Wirtz Trade in NHL History
December 4, 2020
By Grant McCagg
With this week marking the 25th Anniversary of the Patrick Roy trade from Montreal to the Colorado Avalanche, there have been a lot of people suggesting that it was the most lopsided trade in NHL history.
For the diehard Canadiens’ fans who are my age, it is hard not to feel that way. Habs Baby Boomers have gone from seeing their club win numerous Stanley Cups to never winning another after Roy’s departure.
From my earliest hockey memories in 1969 until the 1993 Cup win, Montreal won nine Cups in 24 years. In the quarter of a century since Saint Patrick was unceremoniously shipped off to Colorado, Montreal has not even reached the Stanley Cup final.
So yes; it is hard not to consider the controversial trade of Mike Keane and Patrick Roy to Colorado for Martin Rucinsky, Andrei Kovalenko and Jocelyn Thibault as the worst trade the Canadiens ever made. Where the argument comes in is when you declare it to be the worst trade in NHL history.
In my books, there has never been a worst trade than the one that brought Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield from Chicago to Boston for Pit Martin, Guilles Marotte and Jack Norris. No folks; the Norris Trophy is not named after THAT Norris.
One needs to consider what may have happened if Esposito would have proceeded to get along better with his coach Billy Reay, and that trade never took place. Would Boston have become the NHL’s dominant team from the fall of 1969 until 1975, setting numerous team records (at the time), winning two Stanley Cups and coming very close to winning a couple more?
Even with rookie sensation Bobby Orr in the lineup in 1966-67, the Bruins were a last-place team before Esposito, Hodge and Stanfield came over. Within two years they were neck-and-neck with Montreal as the league powerhouse, and the two teams would alternate Cup victories over the next five seasons before the Broad Street Bullies came along and upset the Bruins in 1974.
Sam Pollock was famous for saying that the team that wins every trade is the one who got the best player. So who would end up being the more impactful player for his team after he was traded – Roy or Esposito?
When all is factored in – I have to give the nod to Esposito.
Roy was 30 years old when he was traded to Colorado. He would play 6 2/3 more seasons with the Avalanche before retiring, winning two Conn Smythe trophies, one Jennings Trophy (fewest goals against) and two Stanley Cups as a member of the Avalanche. He played in one Olympic Games and was ultimately outplayed by the guy at the other end…Dominik Hasek…in the semi-finals. He failed to win a medal as Canada lost to Finland 3-2 in the bronze medal game. Roy never won the Vezina or Hart Trophy with Colorado but he appeared in five all-star games. Roy never played in a World Cup before or after the trade. For a goalie considered the greatest of all time, his international resume was surprisingly underwhelming.
Esposito was 25 years old when he was dealt to Boston. He would play 8 1/4 seasons with the Bruins, winning two Cups, two Hart trophies, five Art Ross trophies, five Rocket Richard trophies (if it had existed at the time), and two Ted Lindsay Awards. He was named to the first all-star team six times and the second all-star team twice in his eight full years in Boston. He did not win a Conn Smythe because of a fellow named Bobby Orr, but Esposito led the NHL playoffs in both goals and points on three separate occasions. Safe to say he was the Conn Smythe “runner up” on two occasions.
Internationally – Esposito was the best player in the most famous international series of all time – the 1972 Canada-Russia series. He was a huge reason why that team mounted one of the greatest comebacks in hockey history in defeating the Soviets, and he led all players in goals (tied with Yakushev) and points. He was the de facto captain of that team; certainly the leader.
He also won a Canada Cup in 1976 with what many consider to be the greatest hockey team ever assembled. Esposito shattered the previous mark of most goals in a season by 18 in 1972 when he scored an unthinkable 76 goals and 76 assists in 78 games. Not even Gretzky could better that as he subsequently topped Espo’s record by 16 in 1981. Esposito scored 126 points or more in six of the eight seasons he played with the Bruins, a mark that, up until he was traded to New York, one other player in history had ever matched…teammate Orr. He was the first player to ever score 100 points, the first to ever score 60 goals, and the first to ever score 70 goals.
Roy captured two Conn smythes trophies with Colorado while Esposito got none, predominantly because he was a teammate with the greatest player in NHL history.
Roy had a 2.10 GAA and .921 GAA in his first Cup win with Colorado.
Excellent numbers, but was he really deserving of the award? Joe Sakic had the second most goals in playoff history with 18 in 22 games, seven more than the next closest player. Roy had the third-best save percentage in the 1996 playoffs, 11 points below John Vanbiesbrouck. Roy had that reputation of being a legendary playoff performer, so he got the nod. By no means a poor choice, but honestly, Sakic deserved it more. Similar to Ovechkin winning the Conn Smythe over Evgeni Kuznetsov in 2018. Was he really more deserving, or was it because he was more accomplished? Ovi’s choice…much like Roy’s…was a sentimental one.
Esposito was a more impactful player from aged 25 to 32 than Roy was from age 30 to 37. Both were terrific, both are Hall of Famers, but the edge for me goes to Esposito. It HAS to go beyond one guy getting honoured with two awards the other guy didn’t quite win based on the subjective opinion of sportswriters. Statistically, Roy led the NHL on one occasion in one category during his time with the Avalanche. Esposito? He was the best statistically on numerous occasions, and he helped his team win the same number of Stanley Cups while leading the league in goals and points in doing so.
What also needs to be considered is that Boston benefited immensely from the trade after Esposito was gone, so the return went far beyond the original deal.
Colorado got nothing for Roy when he hung up the blades in 2002. A much different story with Esposito, however, as he and Carol Vadnais were dealt for Brad Park and Jean Ratelle in November of 1975.
Park would play 7 2/3 seasons with Boston and lead them to two more Cup finals and a semi-final appearance. He would make the first all-star team on three occasions, and he was still one of the top-five defencemen in the NHL in his first five years in Boston. Ratelle topped 84 points in his first three seasons with the Bruins as they reached two Cup finals, and scored more than 70 points in two others as a key top-two center for the Bruins.
The Bruins went from eight-straight seasons not even qualifying for the playoffs before Esposito arrived to winning two Cups, making five appearances in the final, and eight trips to the semi-finals by the time Park departed.
The 1995 Colorado Avalanche were not the 1967 Bruins. In 1994-95, Quebec was the top team in the eastern conference and Montreal was 11th. They were considered to be the up-and-coming team in hockey when they moved to Colorado…with an embarrassment of young riches that included Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Owen Nolan, Martin Rucinsky, Adam Deadmarsh, Mike Ricci and Adam Foote. Many thought they were just a goaltender away from serious contention at the time of the trade.
Mike Vernon and Chris Osgood led Detroit to Cup titles. Neither would be compared to Roy. Who’s to say if the Roy trade never goes down that Pierre Lacroix wouldn’t have made another deal and picked up a top-notch goalie that would have gotten the job done on a terrific team? Roy won a Cup with the third-best save percentage in the 1996 playoffs. Would Florida have beaten Colorado in the final if the goalies had been switched and Vanbiesbrouck was in Colorado’s net? Beezer was the best goalie in the 1996 playoffs as far as I’m concerned. At the very least; it’s debatable.
It was common knowledge that the Avalanche were trying to find a goalie when Roy fell into their laps.
Ed Belfour was traded to San Jose in January of 1997 for Ulf Dahlen, Michal Sykora and Chris Terreri. One could argue that Rucinsky, Kovalenko and Thibault – still a fairly highly-regarded goalie at the time of the Roy trade – was of similar value to what Chicago got for Belfour. What if Belfour had become Colorado’s starter…would they not have contended for the Cup with Belfour instead of Roy? That team was loaded; hard not to think they would have done so.
They could have signed Curtis Joseph in the summer of 1997. Would they have contended with Joseph in nets? One thing is fairly certain – they still would have been better than Montreal.
So yes – Roy ended up being the missing piece to the puzzle of a very strong contender, and that is why he is considered one of the very best goalies to ever play the game, given what he also accomplished in Montreal. It’s also the main reason why some think it was the worst trade ever, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that Roy would have come close to winning Montreal another Cup if he had stayed put.
My esteemed colleague Liam Maguire suggested on Wednesday that the Roy trade may have been worse because Chicago still made two Cup finals with key components in Pit Martin and Bill White, who came from Los Angeles in a 1970 transaction that saw Gilles Marotte and two others (Denis Dejordy the main one) go to the Kings.
That’s a fair point. White was one of the better defensive defencemen in the league from 1970-74 with the Hawks. He even played in the 1972 Canada-Russia series.
If you are going to factor in that they ended up doing well without Hodge, Espo and Stanfield, however, then you also have to speculate whether you think they’d have done well with them staying put.
Bear in mind that the Hawks were moved to the West in 1969, a division that was comprised solely of 1967 expansion teams, and in the two seasons in which they made the finals, 1971 and 1973, they were essentially given a free ride to the semi-finals as the western representative. They had little trouble winning that division and then faced the second-best western club in the quarter-finals in those days. They did, after all, have Tony Esposito in nets and Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita up front.
The two times they faced New York in the semi-finals, the Rangers were well beaten up playing eastern teams predominantly all season and then having to win hard-fought eastern quarterfinals before facing Chicago. The Hawks went 8-1 in their two quarter-final series in 1971 and 1973 against recent expansion teams, winning rather handily. New York had to beat out the Bruins in 1973, the defending Cup champs.
Granted, we’ll never know…but I find it difficult to fathom that Chicago wouldn’t have made at least two Cup finals if Esposito hadn’t been traded. He didn’t have Orr in Chicago and he most likely would not have put up the same gaudy numbers, but Espo hit his prime after age 25 regardless, and he’d have been a 100-point scorer in Chicago if he had stayed. He proved in the 1972 Summit Series that he could win and dominate without Orr.
I can well imagine what a top-two center punch of Mikita and Esposito would have achieved from 1968-74 with the likes of Bobby Hull, Hodge, Chico Maki, Dennis Hull, Fred Stanfield, Darcy Rota and Jim Pappin on the wings for parts or all of that era. Pat Stapleton on the point running the power play, Tony Esposito in nets. Pretty hard not imagining that group making the finals on at least two occasions and perhaps even winning a Cup or two. They took Montreal to seven games without Espo, Hodge and Stanfield…who’s to say they couldn’t have traded for White anyway (the price was fairly low) and won a Cup with that group if they had stayed?
The Canadiens, on the other hand, were not about to get good in 1996. They won a Cup in 1993, but that was very much the last hurrah. That fateful day in October of 1995, when Ronald Corey panicked over the slow start and fired Serge Savard and the coaching staff, only to replace the whole lot with a GM and coaches who had zero games of experience, essentially sealed the team’s fate for the next couple of decades. It dug a hole that no GM could get the club out of without years of patient building, something the club has only started doing in the past five years after 20 years of futility.
Keeping Roy wouldn’t have resulted in Rejean Houle becoming a savvy GM that made great trades. It also wasn’t going to make the scouts any better; they’d have still picked the likes of Matt Higgins, Jason Ward, Eric Chouinard and Alex Buturlin with their top picks in the late 90’s.
With Roy in nets from 1995 to 2002, the Habs would most likely have been a treadmill team; good enough to barely miss out on the playoffs, or lose in the first round. They still had three or four above-average forwards, but any defence corps led by Patrice Brisebois and the talented, but inconsistent Vladimir Malakhov was not taking you far in the playoffs, even with Roy in nets. And there were no superstars up front.
Would the Bruins have won Cups without Esposito, Hodge and Stanfield?
That would have been the least formidable forward group of the era to win a Cup – Derek Sanderson, a 30-something Johnny Bucyk, Pit Martin, Eddie Westfall and Wayne Cashman your top forwards in 1970-71? And Sanderson was heading to the WHA regardless in 1972. I’m not sure the 1972-73 Bruins team wins with Bucyk, Martin and Cashman as the go-to guys. Martin was not an elite top-line center. Aside from Orr, the defence corps was decent, but not great either. Same thing with the goaltenders. Gerry Cheevers and Eddie Johnston were solid, but it’s doubtful they win Cups without a high-powered offence and a genuine first-line center in Esposito.
I would say the odds of Colorado winning a Stanley Cup without Roy were higher than the Bruins winning one without Espo, Hodge and Stanfield. Orr was great, but even he couldn’t carry a team to glory by himself with so many other good teams in the league.
If you are going to look at White being part of the trade because he came to Chicago as part of a three-for-three trade that involved Marotte, one must also look at the pieces that came to Montreal after Rucinsky, Kovalenko and Thibault were traded.
After one season, Andrei Kovalenko was dealt to Edmonton for Scott Thornton. The big winger was a physical presence for the Canadiens in a checker/enforcer role for four seasons.
Rucinsky and Benoit Brunet were dealt to Dallas for Donald Audette and Shaun Van Allen in November of 2001. Brunet and Van Allen finished that season with their respective teams. Brunet retired, and Van Allen ended his career with the Senators, so essentially that trade was Rucinsky for Audette, who suffered an arm injury when a skate blade cut him severely, and he never really recovered from that.
Thibault was under immense pressure in Montreal, and because he never took the Canadiens to playoff glory, his Montreal career was largely considered to be a bust. In four seasons, however, Thibault’s average was never above three goals per game, and his save percentage never sunk below 90 percent. He was good; he just wasn’t “Roy good”. In fairness to Thibault; he never had the teams that Roy had in Montreal or Colorado either. Brisebois was not Robinson, Chelios, Bourque, Blake or Pronger.
Thibault didn’t succeed in Montreal because he didn’t win playoff games. Habs fans were used to having goalies who won in the postseason. They’d been spoiled for decades with Plante, Worsley, Dryden, Penney and Roy. Thibault never won a playoff game with Montreal; mainly because the Canadiens in the second half of the 90’s weren’t very good.
Thibault was dealt to Chicago along with Brad Brown and a past-his-prime Dave Manson for Jeff Hackett, Eric Weinrich and Alain Nesredinne. What the deal essentially boiled down to was Thibault for Weinrich and Hackett.
Hackett ended up being one of the more solid players on a Canadiens’ team that would go five seasons without making the playoffs, part of one of the darkest periods in club history. Hacket managed a .906 SP and 2.55 SP during his stay in Montreal.
Hackett’s best season was his first one in 1998-99, when he compiled a 2.27 GAA and .914 GAA. Roy that season had a 2.29 GAA and .917 SP in Colorado. The following season Roy had a 2.28 GAA and .914 SP while Hackett had a GAA of 2.40 and the exact same save percentage as Roy.
So it wasn’t the absence of Roy’s goaltending that was the difference between the Habs being a good club and a bad one. Even with Roy in nets, that club likely misses the playoffs between 1998 and 2003. It was a team with a talent level and farm system at the bottom of the league.
Roy became famous for flipping the switch in April; he was invariably better in the playoffs, and it’s why this trade is even in the discussion as the worst ever. This bears repeating – not having Roy from 1996-2002 was largely inconsequential. Thibault and Hackett arguably played at a comparable level to Roy for four of those regular seasons, or just a notch below it – it didn’t matter. Roy wasn’t winning another Conn Smythe Trophy with a team that wasn’t making the playoffs – you can’t win a dance competition if you’re not at the dance.
Eric Weinrich came to Montreal and secured a top-four spot on the blueline for three seasons. He was an average NHL defenceman on a below-average NHL team who had no business being in a top-three role, but on those teams he was one of the steadier blueliners. Weinrich played three seasons for the Canadiens before being traded for Patrick Traverse. Hackett after five seasons was dealt for Niklas Sundstrom. Scott Thornton? He got swapped for the immortal Juha Lind.
Not exactly great trades.
The final outcome of that deal may not have been as bad if Houle and future GM’s didn’t continue the tradition of making poor trades with viable assets…the Canadiens should have been able to fetch more for those three than Lind, Sundstrom and Traverse, who combined for a grand total of 82 points in Montreal. Traverse was eventually traded for Mathieu Biron, who never played for the Canadiens.
The end result was that Roy and Keane were traded for Thibault, Kovalenko, Rucinsky, Thornton, Audette, Van Allen, Hackett, Weinrich, Sundstrom, Traverse and Lind.
Two goalies who were decent starters or solid backups for eight years, a third-line winger in Kovalenko for one season, a second-line winger in Rucinsky for six years who had three 25-goal and 50+-point seasons, a second-pairing defenceman in Weinrich for three years, a fourth-line enforcer in Thornton for three years, a checking-line center in Van Allen for one year, a winger in Audette who never recovered from an injury… and scrap. It was clearly nowhere close to being a fair return.
Chicago got Pit Martin for ten seasons, and he scored 30 goals on three occasions and topped 60 points six times. Marotte was a hard-hitting defenceman that played three years with Chicago before being traded for White, who became one of Chicago’s two best defencemen along with Stapleton for a five-year span before he started his decline around 1974. He retired after the 1976 season.
Martin and White did more for Chicago than Rucinsky and Weinrich did for Montreal obviously. When you throw in Thibault, Hackett and Thornton…it tightens the gap, but the edge goes to Chicago…a difference that in my mind is about equal to the edge Esposito had over Roy in terms of what they accomplished with their new clubs.
So if those two factors essentially even out – the trade boils down to Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield versus Mike Keane, and what Boston got for Espo, Hodge and Stanfield when they were later dealt to other clubs.
Keane was a gritty bottom-line guy who helped Colorado win one Cup in his two seasons with the club. He was by no means a difference maker – his high being 27 points in his second season – but certainly you would put his contribution to the club at a notch or two above what Scott Thornton brought to the Canadiens. Colorado likely wins a Cup without Keane anyway, but his presence did not hurt; a veteran who had won before with Montreal.
Hodge and Stanfield each won two Cups with Boston. Hodge played nine seasons with the Bruins, scoring 40+ goals on three occasions and even hitting the 50-goal mark. He twice scored 105 points in a season, finishing top four in both goals and points in the NHL in 1970-71. One could make a very strong case for Hodge being more valuable to the Bruins than Pit Martin was to Chicago.
Certainly, Martin never came close to being a first-team NHL all star, and Hodge earned that honour twice with the Bruins. He also led all NHLers in both goals (tied with Espo) and penalty minutes during Boston’s second Cup run in 1972; a rare achievement. Hodge was no shrinking violet; he would drop the gloves on a second’s notice, and played a power forward game well before it ever became a popular term. Hodge was bigger and tougher than Martin, and he outproduced him.
Stanfield eventually became the second-line center and point man on Boston’s power play. He collected 20 goals or more all six seasons he wore the Spoked-B, including three seasons where he topped 75 points. Martin, on the other hand, scored more than 75 points twice in his career, his career high being 90.
Stanfield and Hodge combined for 1083 points in a Boston uniform. Keane had 47 points in two seasons with Colorado. Pretty hard to argue that the secondary piece Colorado got in the Roy deal was superior.
The forgotten thing in all of this is that Hodge was dealt to the Rangers for Rick Middleton, and that absolutely seals the deal for me. Middleton became a superstar in Boston and a Hockey Hall of Famer.
Joe Zanussi, the spare part in the Ratelle/Park trade, even played 68 games on Boston’s blueline, and then was traded for former Bruins defenceman Rick Smith, who would play another four years on Boston’s blueline and contributed 109 points in a top-four role.
And Stanfield? He was eventually dealt to Minnesota for Gilles Gilbert, who won 155 games in nets for the Bruins over six seasons. The gift that just kept on giving.
The Marotte trade in 1970 with LA was a good one for the Blackhawks, netting them White, Gerry Desjardins and Bryan Campbell. Desjardins would tend goal for a handful of games with Chicago, but also be dealt and reacquired in trades that ultimately cost Chicago Paul Shmyr and Gilles Meloche for Desjardins and Gary Smith. Campbell played a couple of seasons with Chicago and had 72 points before bolting to the WHA.
The Esposito deal boiled down to three seasons of Marotte, ten years of Martin, 30 games in nets for Desjardins, ten games in net for Norris, two seasons for Campbell, and six years on the blueline for White. That was Chicago’s return. A grand total of 951 points and 20 goaltender wins.
Boston? Espo, Hodge, Stanfield, Park, Ratelle, Zanussi, Middleton, Smith and Gilbert were the overall return.
Boston got 3978 points and 155 goaltending wins out of the trade, versus 951 points and 20 goaltender wins for Chicago. If there has EVER been a more lopsided trade in NHL history, I’d like to hear about it. A 3027-point edge? I’m not sure there has been another player-for-player NHL trade that netted much more than a 1000-point edge…let alone three times that.
The Roy trade sucked for Montreal even if his presence wouldn’t have led to more Cups. The fact remains that he should have started and ended his career with Montreal. So I get it. Habs fans will forever look at that trade as one of the worst ever, and they’re probably right.
But the day new Chicago owner Bill Wirtz signed off on dealing Espo to Boston transformed the Bruins forever. They went from being the laughingstock of the Original Six to winning a Cup within three years, and making the playoffs for 30 consecutive seasons. Chicago? The Hawks came close in 1971 and 1973, but fans would have to wait 44 years for the club to win their next Cup.
It was, quite simply, the Wirtz trade in NHL history.