THE TRADES THAT WERE NEVER MADE

Howie Mooney
FiredUp Network Sports Writer

@HowieMooney

Thursday, July 7, 2022


THE TRADES THAT WERE NEVER MADE

Whenever the National Hockey League Draft rolls around, a lot of talk begins to bubble to the surface about teams that are willing to deal players or their draft picks for players, cash or other considerations.  At the same time, speculation comes out about teams that are refusing to trade away their picks.  Invariably, the most interesting trades around draft day, or any other day, are the ones that never actually took place.

Everyone is aware of how the Edmonton Oilers traded Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils three days after the 2016 NHL Draft.  But they had at least one other team, with which they had a trade deal all but finalized.  But first, let’s look at why the Oilers and Devils made the transaction they did.

At the end of the 2015-16 season, the Oilers won 31 games out of 82 and found themselves out of the playoff picture for the tenth consecutive year.  They were top-heavy up front but were lacking a number one defenseman, and especially a coveted right-handed shooting blueliner.  Between 2010 and 2015, the Oilers picked first overall four times.  With those selections, they grabbed Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov and Connor McDavid.

Hall, at 24-years old, was the team’s leading scorer that year.  He totalled 65 points with 26 goals in 82 games.  Aside from Nugent-Hopkins, Yakupov and the 19-year old McDavid, they also had Jordan Eberle, Leon Draisaitl, Teddy Purcell and Pat Maroon.  But they lacked two-way play on defense and general manager Peter Chiarelli viewed that as both a deficiency and a priority.

Chiarelli looked at his roster and assessed and evaluated the futures and the upsides of each of his players and he deduced that Taylor Hall would be the price the Oilers would have to pay for a quality defenseman.  He put out the word that Hall could be made available for the right blueliner.

Offers began coming in and eventually, Chiarelli made the trade with the Devils to acquire Adam Larsson.  Larsson was 23 at the time and a right shot and, while not any kind of offensive defenseman, he and Andy Greene were the team leaders in average time on ice and Chiarelli looked at Larsson as having a very decent upside in the next few years.

"He's not a sexy defenseman," Chiarelli told the media after the trade was made.  "He's not in the spotlight.  He probably doesn't deserve to be in the spotlight.  I can assure you, this last year, he has come into his own.  He's becoming a very good defenseman in this league.  He moves the puck, defends well, he can log a lot of minutes -- 25, 27, 28 minutes -- he can match up against all the top forwards.  He's a player I watched very closely, and I can see his game trending up."

While the Oilers and Devils were haggling over their transaction and before it was consummated, another team was involved in negotiations with the Edmonton general manager.  Ottawa’s Bryan Murray had been talking with his counterpart in Alberta and, according to TSN’s Darren Dreger, had agreed on a deal that would see the Senators acquire Hall in exchange for 22-year-old right-handed shooting Cody Ceci.

The Ceci deal eventually fell through because Senators’ owner Eugene Melnyk was not thrilled with the salary coming back from Edmonton and took too long to actually approve the trade.  We all know how it turned out, but how interesting would things have been if Hall had gone to Ottawa instead of Jersey?

The deal didn’t really go over well with the Oilers’ faithful at the time.  But then, at the end of the 2016-17 season, when Edmonton made the postseason for the first time in eleven years, they looked at the deal a little differently.  Couple that with the fact that Hall’s first year in The Garden State was less than stellar (20 goals, 53 points in 72 games) and folks in Northern Alberta were able to puff their chests out at least slightly.

The following season, though, things went back to the way had been pre-deal.  The Oilers were on the outside looking in when it came to the playoffs.  Taylor Hall had a great year, totalling 93 points with 39 goals and he took home the Hart Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player.  The salt was being rubbed into the wounds of the Edmonton fans.

Hall has never been able to match that MVP year and has subsequently moved around since his time in New Jersey.  He has spent time in Arizona with the Coyotes, in Buffalo with the Sabres and he joined the Boston Bruins at the trade deadline in April of 2021.  He finished the 2021-22 with the Bruins as well.

Larsson took a while to grow on the fans and management of the Oilers.  He settled into a role as a solid second pair defenseman and was a part of the team that made the playoffs in 2020 and 2021.  In the summer of 2021, he was taken by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft.

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In the 2016 draft that went down just a few days before the Taylor Hall trade, Auston Matthews was selected first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs.  Patrik Laine was taken second by the Winnipeg Jets.  When it came to the draft prospects after those two, the consensus number three at the time was Jesse Puljujarvi.  Fourth on that list was Matthew Tkachuk and the next three were, in any order you choose, Clayton Keller, Tyson Jost and Pierre-Luc Dubois.

The Montreal Canadiens were keen to acquire Dubois.  Not only could he have been the Quebecois star they are constantly pining for, but he could have been their centreman for the next decade.  They, like everyone else, looked at Dubois as the fifth or sixth selection on their board and, accordingly, they set out to talk to the Vancouver Canucks about how they could get their first draft pick, which was the fifth overall.  Marc Bergevin and Jim Benning began the haggling.

They had essentially agreed on a deal that would see the Canadiens send 27-year-old, right shooting defenseman P.K. Subban to the Canucks in exchange for that fifth overall pick.  But then, after Matthews and Laine went first and second, the Columbus Blue Jackets threw a wrench into a lot of teams’ plans, most notably, Vancouver’s and Montreal’s, when they took Dubois with the third selection.

The trade between Bergevin and Benning was then tossed into the circular file and Bergevin ended up trading Subban to the Nashville Predators in exchange for their captain, Shea Weber.  Weber was also a right-handed shooter and the winner of that season’s Mark Messier Leadership Award.  The transaction was finalized on the same day as the Taylor Hall-Adam Larsson deal and took place a couple of weeks before Weber’s 31st birthday.

Subban’s time in the league has been up and down since he left the Canadiens.  His first year in Nashville was mediocre, but in 2017-18, he amassed 59 points in 82 games and logged an average of 24:07 in ice time.  He finished third in the voting for the Norris Trophy.  Then at the 2019 draft, the Preds dealt him to the Devils for their second-round picks in 2019 and 2020.  

In the 2021-22 campaign, Subban won the King Clancy Memorial Trophy as the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and who has made a significant humanitarian contribution to his community.

Weber’s first year in Montreal was very satisfying.  In 78 games in the 2016-17 season, he scored 17 goals and totalled 42 points and averaged more than 25 minutes per game.  He also finished sixth in Norris Trophy voting.  The next couple of seasons were trying for Weber.  Age and injuries began taking their toll on the big defenseman.

In 2017-18, he played just 26 games after tearing a tendon in his left foot.  The next year, he played in 58 matches.  In the summer of 2018, he suffered an injury that required surgery.  He didn’t play in a game until the end of November.  By the 2020-21, his body was breaking down, but he soldiered on.  

On February 2, 2021, he played in his 1,000th NHL game in a 5-3 win over the Vancouver Canucks.  His Canadiens ended up making the playoffs as the fourth-place team in the Canadian Division.  They shocked the Toronto Maple Leafs eventually knocking them off in seven games.  

They got past the Winnipeg Jets and the Vegas Golden Knights before bowing out in the Stanley Cup Finals in five games to the Tampa Bay Lightning.  He sat out the 2021-22 season on the Long Term Injured Reserve list and was traded to the Golden Knights in the summer of 2022.

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By the end of the 1961-62 season, 24-year-old Frank Mahovlich was one of the biggest stars in the NHL.  In the playoffs that year, The Big M had scored six goals, added six assists in a dozen games in helping the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Stanley Cup championship over the Chicago Black Hawks.  All seemed rosy in Toronto, but things were not well between Mahovlich and his coach Punch Imlach.

In his rookie year, 1957-58, Mahovlich scored twenty goals (when scoring twenty goals was a meaningful statistic) and won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie.  In the 1960-61 year, Imlach put Mahovlich on a line with Bob Nevin and Red Kelly.  Mahovlich, Kelly and Nevin finished 1-2-3 in scoring on the team and led the Maple Leafs to a second place finish in the league, just two points behind the first place Montreal Canadiens.  Mahovlich scored 48 goals setting a team record that would last until the 1982-83 season.

But the trio faltered in their first round series against the fourth place Detroit Red Wings and was ousted in five games.  The next year would see Mahovlich lead the team in points once again and the team win the Cup and for that summer, Toronto was a very happy place.  But Mahovlich’s contract was up for renewal and in September, Imlach who was also the general manager, issued an offer to the Leafs’ star.  Mahovlich felt the offer was an insult and walked away from negotiations and the team.

Back in those days, the team that won the Cup would play an All-Star team from the other five franchises.  The All-Star Game was played at the beginning of the season and all of the NHL power brokers were in Toronto for the festivities.  On the night of October 5, 1962, the NHL’s owners, managers and executives were assembled at an elegant party.  The booze was flowing and Leafs’ vice-president Harold Ballard was drinking with the owner of the Chicago Black Hawks, James Norris.

When talk of the Leafs’ situation with their best player came up, Norris told Ballard that he would pay the Leafs $1 million for The Big M.  After some discussion, Ballard agreed and Norris gave the Leafs’ executive $1,000 in a deposit and he would have a cheque for the remainder delivered the next morning.  It seemed the deal was done.

A million dollars in 1962 was pretty close to what an NHL team brought in for an entire season.  But this was not necessarily a private soiree.  There were media members at this function and by morning, news hit the hockey world that the two teams had reached a deal and that Mahovlich would be sent to the Windy City.

Front page headlines in NHL cities blared out the news on October 6.  In Toronto, Milt Dunnell, sports editor of the Toronto Star wrote, “Because the main participants had been into the grape, following a shinny dinner, it was logical to shrug off the whole affair as a publicity stunt, but it wasn’t that.”

James Norris’ brother, Bruce was the owner of the Detroit Red Wings.  When he got wind of the deal, he was apoplectic.  While still at the party, he immediately placed a call, not to Ballard or his partner Stafford Smythe, but to Smythe’s father Conn.  Conn Smythe still held some sway among league executives.  

Conn wasn’t that keen on the trade, but not because of any kind of competitive concern. He knew that the Leafs needed the star that Mahovlich was more than they needed the huge cheque.  The elder Smythe told Bruce Norris to “find Stafford and have him call me”.  At around 3 o’clock on the morning of October 6, Stafford called his father.  Dunnell recounted the conversation.

“Conn said to his son no player was worth a million dollars,” Dunnell wrote in a column years after the drunkenly arranged deal, “so they had taken advantage of the whiskey to make a sale.  If the Leafs were lucky enough to have a player for whom that kind of money was offered, he belonged in Toronto, not Chicago.”

The last waking thought that James Norris had before retiring for the night, though, was that he had landed the Big M, that he’d have Mahovlich and Bobby Hull playing together and his team would be a powerhouse.  Norris wrote the cheque the next morning, as he had promised he would.  He gave it to his general manager, Tommy Ivan and Ivan delivered it to Stafford Smythe at Maple Leaf Gardens.

Smythe had to tell Ivan that he could not accept the cheque.  Ivan brought the cheque back to his boss.  The Leafs also returned the $1,000 deposit as well.  The Black Hawks accused the Leafs of reneging on the deal but it was now moot.  Miraculously, according to reports, the Leafs found the money to give Mahovlich what he had been wanting in the first place.  But the rift between The Big M and his coach/GM Imlach never went away.

The Leafs won three more Stanley Cups between 1962 and the end of the 1966-67 season.  Mahovlich was a big part of each of those teams.  But there were at least two occasions in which the big winger had to leave the team to deal with, what we would call today, mental health issues.  

After that contract negotiation, Imlach treated The Big M derisively.  He would mispronounce his name whenever he spoke with the press.  He would tell reporters that his best player was soft and didn’t work hard enough.  As a result, fans would get on Mahovlich during games.  He heard boos from the home crowd and reached a boiling point after the team won the Cup in the spring of 1967. 

Early in the 1967-68 season, The Big M was admitted to hospital once again.  This time his condition was termed publically as depression and tension.  His leaving the team was big news in hockey-mad Toronto and, in the Star, Dunnell wrote that “Mahovlich is a sensitive, easily bruised individual”.

By the end of February, the relationship between Mahovlich and Imlach was untenable.  On March 3, 1967, the Leafs sent Big Frank, Peter Stemkowski, Garry Unger and the rights to defenseman Carl Brewer to Detroit in exchange for Norm Ullman, Paul Henderson, Floyd Smith and Doug Barrie.

At that time, the words that Dunnell used to describe Mahovlich were considered a massive insult.  Men were expected to not show any kind of weakness.  Mental illness, depression and any kind of mental exhaustion or tension were all things that were to be left unspoken.  Interestingly enough, when Mahovlich went to the Red Wings, he thrived.

The stories of Imlach’s authoritarian style should come as no surprise today.  Carl Brewer had been a big, strong defenseman with the Leafs but he and Imlach butted heads regularly, to the point where Brewer left the team.  In Gilles Gratton’s book Gratoony The Loony – The Wild Unpredictable Life of Gilles Gratton, Gratton recounted a conversation he had with Brewer when the two men were teammates with the Toronto Toros.

“He told great stories about Punch Imlach being a tyrant,” Gratton wrote of Brewer.  “He was so stressed playing for Imlach that he wouldn’t have sex during the winter – it was pretty much forbidden.  He hated Imlach and basically became a basket case during his time with the Leafs.”

Mahovlich played the last month of the ’67-68 season in Detroit on a line with Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio.  The next two seasons, he was a second team All-Star, but in the 1970-71 season, things were happening in the front office with the Wings.  That year, general manager Sid Abel had wanted to fire his coach, Ned Harkness.  Bruce Norris said ‘no’.

By January of 1971, Abel was out of the GM’s chair and Harkness was in.  In order to rid himself of any persons that he felt might be a threat to him, Harkness traded Mahovlich to the Montreal Canadiens for Mickey Redmond, Guy Charron and Bill Collins.  Mahovlich would win a couple more Cups while playing with the Habs.

He finished his career playing in the World Hockey Association with the Toronto Toros and the Birmingham Bulls.  In Birmingham, the coach was Glen Sonmor.  Sonmor was a fan of the physical game of hockey and he had The Big M on a line with Frank “Seldom” Beaton and Dave Hanson, who had appeared in the movie Slap Shot as one of the Hanson Brothers.

Being a productive offensive player was difficult for Mahovlich playing with guys whose hands were not necessarily best suited for scoring goals or making pretty passes.  The big winger’s point totals were not where they had once been.  When asked by a reporter why he wasn’t putting up numbers like he used to, Big Frank replied, “I don’t know, but I seemed to play a lot better with Howe and Delvecchio”.

*

Going into the 1984 draft, the Pittsburgh Penguins had the first pick overall.  There was only one player at the top of everyone’s draft lists and that was Mario Lemieux.  Penguins’ general manager Eddie Johnston told everyone that he was not interested in dealing the pick, but that didn’t stop teams from inquiring.

The Penguins had made a bad habit of trading away their top picks over the years.  They kept dealing those choices away for roster players and they had nothing to show for their efforts.  In 1971, ’72, ’77, ’78, ’79, ’81 and ’83, the Pens had dealt away their first draft selections.  In those thirteen seasons, they won all of three playoff series.

There were people in the Pittsburgh front office who advocated for trading away the first overall pick in the 1984 draft.  The idea was that the team could get some very good players in return.  Former Penguins’ player and long-time scout, Ken Schinkel, was one of those who felt that Lemieux was not all that he was purported to be.  He felt that Lemieux was not a guy who gave a maximum effort and may have used the word ‘floater’ in describing the Junior Hockey star.

The Penguins had garnered just 38 points in the standings in 1983-84 under first-year coach Lou Angotti.  People like Schinkel may have thought that trading the first pick could bring back enough quality roster players to immediately make the team competitive.  Johnston was adamant that building for the long term was the better way to go.

Lou Nanne was the general manager of the Minnesota North Stars.  He approached Johnston with a proposition that he would give Pittsburgh all of his 1984 picks for that number one selection.  Johnston told the story many years later of how he replied to Nanne.

“I said, ‘Lou, if you (offered all your draft picks) for the next three years in a row, I still wouldn’t trade him’,” Johnston said.  “If it wasn’t for Mario, there wouldn’t be a franchise here now.  And if we would have traded him, it would have been an injustice to the city of Pittsburgh.”

The Montreal Canadiens would have loved to have had the right to that first selection and they approached the Pens offering a number of different combinations of players.  Johnston is a Montreal native and he turned the Habs down.  The Quebec Nordiques put an interesting offer on the table, however.

Les Nordiques were just as desperate for a Quebecois superstar as the Canadiens were.  Their offer included all three of the Stastny brothers.  Anton Stastny was just 24 at the time.  He had 25 goals and 62 points in 69 games in 1983-84.  Marian Stastny was the oldest of the three and he scored 20 goals and had 52 points that year.  The best of the three was Peter Stastny.  In ’83-84, he scored 46 goals and finished the season with 119 points.  

Peter would play another ten seasons in the NHL and would finish his career with a Hall of Fame nod, but this wasn’t enough to sway the Penguins general manager.  In fact, the Pens’ public relations department was already designing campaigns to show off the newest member of the team and, of course, the team would eschew all offers and draft the star from Laval.

It turned out to be a decisive and historic moment for the franchise.

To all the people that wanted to deal the pick, Johnston listened to them, but refused to give in to their entreaties.  Joe Starkey wrote Tales From The Pittsburgh Penguins Locker Room.  He quotes Johnston as saying, “I just told them, ‘I’m not dealing him’.  There were a lot of people who were saying we can get a lot of good players, but I remember (owner Edward DeBartolo) saying to me later, ‘Thank God you didn’t listen.  This place would be a parking lot.’”

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You can listen to Howie and his co-host Shawn Lavigne on The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast, right here on the FiredUp Network, or on 208 different platforms wherever you find your podcasts, including Alexa.  Howie also hosts Like Father, Like Son with his son, Reese, here on the FiredUp Network and those same platforms as well.