Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The 10 most important NHL trades of the 2010s

I love trades. They’ve always been one of my favorite parts of being a sports fan. One-for-one trades? Perfect, I love the simplicity. Big multi-player blockbusters? Awesome, let’s blow up two teams at once and see what happens. Overly complicated trades that should be one-for-one but somehow morph into a long list of throw-ins and late-round picks? Beautiful, just because I can picture the increasingly ridiculous conversations between two stubborn GMs who have to get the last word.

I love a good trade. Or a bad one. Or just a plausible rumor. Or let’s face it, a completely ridiculous rumor that falls apart as soon as you think about it for even a minute. I’ll take it all. Trades are the best. The more the merrier.

Which means the last decade has been pretty rough for people like me.

The trade is a dying art in the NHL. Where we used to get multiple blockbusters all year long, now we get excuses. The salary cap makes it too hard. It’s not the right time. We won’t make a trade just for the sake of making a trade. Hey, I’m only a general manager. What do you want me to do, my job?

So no, a list of the ten best trades of the 2010s doesn’t include any Wayne Gretzky-style deals that shake the foundation of the league. There was no Eric Lindros double-dealing. No Patrick Roy walkouts. Nothing like the mega-deals of decades past involving Doug Gilmour or Phil Esposito or Ted Lindsay. The days of the true blockbuster may be gone for good.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have some material to work with. Today, let’s count down the ten biggest trades of the 2010s. And just for fun, we’ll throw in a few mini-categories along the way. Trading may not be what it once was, but it still deserves a place in our look back at the decade. After all, just because a job is tough doesn’t mean you don’t have to do it. Unless you’re an NHL GM.

Big trade No. 10: Ilya Kovalchuk to the Devils

The trade: On Feb. 4, 2010, the Thrashers traded their all-time leading scorer along with Anssi Salmela and a second to the Devils for Johnny Oduya, Niclas Bergfors, Patrice Cormier, a first and a second.

The immediate reaction in one sentence: The Devils didn’t have to give up much to get a superstar, but can they get him signed?

Why the deal was made: Kovalchuk had been the face of the franchise in Atlanta. But with his contract coming to an end, he’d repeatedly turned down offers for an extension. Therefore, the Thrashers got what they could at the deadline rather than watch him walk for nothing.

What’s happened since: None of the players the Thrashers got had much impact, although they used the first to get Dustin Byfuglien out of Chicago. One more disappointing season later, the team was headed to Winnipeg.

The Devils did get Kovalchuk signed, although it took most of the summer, $100 million, one rejected contract and the (temporary) loss of a first-round draft pick to make it happen. He had two 30-goal seasons in New Jersey, then stunned the hockey world by bolting for the KHL in 2013. He announced a comeback with the Kings in 2018, but I’ve been watching the highlights ever since and I guess he changed his mind.

The verdict today: Would it be overly dramatic to say that the decade’s first true blockbuster was the nail in the coffin of NHL hockey in Atlanta? Maybe, but we’ll say it anyway.

Big trade No. 9: Roberto Luongo to the Panthers

The trade: On March 4, 2014, the Canucks shook up the deadline by sending Roberto Luongo and Steven Anthony to Florida for Jacob Markstrom and Shawn Matthias.

The immediate reaction in one sentence: Wow, the Canucks actually managed to trade that contract.

Why the deal was made: Because Luongo’s contract sucked. Those were his words, not ours, although honestly, they were ours too and probably yours as well. His monster 12-year deal had already scuttled the team’s attempts to trade him in 2013 and ultimately led to Cory Schneider being shipped out instead. But when the Panthers came calling about re-acquiring the three-time Vezina finalist, the Canucks finally pulled the trigger, even though they didn’t seem to get much in return.

What’s happened since: Luongo experienced a bit of a renascence in Florida, posting four strong seasons before age and injury caught up to him. He retired in 2019, so the Panthers are off the hook for the rest of that sucky contract. Meanwhile, Markstrom has developed into a legitimate NHL starter, so the Canucks are happy with their side of the deal.

The verdict today: This was a tough one for the Canucks, if only because trading away Luongo signaled the indisputable end of the era that saw the team almost win its first Stanley Cup. But it makes the list for a bigger reason, standing as one of the first blockbusters of the cap era that was almost entirely about a contract. Trades had always been influenced by finances, but this was one of the first times that we just outright talked about a contract being traded instead of a player – even though the player was a future Hall-of-Famer.

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