Only one team ever truly “wins” trade deadline day, and it’s the team that goes on to capture the Stanley Cup.
That’s what they say, anyway. It seems like a pretty simplistic way of looking at things, if we’re being honest, since all a GM can ever be realistically asked to do is to put his team in the best possible position to win. Nothing is ever guaranteed in life, and the idea that you’re retroactively wrong to have even tried unless everything works out perfectly seems a little fatalistic.
But either way, there is something special to be said for the GM who swings for the fences at the deadline and then sees it all pay off in a Stanley Cup parade a few months later. So today, let’s give the spotlight over to the few who’ve managed to pull it off. Here are the five best trade deadline week hauls by teams that went on to win the Stanley Cup that same season.
#5: Detroit Red Wings, 1997
The Red Wings have a fascinating trade deadline history. They’ve been good for so long that no team has had more opportunity to load up for deep playoff runs. And since GM Ken Holland virtually never makes deals during the first four months of the season, that leaves the Wings with lots of work to do most years at the deadline.
And they’ve had some big ones, although with mixed results. They landed Matthieu Schneider in 2003 and Robert Lang in 2004, plus Todd Bertuzzi in 2007 and Brad Stuart in 2008. In more recent years they’ve gone after guys like Kyle Quincey, David Legwand, Eric Cole and Marek Zidlicky. And they had one of the greatest “load up and go for it” deadlines of all-time back in 1999, when they pulled off the Chris Chelios blockbuster while also adding a who’s who of grizzled veterans, including Bill Ranford, Ulf Samuelsson and Wendel Clark. But that team didn’t win it all.
Instead, we’ll point back to far simpler deadline. Back in 1997, the Wings (then under the guidance of co-GMs Jimmy Devellano and Scotty Bowman) acquired future Hall of Famer Larry Murphy from the Maple Leafs. That’s it. That was the whole trade. The Leafs were embarking on a youth movement and wanted to unload the 36-year-old Murphy’s hefty salary, so they didn’t bother to ask for anything in return.
They say you can’t get something for nothing, but the Wings proved that wrong. In this case, that “something” turned out to be five more seasons of solid play from Murphy, including back-to-back Stanley Cup runs. It’s hard to do much better than that.
#4: Los Angeles Kings, 2012/2014 (tie)
OK, yes, we’re blatantly cheating here. But we can justify lumping two separate seasons together, because Kings GM Dean Lombardi basically pulled off the same move twice, like a guy who found a glitch in his favorite video game. Both years, he had a strong team working through a good-but-not-great season. Both times, the offense needed a boost. Both times, he went out and got a former 40-goal scorer having a quiet season. Heck, he even targeted the same team.
And both Jeff Carter and Marian Gaborik paid off. Lombardi’s twin trades made loading up at the deadline look so easy, you could forget how badly the Kings whiffed on last year’s Andrej Sekera deal. Time will tell whether he rolls the dice again this year, but here’s hoping the Blue Jackets aren’t answering the phone.
#3: New York Rangers, 1994
Sometimes, a big deadline day is about quantity over quality. While they didn’t make any true blockbusters or add any stars in their prime, no eventual champion has ever remade themselves quite as aggressively as the 1994 Rangers.
On March 21, 1994, Rangers made five separate trades, three of which saw them acquiring veterans for the stretch run. They sent Todd Marchant to the Oilers for Craig MacTavish, flipped Mike Gartner to the Maple Leafs for Glen Anderson and a pick, and sent Tony Amonte to the Blackhawks in a deal for Stephane Matteau and Brian Noonan.
The day was about taking a very good team that was on its way to its second Presidents Trophy in three years and recasting them in the image of hardnosed coach Mike Keenan. Iron Mike wanted more depth and toughness, and so that’s what GM Neil Smith delivered.
Did some of the youth they gave up go on to become great players? Sure. Amonte had a fantastic career, and Marchant was also very good. Did the incoming veterans have a major impact on the playoff run? Not especially. With the obvious exception of Matteau’s famous OT winner, the players they added basically filled depth roles. Could you make a contrarian argument that the Rangers actually lost at least a few of those deals in terms of overall value? Maybe you could.
And does any of that matter? No, because the Rangers won the Stanley Cup. Nobody cares about long-term costs when you’ve got a banner waving overhead. That’s the beauty of trade deadline day. As long as you win, you really can’t lose.
#2: New York Islanders, 1980
The Islanders only made one deal at the 1980 deadline, but it was the one that still stands as perhaps the most famous deadline trade of all time: sending Billy Harris and Dave Lewis to the Kings for Butch Goring.
It’s not the biggest deadline trade ever made, and it’s not the best. But it’s probably the archetypal deadline deal, the one that defined what we expect contenders to do at this time of year. The Islanders were already a very good team, having led the league in points the previous season, but had yet to break through during the playoffs. By packaging Lewis and Harris, they gave up a pair of useful players who were younger than the guy they were getting back. But Goring turned out to be the spark the team needed, a perfect fit who’d help turn a very good team into a dynasty. He’d help the team to their first of four consecutive titles in 1980, and went on to win the Conn Smythe in 1981. And while it’s tempting to chalk some of the deal’s legacy up to a little bit of feel-good revisionist history, the trade was being recognized for changing the Islanders culture within weeks.
The Goring deal helped turn the trade deadline from a blip on the NHL’s calendar into one of the season’s major milestones. And it set the bar for every GM to come: Find the one move that will transform your contender into a champion.
#1: Pittsburgh Penguins, 1991
As if there could be any other pick.
The Penguins made two trades on deadline day, but with apologies to Kim Issel and the rights to Ken Priestlay, the big move came 24 hours earlier. That was the blockbuster that saw the Pens land Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings in exchange for John Cullen, Zarley Zalapski and Jeff Parker.
It was a trade so one-sided that it not only won the Penguins that year’s Stanley Cup, but the next one as well. And it probably stands as the worst moment in Hartford Whalers history, narrowly beating out the time that the Whalers ceased to exist. It was that bad.
And that’s not just hindsight talking, because the move was widely seen as a steal for Pittsburgh GM Craig Patrick from the moment it happened. Whaler fans were devastated. And the Penguins never looked back.
But while those back-to-back Cup-winning teams are rightly remembered as powerhouses, it’s worth noting that the Pens were struggling badly when the deal went down. They were riding an 0-9-1 road streak, and coach Bob Johnson had all but publicly begged Patrick to do something. As good as the Mario Lemieux/Jaromir Jagr core looked on paper, it really was the Francis trade that turned the tide.
Patrick could have tinkered a bit, trusting his roster to pull through. He didn’t, and it earned him two rings. Remember that this week when your favorite team’s GM plays it conservative, then tries to tell you that only one team ever wins on deadline day.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.