It’s widely-accepted around the NHL that a playoff contender can improve its chances of advancing the Stanley Cup Final by acquiring talent at the trade deadline. There’s several notable examples where such moves have achieved this goal.
The first is the New York Islanders acquiring underrated two-way forward Butch Goring in 1980 from the Los Angeles Kings. Goring helped the Isles achieve a dynasty of four straight Cup championships, earning the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1981. That trade didn’t actually occur on deadline day, which was March 11 that year, but the day prior. Still it’s considered a notable trade deadline acquisition.
Another is the Pittsburgh Penguins picking up Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson at the 1991 deadline. The duo helped the Penguins win the Cup that year and again in 1992. Like the Goring trade, this deal actually took place one day ahead of the deadline, which that year was March 5.
The Colorado Avalanche’s acquisition of Ray Bourque from the Boston Bruins in 2000 is often cited among these examples. However, Bourque wasn’t acquired at the deadline, but over a week earlier (March 6) than the March 14 deadline. The Avalanche didn’t reach the Cup Final that year, but he did play a key role in their championship run the following season.
Three recent examples of deadline deals helping teams reach the Final include the Pittsburgh Penguins dealing for Marian Hossa in 2008, plus the Los Angeles Kings trading for Marian Gaborik in 2014 and the New York Rangers’ acquisition of Martin St. Louis in the same year.
Sometimes acquisitions can have more far-reaching effects, like the Tampa Bay Lightning acquiring first- and third-round picks in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. Those picks became Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards, who helped carry the Lightning to the Stanley Cup title in 2004.
Yet when one thinks of trade deadline deals, it’s the immediate impact upon a team’s chances to win the Cup that year.
Using NHLTradeTracker.com, I examined the notable deals made since the introduction of the trade deadline in 1979-80 to see how many deals made on – or immediately prior to – deadline day actually played a significant role in helping a team at least reach the Stanley Cup Final.
Despite the Goring deal in 1980, it took some time before playoff contenders made serious moves at the trade deadline to bolster their rosters.
It was six years following the Goring trade before another team made a deadline move which helped them reach the Cup Final. That was the 1986 Calgary Flames, acquiring John Tonelli from the New York Islanders. Tonnelli tallied 16 points in 22 games during the ’86 playoffs.
In 1988, the Boston Bruins shipped Geoff Courtnall and Bill Ranford to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for goaltender Andy Moog. Backstopped by Moog, the Bruins reached the ’88 Stanley Cup Final, where they fell in four straight games to the Oilers. Two years later, the two clubs would meet again, with Moog and Ranford the starting goalies as the Oilers defeated the Bruins in five games.
Three years passed before another notable deadline trade took place. That was the Penguins acquisitions of Francis and Samuelsson in 1991 noted earlier in this piece.
In 1994 the Vancouver Canucks dealt Craig Janney to the St. Louis Blues for depth players Jeff Brown, Bret Hedican and Nathan Lafayette. Meanwhile, the New York Rangers shipped Tony Amonte to the Chicago Blackhawks for depth players Stephane Matteau and Brian Noonan. They also traded Mike Gartner to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Glenn Anderson, and dealt Todd Marchant to Edmonton for Craig MacTavish. These deals played significant roles in the Canucks and Rangers reaching the Stanley Cup Final, in which the Rangers emerged triumphant in seven games.
By this point, there was a significant increase in trade activity near the trade deadline as playoff contenders began making last-minute tweaks to their lineups.
In 1996 the Detroit Red Wings dealt defenseman Dan McGillis to the Edmonton Oilers for checking forward Kirk Maltby. Though he didn’t help the Wings to a championship that year, he would go on to become part of four championship teams in Detroit.
The following year saw the Red Wings make one of the biggest steals in trade deadline history, acquiring supposedly washed-up veteran defenseman Larry Murphy from the Toronto Maple Leafs for future considerations. Murphy helped the Wings win back-to-back championships in 1997 and 1998.
The Red Wings acquired another all-star defenseman in 1999, prying Chris Chelios out of Chicago. While it didn’t pay immediate dividends, Chelios would eventually go on to win two championships with the Wings in 2002 and 2008.
It was around this time that a growing number of deadline trades involved non-playoff clubs shipping potential free agents to playoff contenders for draft picks while fewer actual hockey trades (player-for-player) took place. It’s a trend which continues to this day.
In 2000, the New Jersey Devils shipped Brendan Morrison and Denis Pederson to the Vancouver Canucks for winger Alexander Mogilny. Thanks in part to Mogilny’s 16 points in 25 playoff games, the Devils skated to their second Stanley Cup title.
Two years later, the New Jersey Devils shipped Jason Arnott, Randy McKay and a draft pick to the Dallas Stars for forwards Joe Nieuwendyk and Jamie Langenbrunner. While the deal didn’t help the Devils win the Cup that year, it played a significant role in their championship run the following season.
The Anaheim then-Mighty Ducks made a couple of depth acquisitions at the 2003 deadline in forwards Rob Niedermayer and Steve Thomas. They helped the Ducks reach the ’03 Cup Final.
In 2006, the Carolina Hurricanes acquired Mark Recchi from the Pittsburgh Penguins, while the Edmonton Oilers made a deal with the Boston Bruins for Sergei Samsonov. Both players helped their respective new clubs reach the Cup Final that year, with the Hurricanes emerging victorious.
The Pittsburgh Penguins made the biggest splash of the 2008 deadline by acquiring Marian Hossa from the Atlanta Thrashers, who as noted earlier in this piece helped them reach the Stanley Cup Final. They also acquired Pascal Dupuis in that trade, who not only helped the Penguins reach the Final that year but also win the Cup in 2009. He remains with the Pens to this day.
During the ’08 deadline, the Detroit Red Wings shipped a draft pick to the Los Angeles Kings for defenseman Brad Stuart. He helped the Wings win the Cup in 2008 and return to the Final in 2009.
The Penguins were at it again in 2009, acquiring Bill Guerin and Craig Adams. This duo helped the Penguins win the Cup in their Final rematch later that spring with the Red Wings.
Four days before the 2012 deadline, the Los Angeles Kings shipped defenseman Jack Johnson to Columbus for forward Jeff Carter, who not only played a key role in their Cup championship that year, but also in their second title run in 2014. He remains one of the Kings top players. Three days before that same deadline, the New Jersey Devils acquire defenseman Marek Zidlicky from the Minnesota Wild, who played a part in their run to the 2012 Cup Final.
At the 2013 deadline, the Bruins acquired Jaromir Jagr from the Dallas Stars. The day prior, the Blackhawks made a minor pickup in center Michael Handzus. Both players helped their new clubs reach the Cup Final, with Handzus’ Blackhawks lifting the big mug in triumph.
Looking at these notable deals throughout the history of the trade deadline, it’s no wonder so many playoff contenders attempt to bolster their rosters in hopes of achieving playoff success. These successful trades, however, make up just a small part of the hundreds of trades over the past 35 years.
The overwhelming majority of deals made during the NHL trade deadline by playoff contenders simply don’t work out. There’s no guarantee that a deadline acquisition will have an immediate positive effect upon a playoff roster. Given how most deals since the late-1990s involve pending free agents, few had significant long-term impact.
That won’t stop the general managers of playoff contenders from swinging deadline deals, be it gambling big on a star player or making small moves to shore up depth. More often than not, however, many of them are panning for treasure but ending up with fool’s gold.