames were awash in expensive defenceman, it was pretty clear they would move the underachieving, at times selfish, rearguard.

Time will tell if Phaneuf is the best player in the deal.  Maybe big defenceman Keith Aulie will end up being the best player.  That’s the chance any team takes when it swaps warm bodies.

The Calgary Flames traded Brett Hull to the St. Louis Blues.  The young emerging sniper went on to a Hall-of-Fame career.  The Flames profited from that trade by winning the 1989 Stanley Cup.  Hull would not win a Cup in St. Louis.

The Golden Brett was the best player in the trade in hindsight.  Even at the time of the transaction, the Flames knew they were giving up a future superstar.  Still, who won that trade?

That March 7th, 1988 trade breaks down as such…Brett Hull, and Steve Bozak to the Blues for defenceman Rob Ramage and goaltender Rick Wamsley.  The Flames were upset that spring by the Edmonton Oilers (Wayne Gretzky’s final hurrah as an Oiler), but Ramage was a key part of the Redwood defence that helped the Flames win it all a year later.

Speaking of blockbusters, how about Gretzky going to the Los Angeles Kings during the summer of 1988?  It put hockey on the map, as the cliché goes, in many non-traditional markets in the U.S. (feel free to debate the pros and cons of that result), but the Kings never won the Stanley Cup.  They lost to Montreal in 1993, while the Oilers won the 1990 Cup, two seasons after trading The Great One.  As for Gretzky, he never won another Stanley Cup after 1988.

Who won that Gretzky trade?  Well, the Kings, even though they never won the Cup.  If anything, that trade was a harbinger of what the NHL would face during the 1990’s; the marginalization of small market teams and the resulting player moves necessistated by monetary concerns.

That August 9th, 1988 trade breaks down as such…Gretzky goes to the Kings along with Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski.  To the Oilers goes Martin Gelinas, Jimmy Carson, 1st round draft picks in 1989, 1991, and 1993 and money.

Money, because Oilers’ owner Peter Pocklington was beginning to experience the first of his many business/legal headaches to follow.  “I’d Trade Him Again”, indeed.

Gelinas and Carson were key members of that 1990 Stanley Cup winning squad in Edmonton.

Even if either Phaneuf or Aulie outperforms the players sent to Southern Alberta in this latest blockbuster, when a GM makes a trade, he’s looking to improve his team, not worrying about the legacy of the trade.  If his team improves, either short-term for a playoff drive, or long-term, then the legacy issue usually takes care of itself.

Exhibit B about the foolhardiness of investing 100% faith in the Pollock saying also involves the Calgary Flames.

Flames fans were up-in-arms when Magic Kent Nilsson was traded to the Minnesota North Stars on June 15th, 1985.  Through that trade, the Flames received two draft picks, one which they used to grab Joe Nieuwendyk in the second round (27th overall) in the 1985 NHL Entry Draft.

When Nilsson hoisted the 1987 Stanley Cup with the hated Edmonton Oilers, many Flames’ fans decried the earlier trade, asking “Joe Who?” about Nieuwendyk, until Joe Who popped in 51 goals as a rookie in 1987-88.

Joe Who was part of the Flames 1989 Stanley Cup team, so when it came time for Calgary to move him along to the Dallas Stars (December 19th, 1995), they got Corey Millen, and some guy named Jarome Iginla.

Iginla had been the Stars 1st round draft pick in 1995, and all these years later, the captain of the Flames is a reasonable bet to make the Hockey Hall-of-Fame upon his retirement.

Still, some Flames’ fans grumbled about losing Joe Who to the Stars.  You’d think they’d have learned their lesson; the team that gets the “best player” in the trade doesn’t necessarily win the trade.

The Minnesota North Stars got Nilsson, but he won a Cup with the Oilers.  The Dallas Stars got Nieuwendyk, and he helped them win their only Cup, but they paid a heavy price in giving up Iginla.

Arguably, both teams won that trade.

Then there’s the June 13th, 1987 swap between the Quebec Nordiques and the Washington Capitals.  Dale Hunter, the heart and soul of the 1980’s Quebec Nordiques went to D.C., and coming back to Quebec was a draft choice that ended up being Joe Sakic.

(The actual trade was Gaeten Duchesne, Alan Haworth and a 1st round draft pick to Washington for Dale Hunter and Clint Malarchuk).

Perennial playoff failures, the Capitals got a shot-in-the-arm with the inclusion of Hunter on their roster, and they finally won a Game Seven in overtime when La Petite Peste scored on a breakaway against the Flyers’ Ron Hextall the following spring.

The Nordiques entered some very bleak years, before stockpiling high draft picks, and emerging as a young, promising team, led by Sakic.

Both teams can claim to have won that trade, all depending on how you view it.  The Capitals needed to change up their chemistry, and the Nords needed to rebuild.  Both succeeded thanks in large part to that trade.

In reality, the team that really won that trade was the Colorado Avalanche, but no-one had any inkling of that reality back when the Hunter trade was consummated.

A final note.  Even if Dion Phaneuf wins the Norris Trophy, the Leafs/Flames trade is not even close to being a duplicate of the January 2nd, 1992 trade that brought Doug Gilmour to Toronto, despite what the Toronto-based hockey media has been repeating over and over and over again.

The Flames and Maple Leafs exchanged five players each that day, with Gilmour being the prime asset.  He was a very good player with Calgary (and St. Louis before that), and thanks to a contract impasse with GM Doug Risebrough and the Flames’ brass, Gilmour was shipped out-of-town.

This transaction actually fits the Sam Pollock saying about which team wins a trade.

Even on that day, unless you were a diehard Flames fan, one could see the Leafs “won” that trade.  The inspired play of Gilmour, and the sizeable contributions of the likes of Jamie Macoun, and Ric Nattress, far out shadowed the meager contributions in Cowtown of the likes of Gary Leeman and Michel Petit.

I know, for I had a sprited argument with the Calgary cabbie who was dropping me off at the Calgary airport that evening, as I was returning to Toronto after spending Christmas with the family.  He was convinced that the Gilmour trade would put the Flames over the top, as they were getting 50-goal scorer Leeman.

Leeman would win his only Stanley Cup two seasons later as a role player with the 1993 Montreal Canadiens.  His stay in Calgary was brief and uneventful.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and GM Cliff Fletcher won that trade easily.  It helped revive, on-ice, that franchise, and set up the Leafs to enjoy, for the most part, a rather successful decade.  In both 1993, and 1994, the Leafs were legitimate Cup contenders.

That was a trade that shook up the NHL.  The current Flames/Maple Leafs trade only shakes up those two teams.

- Mick Kern

Mick Kern appears courtesy of Live From Wayne Gretzky’s

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