It’s that fun time of year when everyone is looking for a deal. That goes for everyone going bargain hunting at this week’s various Black Friday sales. And it also goes for more than a few NHL GMs, as the trade talk has heated up and the rumor mill is on fire.
This feels like as good a reason as any to build a roster. Let’s put together a 20-man team out of the very best midseason trades in NHL history.
After all, that’s what most fans are hoping for right now — the sort of midseason trade that can deliver a key piece. We’re told not to get our hopes up, because making a significant trade before the deadline is just too difficult for a beleaguered GM to pull off. Maybe it is, but some of the NHL’s most important trades have happened right around this time of year. A full roster’s worth? At least.
One thing: I’m going to get a little specific with my definition of “midseason” here, because I’m not going to count the trade deadline or the days leading up to it. Those deals are midseason too, technically, but the deadline has evolved into its own thing. Instead, we’re looking for guys who were traded during the first few months of a season, with bonus points for actual hockey trades over rebuilds and rentals. And they have to have played for both teams during the season to qualify, so apologies in advance to the holdouts, prospects, and healthy scratches.
We’re going by how good a player was during the year he was traded, not what they may have done in other years. You’re getting that season only. I’m also going to keep this to trades made in the 1980s and later, with one notable exception. But as it turns out, that still gives us more than a few excellent years to choose from, so let’s Remember Some Trades as we see just how good this team can get …
Easy call, right? The only player to be named MVP in a season in which he was traded is the obvious pick to build our forward group around. Thornton had been very good in Boston, including a 100-point season in the dregs of the “Dead Puck Era.” But he was off to the best start of his career in 2005-06, posting 37 points through 25 games when the Bruins decided to move him for three young-ish role players. He leveled up pretty much immediately, recording multi-point games in each of his first six outings as a Shark. He finished the year with a league-leading 96 assists and 125 points while also transforming Jonathan Cheechoo into history’s most unlikely Rocket Richard winger.
Brendan Shanahan, Whalers to Red Wings (1996-97)
This will be a tough one for Whalers fans. Are there any Whalers fans left? I feel like there are, and if so they’re mad right now.
Shanahan barely qualifies for this team because he played just two games for Hartford before getting his wish and being moved to a contender. Any time a team’s GM is dropping quotes like “We made the trade because we were at the point where we felt enough was enough,” you know it’s probably not a great deal, but the Whalers did get Paul Coffey and Keith Primeau. Coffey, however, worked behind the scenes to scuttle the deal. Shanahan went on to score 46 goals for the Wings that year, by far the most ever by a player after a midseason trade. That’s a deal so good it’s even worth interrupting baseball for.
Teemu Selanne, Jets to Mighty Ducks (1995-96)
This wasn’t the unstoppable 76-goal Selanne of a few years prior, or even the 50-goal version he’d be over his first few full seasons in Anaheim. Instead, we’ll have to settle for a pedestrian 40 goals and 108 points from one of the most exciting players in NHL history. Selanne was devasted by the trade out of Winnipeg at the time, but it’s fair to say it worked out OK for him. And the Ducks. The Jets, not so much.
If you’re like me you remember this trade as being a bit of a bust for the Blues, who got Gretzky when his MVP years were well behind him and only kept him for a few weeks. That’s mostly true, but then you remember that this is Wayne Gretzky, and a bad year still meant over 100 points, including 21 in 18 games with the Blues. The deal went down in late February, almost four weeks ahead of the trade deadline, and it was a weird one. Still, you take any chance you get to put Wayne Gretzky on a roster, and we’ll gladly build our second line around the greatest of all time. But we’ll ask him to be careful with that puck in overtime.
Simpson was just a couple of years removed from being the No. 2 pick when the Penguins included him in their package for Paul Coffey. He’d posted 26 goals as a sophomore in 1986-87 and was already halfway to that total through 21 games in Pittsburgh, but he really caught fire in Edmonton. With 43 goals in 59 games, he’d finish the year with a career-high 56 goals that made him one of only two players to ever score 50 goals during a season in which he was traded.
And here’s the other player traded midseason to hit the 50-goal mark. We’re guessing Leafs fans might be expecting to see a different Cliff Fletcher-era trade, and don’t worry, we’ll get to that one in just a bit. For now, we’ll slot in Andreychuk, after he came to Toronto as part of a package for Grant Fuhr. He already had 29 goals when the deal went down, then added 25 more in just 31 games as a Leaf.
Doug Gilmour, Flames to Maple Leafs (1991-92)
The biggest trade in NHL history transformed Gilmour into a megastar, but it took a year before he fully found his footing in Toronto. For the 1991-92 season, he was merely great, to the tune of 87 points, a top-10 Hart Trophy finish, and a top-five Selke Trophy showing.
Ilya Kovalchuk, Thrashers to Devils (2009-10)
I originally left this one off the list because I remembered it as a deadline deal, but it turns out it came three weeks before, so we’re good. The Thrashers were not good, and they didn’t get any better through this lopsided deal. As for Kovalchuk, he’d finish the year with 41 goals and 85 points before signing a controversial 15-year extension with the Devils that they’re still paying for in cap recapture fees.
Jean Ratelle, Rangers to Bruins (1975-76)
I said I’d try not to reach too far back into the history books, but we can’t ignore the blockbuster that sent Ratelle to Boston for Phil Esposito. Ratelle was already a star, but he went wild once he became a Bruin, racking up 90 points in 67 games after being dealt in November. Spoiler: He won’t be the only player from that trade who shows up on this roster.
Pierre Turgeon, Sabres to Islanders (1991-92)
Who would you rather have in this spot, Turgeon or the star he was traded for, Pat LaFontaine? It turns out that we don’t get to choose, because LaFontaine was holding out and hadn’t played for the Islanders that year when they dealt him to the Sabres. So Turgeon it is. Like Gilmour, he’s getting credit for a 1991-92 midseason trade that came a year before he exploded in 1992-93. Still, he gets us 40 goals and 95 points, which feels acceptable.
Bernie Nicholls, Kings to Rangers (1989-90)
The perpetually disrespected Nicholls actually held the record for most points in a trade season for 15 years until Thornton shattered it. He went from the Kings to the Rangers in the middle of a 112-point season, one year removed from his completely ridiculous 70-goal, 150-point campaign for the Kings. OK, yes, those are 112 points in the highest-scoring era in NHL history, but that’s still a ton of offense. We’ll take that on our fourth line.
You could see what the Habs were going for here, giving up three good players to land a great one in Mark Recchi. But it backfired badly when LeClair all but instantly morphed into one of the league’s best goal-scorers. He’d pot 25 in 37 games in Philadelphia while earning the first of five straight postseason All-Star honors.
Honorable mentions: You might be expecting Ron Francis or Butch Goring here, but those were deadline deals. So were various Mike Gartner trades, including the 1989 blockbuster that also included fellow Hall of Famers Larry Murphy and Dino Ciccarelli.
We could have gone with yet another 1991-92 center, as a 99-point Adam Oates went from St. Louis to Boston. Joey Mullen had 44 goals when he went from St. Louis to Calgary in 1986. Bob Kudelski was in the middle of a 40-goal season when he went from Ottawa to Florida in 1994, as was Bill Guerin when he went from Edmonton to Boston in 2000. Lanny McDonald had a pair of 40-goal seasons during which he was traded. And we have to mention Recchi, who was traded five times in his Hall of Fame career, all of which were midseason moves. Some of those were deadline deals, but that’s still pretty wild. All of those guys could have been solid picks. (But not Glenn Murray, because he knows what he did.)
Brad Park, Rangers to Bruins (1975-76)
We already have Ratelle on the team, and now we add the other key piece of the Rangers’ disastrous Phil Esposito trade. Park was a four-time Norris runner-up when the deal went down, and made it five after racking up 53 points in 43 games in Boston. With Bobby Orr’s career on its last legs, no pun intended, the Bruins had picked up a new blue line stud.
Rob Blake, Kings to Avalanche (2000-01)
The Ray Bourque trade that Colorado fans may be expecting to see came a little too close to the 2000 deadline for our purposes. But the Blake deal came a full month before, so we’ll use it instead. Blake would finish the year with 59 points, and was voted a second-team All-Star. And in a fun twist, the Avs and Kings ended up meeting in that year’s playoffs.
Paul Coffey, Kings to Red Wings (1992-93)
Coffey gives us a few options, including a Penguins/Kings deal in 1991-92 and the Whalers/Wings deal that gave us Shanahan. But when in doubt, always go with the 1992-93 season, so give us the trade that sent Coffey to Detroit that January. He’d finish the season with 87 points in 80 games to go with a top-10 finish in Norris voting.
Eric Desjardins, Canadiens to Flyers (1994-95)
Oh look, it’s our second player from that 1995 Mark Recchi deal with Montreal. If it’s any consolation, Habs fans, Gilbert Dionne didn’t make the list. Also, this somehow might not even have been the worst midseason trade you made in 1995. Does that help? Wait, that probably doesn’t help, forget I brought it up. And also, uh, you might want to stop reading before we get to the goalies.
As for Desjardins, he was a classic “Hall of Very Good” guy who was an underrated star in Montreal and didn’t miss a beat when he arrived in Philadelphia.
Sandis Ozolinsh, Sharks to Avalanche (1995-96)
It gets overshadowed by a deal they made a few weeks later, but the October trade that sent Ozolinsh from San Jose to Colorado in exchange for Owen Nolan is one of the great one-for-ones of the 90s. Ozolinsh racked up 50 points in 66 regular-season games with the Avs, then added 19 more in 22 games during their Cup run.
Dave Ellett, Jets to Maple Leafs (1990-91)
OK, you’re right, this is a total homer pick. But Ellett was all sorts of fun to watch, and the blockbuster that sent him from Winnipeg to Toronto for Ed Olczyk was pretty much the only good thing that happened to the Leafs that season. He had 49 points on the year while helping to stabilize the Leafs’ blueline and set the stage for the Pat Burns era to come. Hey, it was better than their midseason blue line add from the year before.
Also, I just love this news clip of the trade. Come for Joe Tilley’s barely disguised contempt for Leafs GM Floyd Smith, stay for the shocking Shyamalan-esque twist ending of a rumored trade that didn’t happen but would have torn the fabric of Leafs history.
Honorable mentions: I assumed I’d be using a Larry Murphy deal here, but he was only part of one midseason trade that wasn’t at the deadline, and while it was an important one (that sent him from Minnesota to Pittsburgh in 1991), he was having one of the worst years of his career when it happened. Phil Housley had 68 points and got a handful of Norris votes while splitting the 1995-96 season between Calgary and New Jersey, so you could definitely go with him. Jeff Brown could show up a few times, and he was always a solid offensive threat. Seth Jones is worth a look based on that great 2016 one-for-one with Ryan Johansen. And while we have to reach back to 1979 and a defunct franchise to find it, let’s mention the Rangers stealing hard-nosed Barry Beck from the Rockies.
Patrick Roy, Canadiens to Avalanche (1995-96)
Another easy one. Maybe not as easy as you remember, since Roy wasn’t exactly dominant when he arrived in Colorado after the infamous meltdown in Montreal. But once the playoffs arrived, he went full 86/93 mode and delivered the Stanley Cup that desperate Avs fans had been waiting months for.
We’ve met plenty of blockbusters on our list, but Dubnyk ends up being the cheapest acquisition by far. He only cost the Wild a third-round pick when they got him from Arizona. At the time that seemed like a nice bit of work by the Coyotes, considering Dubnyk had been on his way out of the league entirely just a year before. In fact, exactly one year before being traded to the Wild, he’d gone from Edmonton to Nashville in a straight-up deal for Matt Hendricks. Not what you’d call a superstar price tag, but that’s what Dubnyk morphed into in Minnesota, playing out of his mind down the stretch to earn second-team All-Star honors, not to mention third in Vezina voting and fourth(!) for the Hart.
I’m listing Roy first here because he’s the big name, but honestly, if we’re going by their trade season numbers then Dubnyk might be the starter on this team. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a weirder season from a goalie.
Honorable mentions: He wasn’t worth Andreychuk, especially with Dominik Hasek already in Buffalo, but Grant Fuhr was solid in his season split between the Leafs and Sabres. Tom Barrasso had a 4.21 goals-against average in the year he went from Buffalo to Pittsburgh, but it was the 90s so he still got Vezina votes. And Kelly Hurdey pulled off the feat of leading the league in games played in 1988-89 despite being traded from the Islanders to the Kings. What can we say, apparently that guy just loves to be on duty.
(Photo of Joe Thornton during the 2005-06 season: Mark Humphrey / AP Photo)