You Can Go Home Again: Eight NHL Players Who Pulled a Luongo
The most surprising move from last week’s trade deadline was the deal that sent Roberto Luongo and his supposedly untradable contract to the Florida Panthers in exchange for goalie Jacob Markstrom and forward Shawn Matthias.
Beyond being a massive shakeup for the Canucks, the trade marks a homecoming for Luongo. While he was drafted and played his rookie season with the New York Islanders, he first established himself as an NHL star over the course of five seasons as a Panther. Now, eight years after the trade that sent him to Vancouver, he finds himself back in Florida, where he’ll presumably finish his career.
That puts him in some pretty good company. More than a few NHL stars have eventually found their way back to teams where they’d made their names to spend their final seasons. Sometimes it worked out great. Sometimes it didn’t.
What does the future hold for Luongo? It’s hard to say, but we can draw some clues from the stories of these eight examples from the NHL history books of stars returning home.
Let’s Never Speak of This Again: Mark Messier and the New York Rangers
First Time Through: Messier was already a star after a decade (and five Cups) in Edmonton, but it was the trade to the Rangers on the eve of the 1991-92 season that transformed him into a league icon. He won the Hart Trophy as MVP in his first season in New York. By 1994, he’d won something even more important.
By the time he reached free agency in 1997, he was pretty much unanimously viewed as the greatest leader in hockey, if not all of sports, and was assumed to be a Ranger for life.
How He Left: The Rangers showed a surprising lack of urgency in retaining their 36-year-old captain, and the Canucks put on a full-court press to lure Messier out of New York and reunite him with coach Mike Keenan. They got their man, signing Messier to a shocking five-year deal that paid him $6 million a season.
Upon arriving in Vancouver, Messier was immediately handed the captaincy at the expense of the popular Trevor Linden. He was also given his trademark no. 11, even though it had been considered unofficially retired since Canucks player Wayne Maki had died of cancer in 1974. Then Messier led the team to a grand total of zero playoff appearances in three seasons.
The Return: Messier’s disastrous stint in Vancouver was cut short when the Canucks bought him out (a move that led to a multimillion-dollar legal battle, which Messier finally won in 2012). The Rangers re-signed him and gave him back the captaincy, at which point he guaranteed he’d lead the team back to the playoffs. He did not, though he did play reasonably effectively for four more years.
The Legacy: Canucks fans hate him. Rangers fans just pretend the whole thing never happened.
A Captain Comes Home: Trevor Linden and the Vancouver Canucks
First Time Through: Linden was the second-overall pick in the 1988 draft, and made his Canucks debut that year as an 18-year-old. He’d spend a decade in Vancouver, earning a reputation as a workhorse and regular 30-goal scorer. In 1991, the 21-year-old became the youngest captain in franchise history, and in 1994 he led the team to within one game of a Stanley Cup.
How He Left: So like I was saying, Canucks fans really, really hate Mark Messier.
After handing his captaincy over the Messier in 1997, Linden lasted just a few more months before a feud with Keenan made his departure inevitable. In February, he was traded to the Islanders for Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan McCabe, and a draft pick.
That was actually a pretty decent haul, as Bertuzzi and McCabe both developed into All-Stars. After giving up that much to get him, the Islanders got one full season out of Linden before flipping him to the Canadiens for a draft pick that turned out to be Branislav Mezei because, hey, Mike Milbury. Linden lasted less than a year in Montreal before another trade sent him to Washington.
The Return: In November, 2001, the Capitals dealt Linden back to Vancouver for draft picks. He’d play six more years as a Canuck before retiring in 2008 as the franchise’s all-time leader in games played. His final game in Vancouver featured a lengthy standing ovation, after which Flames captain Jarome Iginla led his team over to shake Linden’s hand in a show of respect.
The Legacy: Seriously, tell the next Canucks fan you see that you think Mark Messier was a better leader than Trevor Linden. You’ll be on fire before you hit the floor.
Nice Ring, Where’d You Get It? Luc Robitaille and the Los Angeles Kings
First Time Through: Robitaille actually had a first and a second time through L.A. before his final comeback. He debuted in 1986-87 with a 45-goal season and the Calder as rookie of the year. Over eight years, he scored at least 44 goals each year and was named to the first or second All-Star team seven times.
He was traded to Pittsburgh in 1994 and spent one year there before being dealt to the Rangers, where he apparently threw the only body check of his career. He made his first return to L.A. in 1997, playing four more years and making the second All-Star team as a 34-year-old.
How He Left: By 2001, Robitaille had accomplished just about everything a player could, with one exception: He didn’t have a Cup ring. So he did what every legendary NHL player does at the end of their career, and signed a short-term deal to join the Detroit Red Wings. It worked, as his two seasons in Detroit included a Stanley Cup win in 2002.
The Return: By 2003, Robitaille was a 37-year-old free agent and his production had dropped noticeably. He rejoined the Kings and played two more seasons, becoming the NHL’s all-time leader in goals and points among left wingers. His last game in L.A. came in 2006, so needless to say, Jeremy Roenick disco danced.
The Legacy: He may have won his Cup elsewhere, but Robitaille will always be a King. He’s currently the team’s president of business operations.
Welcome Ba— … Oh. Oh, No: Doug Gilmour and the Toronto Maple Leafs
First Time Through: After establishing himself as one of the league’s better two-way players in St. Louis and Calgary, Gilmour made the leap into superstardom after a record-breaking 10-player trade sent him to Toronto in 1992. He set a Maple Leafs franchise record with a 127-point season in 1992-93 while winning the Selke and finishing second for the Hart. He followed that up with another excellent season in 1993-94, and the Leafs went to the conference finals both years.
How He Left: By the 1996-97, it was clear that the window had closed on the aging Maple Leafs, and his relationship with the team had soured. He was traded to New Jersey for three young players in a move the Devils hoped would solidify their status as Cup contenders. (It didn’t; they lost in the second round, and Gilmour left as a free agent the following offseason.)
The Return: With his career winding down, the Montreal Canadiens sent Gilmour back to Toronto at the 2003 deadline for a late pick. His Maple Leafs comeback lasted eight shifts before this happened:
The seemingly innocent collision had shredded his knee. Half a game into his Toronto return, Gilmour’s career was over.
The Legacy: This was the worst thing that ever happened. I’m still traumatized. That’s it, we’re doing another Leaf later in the post to make up for this one. I bet you can’t guess who!
Net Returns: Ron Hextall and the Philadelphia Flyers
First Time Through: Hextall debuted in Philadelphia in 1986 and immediately established himself as one of the league’s most entertaining players. In addition to being an excellent goalie (he won the Vezina as a rookie), he’d also occasionally score goals and start fights. Oh, and he very nearly won a Stanley Cup almost single-handedly, earning the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP after a seven-game loss to the Oilers in the 1987 final.
Seriously, the Hextall era was fantastic:
How He Left: Injuries and contract disputes became frequent subplots as Hextall’s career progressed (he missed almost the entire 1989-90 season), and in 1992 the Flyers included him in their offer to Quebec for Eric Lindros. The Nordiques accepted that deal … and also one from the Rangers. It took an independent arbitrator to sort out the mess, and he eventually ruled in favor of the Flyers. Hextall spent a year in Quebec as a member of the “He looks really weird in that uniform” all-stars, then was traded to the Islanders.
The Return: After a shaky year in New York, Hextall was traded again, this time back to Philadelphia. He’d spent the final five years of his career as a Flyer, playing some of the best hockey of his career and posting the league’s best GAA in 1995-96. Also, this happened. So a mixed bag, really.
The Legacy: Hextall went on to a successful front-office career with the Kings, and last year he joined the Flyers as their assistant general manager.
Well, This Is Awkward: Bobby Holik and the New Jersey Devils
First Time Through: Holik was originally a Whalers draft pick, but was traded to the Devils in 1992. He’d spend the next 10 years in New Jersey, establishing a reputation as one of the game’s best defensive centers while also chipping in with decent offensive totals. In addition to being gigantic and looking vaguely like Frankenstein’s monster, he was instrumental in helping the Devils win Stanley Cups in 1995 and 2000.
How He Left: After reaching free agency in 2002, Holik signed a massive $45 million deal with the archrival Rangers. The contract was ridiculous, and became one of the deals frequently cited as an example of why the league desperately needed a salary cap. Devils fans were outraged, booing him whenever he touched the puck when the Rangers played in New Jersey, even (according to at least one recollection) pelting him with loose change on his way to the dressing room.
Holik was an expensive bust in New York, and the Rangers used a buyout on him after the 2004-05 lockout. He signed with the Thrashers and played three seasons there before becoming a free agent once again at the age of 37.
The Return: The Devils were ready to forgive Holik’s betrayal, signing him to a one-year deal during the 2008 offseason. The fans grudgingly went along with it, and everyone eventually agreed to forget the whole Rangers thing had ever happened. He played one more season, scored nine points, and then retired.
The Legacy: I’m not sure what’s scarier: that the Rangers gave Bobby Holik $45 million, or that that’s not even close to the first contract that comes to mind when you think of terrible Glen Sather free-agency deals.
Blackhawk Doubled Down: Denis Savard and the Chicago Blackhawks
First Time Through: Savard went to Chicago with the third-overall pick in the 1980 draft, two picks after the Canadiens infamously passed up the local prodigy to select Doug Wickenheiser instead. He made his Blackhawks debut that year and played 10 seasons in Chicago, during which he made five All-Star teams and established himself as one of the game’s most exciting players.
He topped the 100-point mark five times, including a Blackhawks’ franchise record 131 points in 1987-88. As long as he wasn’t trying to fight, he was one of the league’s most consistent stars.
How He Left: After a decade of hearing about how they’d screwed up by not drafting Savard, the Canadiens finally acquired him in 1990. He didn’t come cheap: He cost the Habs defenseman Chris Chelios, who’d already won a Norris and would go on to play in the NHL for two more decades. Savard was never much of an impact player in his three years in Montreal, though he was an inspirational piece of the team that won the 1993 Stanley Cup. He became a free agent that offseason and signed with the expansion Lightning.
The Return: At the 1995 trade deadline, the Lightning sent Savard back to Chicago in exchange for a late-round draft pick. At 34, Savard was clearly in the “declining veteran” phase of his career, but he remained in the league until 1997. He ranks behind only Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita in all-time Blackhawks scoring, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000.
The Legacy: When you have your own move named after you, you were good.
The Maple Leaf Forever: Wendel Clark and the Toronto Maple Leafs
First Time Through: Like Robitaille’s in L.A., Clark’s career in Toronto featured a pair of returns. He was initially drafted first overall in 1985, in the midst of the darkest days of the Harold Ballard era, and immediately became the team’s most popular player thanks to an offensive flair mixed with a brutally physical style.
He was team captain by 1994 and had led the Leafs to back-to-back trips to the conference final. But in a shocking draft-day trade, he was dealt to the Nordiques in a package deal that sent Mats Sundin to Toronto. The trade was the first in sports history to feature a pair of former first-overall picks, and elicited this classic “ooohhhhh” reaction from the Hartford crowd when it was announced on the draft floor.
In hindsight, the trade was a steal for Toronto, as Sundin went on to a Hall of Fame career. But Clark’s absence devastated Maple Leaf fans, and it seemed inevitable that he’d eventually return. That happened less than two years later, when the Leafs reacquired him from the Islanders.
How He Left: Clark’s second stint in Toronto is often remembered as disappointing, as his body was breaking down and the team around him was terrible, but he scored 30 goals in 1996-97 before leaving as a free agent the following season. Nobody knows where he went. There’s a bunch of photos of him wearing other teams’ uniforms, but they’re all clearly terrible Photoshops.
The Return: Clark returned to Toronto as a midseason free agent pickup in 2000 for what would be his final NHL run. After a poor regular-season showing, he regained some of his former magic in the playoffs, including a dominating effort against the Devils in which the Toronto faithful gave him one last standing ovation.
The Legacy: If you need me, I’ll just be watching this 100 straight times and then bench-pressing my house.