Not Every Great NHL Player Gets Traded
“If Wayne Gretzky can be traded, anyone can be traded.”
That phrase is regularly trotted out whenever a National Hockey League superstar surfaces in trade rumors. Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion recently used it when discussing the future of defenseman Erik Karlsson.
Gretzky was traded by the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in the summer of 1988. During the 1995-96 season, the Kings shipped the Great One to the St. Louis Blues.
The trade everyone remembers, of course, was the first one. At the time, Gretzky and the Oilers were at the peak of their powers. It was a stunning move that forever changed the NHL, paving the way for new hockey markets in the southern United States.
In the nearly 30 years since the first Gretzky trade, notable superstars such as Patrick Roy, Raymond Bourque, Jaromir Jagr, Joe Thornton, Jarome Iginla and P.K. Subban have been traded.
Why would a team deal away its best player, especially when they’re usually unlikely to get equal value in return?
In most cases, it’s because he’s approaching the end of his contract. That’s the scenario the Senators face with Karlsson. With unrestricted free agency beckoning next year, he could seek more than the Sens can afford. Rather than risk losing him for nothing to free agency, they could put him on the trade block.
Sometimes it can be a personality issue. A player can clash with ownership, management, the coaching staff or sometimes some of his teammates, reaching the point where a trade is the only resolution.
If a team is floundering in the standings and management is considering a roster rebuild, a superstar might prefer moving on to a club that has a better chance of competing for the Stanley Cup in the near future.
Following the “If Gretzky can be traded…” logic, it’s easy to assume that today’s biggest stars, such as Karlsson, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Toronto’s Auston Matthews, could one day be dealt to other clubs.
However, not every NHL superstar is certain to be traded during their careers.
Mario Lemieux spent his entire career with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Granted, he was in an ownership role with the club when he emerged from retirement in 2000. Still, for a Penguins front office heading toward financial difficulties by the mid-’90s, dealing their biggest draw simply to cut costs wasn’t an option.
Colorado Avalanche captain Joe Sakic began his NHL career when that franchise was still the Quebec Nordiques. The Avs were so determined to retain Sakic that, in 1997, they matched a three-year, $21-million offer sheet he signed with the New York Rangers. After that, they made sure they paid him whatever he wanted.
Steve Yzerman and Niklas Lidstrom spent their entire Hall of Fame careers with the Detroit Red Wings. In 1995, Detroit management entertained the notion of trading Yzerman to the Ottawa Senators for Alexei Yashin. However, they wisely reconsidered and Yzerman went on to lead the Wings to three Stanley Cup championships.
In today’s NHL, trading a superstar isn’t easy. Most of them usually carry expensive long-term contracts containing ironclad no-trade/no-movement clauses, giving them full control over their trade status.
That’s one reason why, after 16 seasons, Daniel and Henrik Sedin remain with the Vancouver Canucks. While still putting up respectable numbers, they’re no longer capable of playing at the level that established them as the greatest players in Canucks history. The twins, however, have full no-trade protection on their current contracts (which expire in July) and no interest in playing elsewhere.
It’s also not uncommon for a club to retain its best player even when his career is on the downside. They’re still the face of the franchise and the guy the fans come to see. Sometimes there’s a loyalty toward the player born out of respect for all he’s done for the team throughout his career.
The day could come when the Penguins ask Crosby to accept a trade, or the Capitals place Alex Ovechkin on the trade block. Down the road, perhaps the Oilers part ways with McDavid or the Maple Leafs peddle Matthews.
After all, if Gretzky can be traded, so could they. But don’t be too sure they’ll face the same fate.