In the wake of last week’s silly rumors suggesting Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban could be traded, those NHL fans willing to believe Subban would be moved raised the point that anyone can be traded for the right price.
Indeed, since the Edmonton Oilers stunned the hockey world in 1988 by trading Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings, the belief that anyone, no matter how big a star, can be traded is taken as gospel. However, such moves are rare and easier said than done.
In the Gretzky trade, money was a big factor. Oilers owner Peter Pocklington needed cash to keep his business empire afloat, and the Kings offered up $15 million USD plus several players for the Great One. This was back in the days when teams could offer up cash for players, a practice now forbidden under the NHL collective bargaining agreement.
Another factor was Gretzky’s contract status. Pocklington believed his franchise player wouldn’t re-sign when his contract expired. He decided to get something for his superstar while his value remained high. Family and location also contributed to the move, as Gretzky was spending his off-seasons in Los Angeles with his wife, actress Janet Jones.
If Pocklington didn’t need the cash, if Gretzky had plenty of term remaining on his deal and didn’t spend his summers in Los Angeles, perhaps the most famous trade in NHL history doesn’t happen.
Turning to the Subban speculation, it’s based solely upon his relationship with Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien, who blamed the blueliner for a costly late giveaway in a recent game against the Colorado Avalanche.
The dark spectre of the Patrick Roy trade over 20 years ago undoubtedly danced in the heads of some Canadiens fans. But even before Habs GM Marc Bergevin told Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman on Saturday that Subban wasn’t on the trade block, there was no reason for Habs followers to fear a repeat of the worst trade in the club’s history. Put simply, there were no critical factors in place that would necessitate such a move.
For one thing, Subban hasn’t given the Canadiens a valid reason to trade him. A giveaway and a benching in one game during a lost season scarcely qualifies. Winner of the Norris Trophy in 2013 and a finalist last season, he’s among the league’s elite defensemen. Among the few bright spots in an otherwise miserable season for the Canadiens, Subban leads the club in scoring and generates much of their offense. From a performance standpoint, there’s no reason to move him.
Roy very publicly proclaimed he’d played his last game with the Canadiens when his feud with coach Mario Tremblay exploded in a blowout loss to Detroit. Subban, on the other hand, hasn’t placed current Habs management in a similar uncomfortable position of having to choose between the star and the coach. He continually defends and praises his coach and his teammates while professing his love of playing and living in Montreal. He’s a visible, popular figure in Montreal and a pillar in the community for his charity work. Subban, quite frankly, is money in the bank for the Habs. Even in this awful season, he’s giving Canadiens fans someone to cheer for.
Yes, the Canadiens are paying Subban a very expensive salary ($9-million annual cap hit through 2021-22 with a no-movement clause kicking in this July), but that’s the cost of having a superstar on your roster. And he’s certainly earned that salary since his new deal began in 2014, considered among the NHL’s elite players. Subban isn’t an aging star whose best seasons are behind him nearing the end of a long-term deal. He’s 26, in the second year of an eight-year deal with several quality seasons ahead of him.
So, if Subban is playing well, isn’t an on- or off-ice embarrassment for the Canadiens and is a beloved figure in Montreal, why trade him? There’s some speculation his personality clashes with some of his more reserved teammates. If so, it’s nothing that anyone on the club has publicly confirmed. In short, there’s nothing to indicate he’s a dressing-room cancer directly responsible for the Habs’ stunning decline this season.
But let’s assume that Subban is indeed available for the “right price.” What, exactly, would that be? Whenever that question arises, the response usually tends to be vague. “Well, it depends on the Canadiens needs” or “It depends on how much an interested club is willing to offer.” Apart from the ridiculously lopsided suggestions from social media trolls, most folks tend to shy away from the question.
The Canadiens need offense, so that’s where it has to start. They’ve lacked a true first-line center and first-line right wing for over two decades. A team with interest in Subban must be in dire need of a No. 1 defenseman. However, there aren’t many teams that can use Subban and still afford what would be a steep asking price from the Canadiens.
One team that could is the Oilers, as they’re top-heavy with talented young forwards but lacking a blueline stud. But even if the Canadiens sought a king’s ransom for Subban, history suggests they’re unlikely to get a return that fully addresses their needs now and for the long term. That’s the problem with trading a superstar in his prime. You’re not going to get full or greater value in return.
The Gretzky trade is a prime example. For Gretzky, Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski, the Oilers received forwards Jimmy Carson and Martin Gelinas, $15 million in cash and three first-round picks. One of those picks (1989) was dealt to the New Jersey Devils. Another (1992) was used to select Martin Rucinsky and the third (1993) to select Nick Stajduhar.
Gretzky would transform hockey in Los Angeles, making the Kings a hot ticket for several seasons (including a Stanley Cup Final fun in 1993) and laying the groundwork for the NHL’s expansion into the American Sun Belt. The Oilers didn’t get fair value back for hockey’s greatest player and were never the same again. The Gretzky trade marked the beginning of the end of their dynasty.
Another is the Roy trade. The Canadiens received goalie Jocelyn Thibault and forwards Martin Rucinsky and Andrei Kovalenko from the Colorado Avalanche. Roy would backstop the Avs to two Stanley Cup titles and cement his legacy among the NHL’s all-time great goaltenders. It took the Canadiens over a decade to recover from the damage.
The Joe Thornton trade in 2005 is yet another example. Seeking a season-saving deal, Boston Bruins GM Mike O’Connell panicked and shipped Thornton to the San Jose Sharks for defenseman Brad Stuart and forwards Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau. Thornton established himself as a play-making superstar, making the Sharks a regular-season powerhouse in the Western Conference for nearly a decade. The Bruins missed the 2005-06 playoffs and replaced O’Connell. While they would eventually rebuild into a Cup champion five years later, none of the players received in the Thornton deal were still on the roster by 2011.
Ultimately, trading an NHL superstar in his prime requires a number of critical variables coming together to make it happen. Even then, history shows that teams trading that kind of talent never get back a decent return that significantly improves their roster.