My Ten Worst NHL Moves – Part 2

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Mar. 24) – After posting Part 1 of my blog – that listed what I consider the five worst transactions in my time watching the NHL – I received a few emails wondering why Quebec trading Mats Sundin to the Maple Leafs in 1994 wasn’t among them.

Though it became a terribly one-sided deal in favor of Toronto (Sundin recording 987 points to surpass Darryl Sittler in all-time Leafs scoring), it did not propel the Blue and White to lofty achievement. The Nordiques, conversely, won a pair of Stanley Cups after relocating to Denver – not as a result of the Sundin trade, but championships nonetheless.

Such is overwhelmingly the criterion for selection here; the other being a player that achieves historic numbers in the NHL. Leafs, though  prevailing in the Sundin swap, did not go on to bigger and better.

With that, I now present my worst NHL moves from six to ten:   

MAR. 4, 1991 – HARTFORD TRADES RON FRANCIS, GRANT JENNINGS AND ULF SAMUELSSON TO PITTSBURGH FOR JOHN CULLEN, JEFF PARKER AND ZARLEY ZALAPSKY.

Why?

It’s the only word that comes to mind when reflecting on this bozo of a deal. I have much respect for Eddie Johnston – the Stanley Cup-winning goalie with Boston in the early-70’s; later GM and/or coach in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Hartford. But, ol’ E.J. made a biblical hockey mistake by trading Ron Francis: cornerstone, face and personality of the NHL’s green Whalers.

They called him Ronny Franchise.

Selected fourth overall in the 1981 NHL draft (Los Angeles took Doug Smith – 253 points in nine NHL seasons – ahead of him), Francis became an immediate star with the Whalers, never compiling less than 75 points a season over 10 brilliant years. He topped out at 101 points the season before the trade and had 76 points in 67 games when Johnston pulled the trigger.

Actually, the root of this disaster was a falling out between Francis and Whalers coach Rick Ley, who stripped the great forward of his captaincy in December 1990. We’re all familiar with the typical result of coaches lapsing into unresolved turmoil with their best players. Jobs are quickly lost. In this case, an entire franchise pulled stakes – Whalers never rebounding from the pointless deal before moving to North Carolina in 1997.

RON FRANCIS TWICE MADE THE COVER OF THE HARTFORD WHALERS MEDIA GUIDE (ABOVE) – INCLUDING 1990-91, THE SEASON HE WAS TRADED TO PITTSBURGH.

Success garnered by acquiring Francis and Ulf Samuelsson is a wonferful memory for all fans of the Penguins. Less than three months after the deal – piloted superbly by Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Francis, and bolstered defensively by the often-ruthless Samuelsson – Pittsburgh won its first of consecutive Stanley Cup titles. During seven-plus seasons with the Penguins, Francis rang up point totals of 119, 100, 93, 90 and 87. After knocking off Minnesota in ’91, the club defeated Chicago to capture the 1992 Stanley Cup – Francis contributing 44 points in 45 playoff games.

In a bizarre twist of irony, Francis was coached for parts of four seasons in Pittsburgh (1993-94 to 1996-97) by none other than Eddie Johnston. Equally ironic was Francis re-signing with his original team as a free agent in the summer of 1998. His savvy helped Carolina Hurricanes win the Eastern title in 2002 (defeating Toronto in the Conference final). Detroit then beat Carolina for the Stanley Cup. Francis ended his career by playing 12 games for the Maple Leafs at the end of the 2003-04 season – having been acquired at the trade deadline by Toronto GM John Ferguson.

RON FRANCIS FINISHED HIS BRILLIANT CAREER WITH THE LEAFS IN 2004.

Today, Ronnie Franchise stands fourth all-time in regular-season points with 1,798 – trailing only Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Gordie Howe.

SEP. 3, 1991 – DEFENSEMAN SCOTT STEVENS AWARDED TO NEW JERSEY AS COMPENSATION FOR ST. LOUIS SIGNING RESTRICTED FREE AGENT BRENDAN SHANAHAN.

My old pal – The Professor, Ron Caron – is doing cartwheels in his grave over this horrific swap. As tempestuous as he could be during games, I loved the man, as did everyone in the hockey world. But, fans of the St. Louis Blues are still cursing ol’ Ron for coughing up the most feared defenseman of our time.

Just more than a year after luring Scott Stevens from Washington as a restricted free agent, Caron gambled and lost in the NHL’s pre-offer-sheet era. In the early-90’s, any team signing an RFA submitted to its opponent, as compensation, a player (or players). If unacceptable, the rival team would submit its own proposal – the competing bids forwarded to an independent arbitrator. In this case, St. Louis offered Curtis Joseph, Rod Brind’Amour and two draft picks, but the Devils insisted on Stevens. Larry Bertuzzi, a Markahm, Ont. lawyer, viewed the proposals and sided with New Jersey.

NEW JERSEY’S ORIGINAL PINE-GREEN AND RED LOGO.

Stevens quickly evolved into the most intimidating player in the NHL.

He laid out opponents with crushing open-ice hits, often when they crossed the “railway track” at the blue line. In today’s NHL, Stevens would be lucky to play half a season amid the crack-down on blows to the head. He routinely targeted rival skaters above the shoulder – later admitting he was out to maim anyone foolish enough to cross his path. As such, he knocked out people more often than a prize-fighter. His devastating shoulder-to-jaw smash on Eric Lindros of Philadelphia in the 2001 playoffs ended the big center’s term as a dominant force in the NHL. Stevens caught Paul Kariya looking at the puck in the 2003 Stanley Cup final and sent the Anaheim forward sprawling unconsciously on his stomach.    

AS CAPTAIN OF NEW JERSEY DEVILS, AND MOST INTIMIDATING PLAYER IN THE NHL, SCOTT STEVENS RAISED THE STANLEY CUP THREE TIMES IN NINE SEASONS.

Stevens would always ratchet up his brutality in the playoffs. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2001 after the Devils knocked off Dallas on an overtime goal by Jason Arnott at Reunion Arena. It was Stevens’ second Cup triumph; New Jersey having swept Detroit in the lockout-shortened 1995 season. A third Cup followed after a seven-game struggle with Anaheim in 2003, during which the home team won every game.

Players across the NHL were euphoric when Stevens retired midway through the 2003-04 schedule, ironically as a result of post-concussion syndrome.

JUNE 15, 1989 – DETROIT TRADES ADAM OATES AND PAUL MacLEAN TO ST. LOUIS FOR BERNIE FEDERKO AND TONY McKEGNEY.

FEB. 7, 1992 – ST. LOUIS TRADES OATES TO BOSTON FOR CRAIG JANNEY AND STEPHANE QUINTAL.

What a double-dip of ignorance this was. After somehow being overlooked in his draft year, Adam Oates spent three seasons playing college hockey at Rensselair Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. before Detroit signed him as a free agent in June 1985. Nearly 28 years later, Oates remains sixth all time in NHL assists with 1,079, trailing only Wayne Gretzky, Ron Francis, Mark Messier, Ray Bourque and Paul Coffey. He is 17th in all time points.

Why did Detroit give up on Oates? Good question.

In 1988-89, he had 78 points in 69 games. Bernie Federko, the much-respected Hall of Fame center, had 67 points in 66 games for St. Louis but was 33 years of age, more than six years older than Oates. Federko played second-banana to Steve Yzerman in Detroit for one season and retired.

Oates, by comparison, was just getting started.

Teaming with Brett Hull, he rang up seasons of 79 and 90 assists. It was the perfect combination: a slick-passing center feeding hockey’s most prolific one-time shooter. The media tabbed them “Hull and Oates” after the popular rock-music tandem Hall and Oates. Brett would later say (and likely still does) that Oates was the best center he ever played with, and their three seasons together in St. Louis were the most enjoyable of his splendid career.

THE EARLY-90’s WAS THE HULL AND OATES SHOW IN ST. LOUIS.

Why then did the Blues get rid of Oates? Simple: they were cheap.

A failed negotiation had Oates (somewhat justifiably) threatening to leave the club. Instead of narrowing the gap with one of the greatest players in franchise history, St. Louis severed the Hull/Oates tandem with a ridiculous trade to Boston for Craig Janney – also a gifted playmaker, but not in the same company. Bruins put Oates with Joe Juneau and it resulted in arguably the best season ever for a center-man not named Gretzky or Lemieux. In 1992-93, Oates had 45 goals and 97 assists for 142 points – all career highs. Juneau had 70 assists, still the most-ever in one season by a left-winger.

During the 1991 Stanley Cup semifinal between Boston and Pittsburgh, Cam Neely of the Bruins was twice checked by Ulf Samuelsson, resulting in a serious knee injury. That spring, Neely had 16 goals in 19 playoff games. He appeared in all of 22 regular-season matches the next two years. When he returned to play alongside Oates in 1993-94, Neely erupted for 50 goals in 49 games. Oates put up 80 assists, his second-highest total, giving him 177 helpers in two magnificent seasons wearing the black and gold.

Oates was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last November and is currently head coach of the Washington Capitals.

MAY 15, 1973 – TORONTO TRADES NHL RIGHTS OF BERNIE PARENT AND ITS SECOND-ROUND DRAFT CHOICE IN 1973 TO PHILADELPHIA FOR THE FLYERS’ FIRST-ROUND PICK. TRADE IS COMPLETED ON JULY 27 WHEN PHILADELPHIA SENDS DOUG FAVELL TO TORONTO.

This trade was a disaster for the Maple Leafs, but general manager Jim Gregory is completely absolved of wrong-doing.

The story has been well-documented through the years. Parent began his NHL career with Boston in 1965, but joined Philadelphia in the 1967 expansion draft. In February 1971, Gregory made a brilliant move, acquiring Parent from the Flyers for goalie Bruce Gamble and center Mike Walton (who was forwarded to Boston for Rick MacLeish in another bad trade).

Parent teamed with veteran Jacques Plante here in Toronto – Plante teaching the young goalie about the position. It paid off handsomely and Parent became an elite netminder. When he tried to negotiate a contract extension in February 1972 – using the upstart World Hockey Association as leverage – Leafs owner Harold Ballard scoffed and told Parent’s agent, Howard Casper, “if he can get that kind of money [from the WHA], I won’t hold him back.” It was a grievous error on two counts: a) Ballard’s public claim threatened the Reserve Clause that bound an athlete to his club in perpetuity [barring trade], and b) it impelled Parent to sign with Miami of the WHA, thus becoming the first NHLer to commit to the new league.

Throughout the process, Gregory tried to warn the thick-headed Ballard about the liability of losing Parent, but Ballard – not unlike many of his NHL ownership colleagues – felt the WHA would never become a reality. When it did (in 1972-73), Leafs suffered through their worst-ever season to that time, dropping 16 points in the East Division standings and missing the playoffs (only Vancouver, California and the expansion New York Islanders finished below the Leafs that season). The Miami WHA team did not materialize and Parent tended goal for the Philadelphia Blazers.     

BERNIE PARENT BEGAN HIS NHL CAREER IN 1965-66 WITH BOSTON (ABOVE) AND WAS LEFT UNPROTECTED IN THE 1967 EXPANSION DRAFT. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS SELECTED PARENT, THEN TRADED HIM TO THE MAPLE LEAFS (HOCKEY CARDS, BELOW) IN FEBRUARY 1971. HE JUMPED TO THE WORLD HOCKEY ASSOCIATION IN 1972, BUT RE-JOINED THE FLYERS A YEAR LATER IN A DEAL THE LEAFS HAD TO MAKE. BACK IN PHILADELPHIA, PARENT WON CONSECUTIVE STANLEY CUP TITLES IN 1974 AND 1975.

 

After an injury plagued season in the WHA, Parent chose to return to the NHL, but made it clear he would not play for the Leafs under any circumstance (his wife, Carol, was a Philadelphia native and wanted to remain there). It forced Gregory to make what I consider the worst deal (among many) in Toronto hockey history. He traded Parent back to the Flyers for an exchange of draft picks (rendered inconsequential because of the marginal players selected) and goalie Doug Favell, who had teamed with Parent in Philadelphia during the first three-plus seasons of expansion.

Leafs made a big improvement in 1973-74 (22 points) and returned to the playoffs before getting routed by Boston in the opening round. Parent, however, developed into one of the best half-dozen goalies in NHL history, helping Philadelphia – that season – become the first of the 1967 expansion teams to win the Stanley Cup. Flyers repeated in 1975 – Parent winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP each year.

BERNIE PARENT WITH PHILADELPHIA FLYERS ALUMNI IN JANUARY 2011.

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