Trade Winds Blow

 

After a relatively conservative start to the 1995 season, things have rapidly picked up across the league as rosters fall into place and the year-long jockey for standing commences. Whilt there were a handful of small personnel moves, many by the Anaheim Ducks as they furiously sought to shed dead weight, the league received a jolt of electricity when it was announced the Florida Panthers do what they do best – pull of blockbusters. The league breathed a sigh of relief when Florida finally jettisoned Brent Hughes and Blair Atcheynum, two players who were endlessly dumped on the trading block to no avail. The pair, along with Domenic Pittis, Mike Hartman, and a 1st round pick in 1998 were sent to St. Louis for Rob Brown (who was then promptly put on the trade block.)

For the Panthers, the deal allowed them to consolidate their roster. Hartman is a goon who will likely not see any important minutes, and Pittis is a C-grade prospect. Similarly, Atcheynum is a warm body who will likely never develop into anything of substance, and Hughes is pushing 30. While the return for St. Louis might not look great, management actually has to be thrilled with what rookie GM Kevin Burgess has been able to accomplish. In his own right, Rob Brown, while decent, is far from spectacular, and the St. Louis Blues have one of the thinnest rosters in the entire league. Not only did the bring in another player in Hughes who is just as good as Brown, despite being two years older, but they brought in another first round pick. Yes, it’s years down the line, yes, it’s the Panthers pick, but St. Louis is already showing a commitment to the rebuild that has been absent for the past decade. If St. Louis is able to deal Hughes for anything of value near the deadline, this move becomes even better for a team that seemingly has a rudder after all these years.

But that wasn’t the big one. Instead, Florida pulled the trigger on what might go down as the biggest trade of the year, bringing in both Dominik Hasek and Larry Murphy from the Columbus Blue Jackets. In return, Columbus got Mike Richter, Bobby Carpenter, Danton Cole, Sylvan Lefebvre, Shane Doan, Dan Bole, Maxim Galanov, Jussi Markkanen, and Sean Brown. It’s true that many of these pieces are simply warm bodies – Markkanen and Galanov aren’t exactly hot commodities. But Mike Richter is still only 28 and is a viable starter. The biggest pieces coming back are Shane Doan and Dan Boyle, both of whom are good, although we do have some skepticism in terms of their ceilings, as both will be highly dependent on how Columbus develops their new top prospects. If the necessary resources are devoted, they could turn into key foundational pieces, but it’s yet to be seen. The trade does mark a clear change in direction for the Blue Jackets though. With Hasek and Murphy now gone, Columbus’ path to challenging Colorado and Detroit takes a serious hit. The team still is loaded with talent (and no movement clauses, hamstringing their options), but Dale Hawerchuk has been dangled, although the asking price appears to be more than what teams are willing to move. We’ll have to see if Columbus embraces the full on rebuild, because they’re coming to a fork in the road with a lot of aging veterans. The team should consider taking what they can get with players like Hawerchuk, newly acquired Bobby Carpenter, Daryl Evans and a slew of others, especially given their tenuous financial situation. For the Panthers, a team that is always all in, well, they’re all in.

Then things really got crazy. Enter the San Jose Sharks. A few years ago, San Jose appeared to be gearing up for a run. In 1991, San Jose traded an absolute haul for Vincent Damphousse, while simultaneously sending Eric Lindros to his rightful home in Philadelphia, and traded Niklas Lidstrom in a deal for Al MacInnis and Joe Nieuwendyk. In total, the trades were disastrous. San Jose ultimately traded away some of the best prospects in NFHL history, only to turn around and dump the assets they had acquired for far less than what they moved. The team never got off the ground, and has continued to languish in mediocrity for years. This year, San Jose is trying to right some wrongs, and they started by trading for Burnaby Joe, Joe Sakic. Long banished to the hinterlands in Quebec, Sakic gets a new start in sunny San Jose, as GM Pat Blais is rebuilding the Nordiques in his image. Like the deals of San Jose’s past, a slew of young talent went to Quebec, including Olaf Kolzig, Ray Whitney, Josef Stumpel, Adam Foote, and two first round picks. The trade in itself was a bit of a headscratcher in both ways if we’re being honest. Quebec does not have their first round pick, and San Jose has an otherwise mediocre roster that clearly is not in the same echelon as the league’s elite. For Quebec, the trade seemed to signal a true embrace for the rebuild, which was then furthered shortly thereafter by sending Scott Stevens to New York. Bringing in a young superstar like Sakic is never a bad idea, but San Jose has a massive amount of work to do for it to be a meaningful move, and the prospects of starting 33-year old Grant Fuhr over 25-year old Olaf Kolzig aren’t great. Nonetheless, the move sent shockwaves through the league, and for the first time in a long time, all eyes were on the Sharks. If nothing else, seeing a new team make a push was refreshing.

Around the same time, the Panthers decided to try to recoup some young assets, shipping Vladimir Ruzicka and Steve Smith to the San Jose Sharks for Steve Staios and a pick. It was a solid move for Florida, who badly needed to bring in some young pieces, and would set the stage for another huge deal between the two. Russ Courtnall, also long on the trade block, was sent to San Jose a few days later, this time with Craig Johnson, Jeff Friesen, Valeri Bure, and a 1st round pick. Clearly, San Jose was looking to pair Sakic with another legitimate first line talent, and while we like Courtnall, the uncertainty about the viability of these moves remains, as the Sharks still have a lot of work to do to get to the next level. Tomas Jonsson was brought in from Philadelphia, and while Jassen Cullimore isn’t fantastic, it’s another young asset out the door. From Philadelphia’s perspective, the trade sheds wasted cap space, as GM Hoggett seems to have taken the financial drubbing to heart.

But wait, there’s more! In true Panthers form, no one is ever able to buy real estate in South Florida. As soon as Friesen and company were in, they were out. Florida immediately parlayed most of their return from the Courtnall and Smith trades to bring in Stephane Richer from the Los Angeles Kings, along with Ed Kastelic (who if you’re wondering, is on the block). For those of you keeping score at home, here’s how things have shaped up for the Panthers when it’s all said and done (or until tomorrow when the next tornado blows through):

To Florida: Dominik Hasek, Larry Murphy, Craig Simpson, Tomas Steen, Ed Olczyk, Igor Kravchuk, Stephane Richer, Ed Kastelic, Kjell Dahlin, Valerie Bure, Rob Brown, SJS 1st 1997

Out of Florida: Mike Richter, Bobby Carpenter, Danton Cole, Sylvan Lefebvre, Shane Doan, Dan Boyle, Maxim Galanov, Jussi Markkanen, Sean Brown, Vladimir Ruzicka, Steve Smith, Geoff Courtnall, Russ Courtnall, 1998, Brent Hughes, Domenic Pittis, Mike Hartman, Blair Atcheynum, FLA 1st 1998, FLA 2nd

This doesn’t take into consideration any of the assets that both came in and went out. So, is the team any better or is it simply a horse of a different color? We have no idea, honestly. From a purely impact perspective, you can distill the moves down to bringing in Hasek, Murphy, Richer, and the SJS 1st, along with some decent depth, while Richter, Geoff Courtnall, Russ Courtnall, Shane Doan and Dan Boyle were sent elsewhere. Hasek is clearly the X-factor here, and Murphy is an upgrade on the blueline, something the Panthers have wanted to add to for years. More than anything though, it’s a shake up for a franchise that has long held championship aspirations but has fallen short time and time again in recent years. We’re inclined not to judge the trade too much just yet, mainly because half these guys will have been traded by next week.

We touched on the Quebec Nordiques earlier but they are in a bit of an odd position right now, seemingly going in two directions at once, something St. Louis Blues fans are accustomed to. Trading Sakic was a hard pill to swallow, but it made some sense. Turning around and trading Scott Stevens to the Rangers made even more sense, as the Rangers are clearly on the rise and Quebec is looking to get younger. While Kevin Dahl is a middling defensive player with offensive upside, Dmitri Yushkevich could develop into a very solid player in time. Then, they traded Khell Dahlin, an underrated forward, to the Florida Panthers. The deal made sense in principle, but the return did not. Sergei Makarov, once great but now long in the tooth at 36, is not the type of asset that the Nordiques need given their recent moves, and likely will not return as much as Dahlin would have on the market. The 3rd round pick that came along is fine but largely inconsequential. Quebec then moved two decent young assets, Wayne Primeau and Anson Carter for two similarly decent, but slightly older assets, in Patrice Brisebois and Steve Dubinsky. We’re not a huge fan of Primeau as he projects to be very limited offensively, but from a developmental perspective, Carter likely has the highest upside at just 21 years of age, compared to the 25-year old Dubinsky and 24-year old Brisebois. Both are fine, and neither are old, but the value proposition is skewed slightly to the Lightning.

But most impactfully, right after receiving the 25-year old Olaf Kozlig in the Sakic deal, Quebec immediately turned around and traded him for Patrick Roy. Now, it’s hard to argue with acquiring Pat Roy, but he is four years older than Kolzig, turning 30 next year. Developmentally, Kolzig could easily equal Roy, and possibly even surpass him depending on the Rangers development plans. It’s true that New York may have a bottleneck of star young goalies with Tim Thomas laying in wait, so that may change the equation, but given Quebec’s delayed timeline to compete now with Sakic and Stevens gone, it seemed like a 25-year old Kolzig better fit the team’s long-term plans compared to the 29-year old Roy. To be clear, the deal isn’t bad, we’re just not sure that it really fits.

One final interesting note is the deafening silence coming from the league’s top teams in the trade market thus far. Perhaps that’s by design – when you’re winning, you’re less inclined to tinker – it makes perfect sense. Nonetheless, it’s  a bit surprising that most of the blockbuster trades involved some of the second-tie teams, which is actually incredibly exciting and could be a shot across the bow, signaling an arms race in the making. The Minnesota North Stars have been trying in vein to get a deal done, regularly bogarting the trade block minutes after any and every other team posts their availability, but despite being atop the league, they have not been able to wheel and deal, as appealing as “great 4th line PK guy” Mark Lamb may be. While the Vancouver Cancuks did bring in Geoff Courtnall, they are both finally seeing the fruits of their labors from years past, and nearly depleted of valuable young assets, meaning that what you see is probably what you’ll get, unless things go sideways and a teardown ensues. That seems unlikely given the meticulous work that’s been done to build a contender, one that finally appears to be coming to fruition. Meanwhile, the Red Wings are patiently lying in wait, off to a solid start as they defend their championship, seemingly in no hurry to fix what clearly isn’t broken. The Hartford Whalers have been uncharacteristically quiet out of the gate, and while there were early rumblings of potentially moving the likes of Mark Tinordi, looking for a scoring forward, or trying to bring in an upgrade in net to backup Bill Ranford, the trail seems to have gone cold. From there, the Rockies and Flyers have both been surprisingly quiet, and it was a bit of a surprise to see Sakic end up in San Jose rather than Colorado or Philadelphia. It makes some degree of sense though, as neither Philadelphia or Colorado had the caliber of young talent that San Jose did. Philadelphia was rumored to be in the market for a shakeup but has seemingly settled on shedding unneeded defensive talent, smartly moving Kravchuk and Jonsson, moves that have helped their financial outlook slightly.

We’ll see where the chips lie after this flurry of moves, but we’d expect the frenetic pace to continue. Keep an eye on marquee players like Dale Hawerchuk and possibly Luc Robitaille, while second tier talent like Sergei Nemchinov, Bruce Driver, and the rest of the Florida lineup will likely be dangled in the coming days.