Wednesday, February 6, 2019

What was the second most important trade in NHL history?

What’s the most important trade in NHL history?

Easy. Wayne Gretzky being traded from the Oilers to the Kings in 1988. There’s really no debate. That one’s number one by a mile.

Cool, good post. See you in a few days.

(Editor’s note: Uh, Sean … we were kind of hoping for more than 40 words out of this one.)

Huh. OK. In that case, let’s up the degree of difficulty by changing the question around.

What’s the second most important trade in NHL history?

Now things get tougher, in large part because the Gretzky trade was such a game-changer that it overshadows everything else. That trade changed the league’s financial landscape, reset how hockey was viewed in the U.S. and is directly responsible for the existence of about a half-dozen of today’s teams. Forget the NHL, you could make a solid argument that it’s the most important trade in the history of sports.

So sure, the drop down to second place is going to be a big one. But that’s what makes the debate fun, because once you get past Gretzky, the field suddenly gets crowded.

Note that we’re not talking about the “biggest” trade, in terms of the number of players or even the sheer star power involved. What we’re looking for here is importance. That’s an admittedly fuzzy concept, but think of it this way: If you go back and undo the deal, how much of NHL history changes?

So with all due respect to Alexandre Daigle, let’s take some time to remember number two – or at least the contenders for that crown. Here are 10 possibilities that I think can make the strongest case.

The Next One arrives: Eric Lindros to the Flyers

The trade: On June 30, 1992, the Nordiques sent Eric Lindros to the Flyers for Peter Forsberg, Steve Duchesne, Mike Ricci, Ron Hextall, Kerry Huffman, Chris Simon, two first-round picks and $15,000,000.

The case for: Read that list of names again. Then remember that Lindros hadn’t played a single NHL game at this point. It was an almost unfathomably huge haul for one teenaged prospect – and it may not even have been the best deal the Nordiques could get, given that they preferred the Rangers’ offer.

At the time, Lindros was considered the best prospect to come into the league since Mario Lemieux, and maybe even the best ever. He never quite lived up to that hype in Philadelphia, but he did win a Hart Trophy and led the Flyers to the Stanley Cup final. Meanwhile, Forsberg became arguably the best player in the deal and helped the Nordiques win two Cups in Colorado.

The case against: Both Lindros and Forsberg had their careers shortened by injury, so the trade’s impact wasn’t quite what it could have been. Still, that feels like nitpicking.

Moose on the Loose: Mark Messier to the Rangers

The trade: On Oct. 4, 1991, the Oilers traded Mark Messier to the Rangers for Bernie Nicholls, Steven Rice, Louie DeBrusk and future considerations.

The case for: For better or worse, this trade defined the next decade and more for both teams. Against all odds, the Oilers had survived the Gretzky trade and won another Cup in 1990. But Messier’s exit signaled the true end of the dynasty and the Oilers’ new role as one of the NHL’s have-nots. (A point that was driven home when Nicholls initially refused to report.)

As for the Rangers, they watched Messier win the Hart while guiding them to the Presidents’ Trophy in his first season. But the big moment came in 1994, when they finally put an end to the “1940” chants by winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in over half a century. It was Messier who led them there, most memorably with his guaranteed win against the Devils. And it was Messier who was the one to receive the Cup handoff in front of a roaring MSG crowd.

Messier would go on to captain the Rangers until 2004, not counting the three years he took off from 1997 to 2000 to go do missionary work, and is often ranked as the greatest Ranger of all-time. And maybe even more importantly, Messier and the Rangers made the NHL seem cool and trendy for just about the first time ever.

The case against: New commissioner Gary Bettman decided that the Rangers’ win made for the perfect time for a lockout, and any momentum the NHL was riding was squandered. Rangers fans were too delirious to care, but this trade’s impact beyond New York and Edmonton didn’t end up being as big as it could have been.

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