With less than two weeks to go until the trade deadline and one blockbuster already in the books, hockey fans will spend the days until March 2 dreaming of monster deals that will shake teams to their foundation.
We probably won’t get any, but we can still hope. Trades are great fun, even though they’re largely a dying art in today’s NHL. And maybe even more fun than the completed deals are the near misses, the blockbusters that almost happened and then, for whatever reason, fell apart. We don’t always hear about those, but when we do, it can be great entertainment to look back at them years later and shake our heads at what could have been.
One big caveat: Since none of these deals were actually consummated, and NHL front-office types aren’t exactly in the habit of going on the record about this stuff, we’ll never know for sure how close any of these moves actually came to happening. All the deals below are rumors — well-reported rumors several steps above the usual message-board nonsense — but rumors nonetheless. Please have a large grain of salt or two handy before reading further.
With that out of the way, here are five huge trades1 from NHL history that (allegedly) almost happened, but didn’t.
Detroit trades Steve Yzerman to Ottawa for Alexei Yashin
Although it probably goes without saying that hockey can’t match the greatest almost-trade in sports history.
Today, Steve Yzerman is a Red Wings legend, and the idea of him ever taking the ice in any other team’s uniform seems unimaginable. But as we’ve covered before, there was a time when Yzerman seemed to have worn out his welcome in Detroit. He was a great player, but he just wasn’t a winner, the thinking went, and it was time for the franchise to turn the page and move on. In 1995, the Red Wings almost did just that.
They found a willing trade partner in Yzerman’s hometown team, the Ottawa Senators. The deal would have reportedly centered around young center Alexei Yashin, and while they’d no doubt deny it now, plenty of Red Wing fans thought it sounded like a fantastic idea. One rumor at the time said the deal was actually agreed to, and fell apart only when Detroit ownership stepped in at the last minute and nixed it.
Yzerman went on to captain the Red Wings to three Stanley Cups, while Yashin’s endless holdouts eventually made him one of the most hated players in Senators history. (Luckily for Ottawa, they eventually found a sucker to take him off their hands.) Today, the idea that a team would want to address a of a winning culture by trading Steve Yzerman for Alexei Yashin seems almost too ridiculous to comprehend. But at one point, Detroit came very close to doing exactly that.
Come on, Red Wings. If you have a choice between the Russian embroiled in a contract dispute and the good North American boy, you’d be crazy to choose the Russian!
Detroit trades Pavel Datsyuk to New Jersey for Scott Gomez
Hm. OK, scratch that last thought.
Yes, more than a decade after almost trading Yzerman, the Red Wings found themselves contemplating another blockbuster in 2007. This time it was Pavel Datsyuk who was on the verge of a ticket out of town, thanks to an expiring contract and a lack of progress on negotiating a new deal. Rather than risk losing Datsyuk for nothing in the summer, the Wings considered moving him for another pending free agent they thought they’d have a better shot at signing: New Jersey’s Scott Gomez.
The two players were coming off of similar seasons; Datsyuk had put up 87 points in 2005-06, while Gomez had posted 84. They were of a similar age (Datsyuk is slightly older), and both could play a decent two-way game. And their contract demands weren’t far off. At that moment in time, swapping them made some sense.
Of course, in hindsight the Red Wings dodged a bullet. Datsyuk was about to take his game to the next level, posting back-to-back 97-point seasons, winning three straight Selkes, and generally working his way into the “best player in hockey” conversation. He ended up signing a seven-year, $46.9 million extension, and is still a key member of the Wings’ roster to this day.
Gomez didn’t re-sign in New Jersey, instead signing a seven-year $51.5 million deal with the Rangers that would eventually see him traded and later bought out. That contract is now generally viewed as one of the worst of the cap era, thanks to Gomez’s production falling off a cliff just a few seasons into it.
They say that sometimes the best deals are the ones you don’t make. Next time you find yourself doubting that, think of the Red Wings without Steve Yzerman and Pavel Datsyuk.
Anaheim trades Corey Perry and a first to Edmonton for Mike Comrie
This one came up a few months ago on Twitter, but it’s been long enough that we can probably make Oilers fans cry again by mentioning it. It’s a truly bizarre story, and a reminder of how strange NHL contract disputes could get back before the 2005 CBA standardized everything.
Back in 2003, Mike Comrie was coming off three solid seasons with the Oilers. He’d just turned 23 and already had a 60-point season under his belt, so he was a valuable asset. He was also sitting at home, waiting for a new contract or a trade, as players often did back then. It became apparent that Comrie would be traded, and then Oilers GM Kevin Lowe started taking calls.
According to reports, the Ducks made an intriguing offer: Comrie for a first-round pick and their top prospect, a kid named Corey Perry. Lowe liked the offer well enough, the story went, but he wanted Comrie to kick in some cash out of his own pocket to seal the deal. Essentially, the player would have to buy his own way out of Edmonton. Comrie declined, the trade fell apart, and Perry went on to develop into a superstar who won the Hart Trophy as league MVP in 2011.
The Oilers ended up moving Comrie a week later, sending him to the Flyers for Jeff Woywitka and a first-round pick. Oddly, the Flyers kept Comrie for only two months before trading him to the Coyotes. He never delivered on the promise he’d shown in Edmonton, and was out of the league by the time he was 31.
As for Woywitka, he wasn’t a bad prospect, but he didn’t go on to anywhere near the career that Perry did. He also never played a game in Edmonton; the Oilers ended up including him in the Chris Pronger trade, so Lowe did get at least some value out of the whole ordeal. Just nowhere near as much value as he could have, if he hadn’t tried to stick Comrie with an IOU.
Philadelphia trades Jeff Carter and a first to Toronto for Tomas Kaberle
If you know any Maple Leafs fans, you’ve already heard about this one. Good Lord, have you heard about it.
If not, here’s the background. It’s the 2008 trade deadline, and the Leafs are terrible. They’re boring, overpaid, and well out of playoff contention, and even famously loyal Toronto fans are demanding a total rebuild.2 The disastrous John Ferguson Jr. era has recently ended, and onetime franchise savior Cliff Fletcher is back to kick ass and trade names.
I know, hard to imagine.
But there’s a problem: Thanks to Ferguson, every decent player on the roster has a full no-trade clause. And as Fletcher furiously works the phones to try to blow the whole thing up, it becomes apparent that the players may refuse to leave. The day before the deadline, captain Mats Sundin drops the hammer: He’s not going anywhere. Everyone else quickly falls in line behind him. Fletcher’s deadline plans are shot.
As it turns out, Sundin may not have fetched all that much.3 But Fletcher had another deal in place that would have generated a far better return: Tomas Kaberle for Jeff Carter.
The best rumor I remember hearing was a deal with the Canadiens centered around Chris Higgins.
At the time, Carter was a 23-year-old in the middle of his third full NHL season. He’d finish the year with a career-high 53 points, which was nice but not especially exciting. He wasn’t considered a bust quite yet, but he was maybe headed in that general direction.
The trade was widely reported as being all but a done deal, with the Leafs even getting a first-round pick in most versions. But Kaberle wouldn’t waive, so the deal was off. Fletcher couldn’t make any major moves, the opportunity for a true rebuild in Toronto was lost, Brian Burke took over a few months later, and the rest is misery.
Carter had his breakout season the following year, scoring 46 goals. He hasn’t matched those numbers since, but he has been a key member of two Stanley Cup wins in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Kaberle has been out of the NHL for two seasons and the Leafs are in Year 7 of their search for a genuine no. 1 center.
As for that first-round pick the Flyers were throwing in, it ended up being traded to the Capitals. They used it to select John Carlson, who made the 2011 all-rookie team and is currently 11th in scoring among defensemen.
Tampa Bay trades Vincent Lecavalier to the Montreal Canadiens for … well, everyone
Remember what we said earlier about having a grain of salt handy? You may need the entire salt mine for this one, because it gets so ridiculous that it can’t possibly be true. But the source for at least one version of this rumor is a guy who’d probably know what he was talking about: the GM of one of the teams involved.
First, the background. Being a French Canadian star, Tampa Bay Lightning center Vincent Lecavalier had been rumored as a Canadiens trade target virtually since he entered the league. But in 2008, the two teams got serious about making a deal. Lecavalier was months away from needing an extension, and there was talk that he’d be looking to break the bank. Tampa Bay couldn’t necessarily afford that, although big-market Montreal could.
One widely reported rumor had the teams discussing a deal in which the Habs would acquire Lecavalier for Tomas Plekanec, Chris Higgins, Josh Gorges, and a prospect. That sounds like a high price in hindsight — Plekanec ended up developing into a very good two-way center — but not completely unreasonable. That is, until you hear the name of the prospect: P.K. Subban, who of course went on to win a Norris and establish himself as one of the league’s most exciting players.
If that sounds crazy, wait until you hear the sequel. According to Sportsnet’s Jeff Marek, Lightning GM Brian Lawton claims he almost landed an even bigger package: Carey Price, Max Pacioretty, a first-round pick, and either Subban or Ryan McDonagh.
I’ll pause here while you read those names again.
That’s utter madness, and it’s tempting to suggest that Lawton must be misremembering, or possibly making things up to make himself look good. It’s also tempting to silence that doubt, because the idea of this being a real trade that was almost consummated is just too entertaining not to buy into.4
As a weird footnote to the story that really adds nothing but still feels ironic, Lawton’s replacement as Lightning GM was all-time “what if that trade had never been made?” guy Tom Kurvers.
The players mentioned in the various iterations of this rumor formed the core of the Montreal revival of the last several years, including two trips to the conference finals and this year’s Presidents’ Trophy candidate. As for Lecavalier, he ended up re-signing in Tampa Bay to a massive 11-year, $85 million deal that the team bought out just four years later. He’s now with the Flyers, where he is, uh, not good.
There are varying stories as to why some variation of Lecavalier-to-Montreal-for-everyone never happened. Some say Lightning ownership got cold feet and shot the idea down, while others suggest that Lecavalier himself didn’t want to play in the pressure cooker of Montreal. And of course, it’s absolutely possible that the deal never happened because it never existed in the first place, or at least in any form that was ever remotely close to getting done.
But man, what if it did? The Lightning could have had one hell of a youth hockey reunion on their hands.