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Making magic at the deadline

Saturday, 21.02.2009 / 5:19 PM / Features
By Larry Wigge
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Making magic at the deadline
When talking trades, NHL players cut right to the chase. What impact will a deal have on a team’s chemistry and ability to win?
It's April 5, 1995 and I'm sitting between Eric Lindros and John LeClair when the Philadelphia Flyers equipment manager comes into the team's locker room at their practice rink in Vorhees, N.J., almost out of breath.

"Did you hear the trade?" he asks.

The heads of Lindros and LeClair, and yes, yours truly, pop to attention on this NHL trade deadline day. The players' must have looked more concerned that excited -- like I was -- because the equipment manager says, "No, it wasn't someone from the Flyers."

I could feel a sigh of relief in the room.

"Well, what was the deal?" Lindros asks.

"It was Montreal trading Kirk Muller, Mathieu Schneider and some kid named Craig Darby to the Islanders for Pierre Turgeon and Vladimir Malakhov," the kid says.

"No way," LeClair says. "No way would the Canadiens trade Kirk Muller. No way. Pierre Turgeon? He would have to score 150 points in Montreal to come close to doing for the Canadiens what Kirk Muller did."

Says Lindros: "Turgeon didn't give the Islanders the grit and leadership that Muller will.  Except for the age, it's a very good trade for the Islanders."

Lucky me, having the opportunity to sit between two stars when news like this is delivered. We talk a lot about trades and how they will affect a team on the ice. But the players always think in terms of how a deal might affect a team in the dressing room and on the bench.

And that chemistry is what most general managers talk about before the annual trade deadline as well -- but sometimes don't really ask the players how they think a deal might work out.

The reason those two Flyers were so much on edge was because of all of the talk around the NHL at the time that the team needed someone other than Ron Hextall in goal. And, make no mistake about it, Hextall was very popular in that Flyers room.

Also, then-Flyers GM Bobby Clarke had long been known for his many trades. So anything was possible.

Maybe I take the annual trading deadline more seriously than others because I've seen too many teams sit back and watch while others see they have to pay maybe a big price to make a deal that just might put them over the top.

The biggest attention-grabber was made in 1980 when then-Islanders GM Bill Torrey, after seeing his team lose in consecutive crushing playoff series' to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1978 and the New York Rangers in '79, sent winger Billy Harris and defenseman Dave Lewis to the Los Angeles Kings for Butch Goring.

The Islanders had won the Patrick Division each of those years and appeared to need an edge to their game after losing in the playoffs.

Right winger Duane Sutter and defenseman Ken Morrow were added during the season, but Torrey still wasn't satisfied. He wanted a veteran and he wanted help up the middle to go with Bryan Trottier. And Goring couldn't have been more perfect -- on the ice and in the room.

"I'll never forget Butchie coming in the locker room and saying to us, 'Do you guys have any idea how good you are, or how good you can be?' " Hall of Famer Denis Potvin once told me.

"It was like getting a shot of confidence in the arm," Trottier recalled.

They went 8-0-4 in the regular season after that trade and went on to win the first of four straight Stanley Cups. But the deadline magic didn't stop there.

The next major deal to have a dramatic impact on the Stanley Cup trail came in 1991, when the Pittsburgh Penguins obtained center Ron Francis and defensemen Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings from the Hartford Whalers for center John Cullen, winger Jeff Parker and defenseman Zarley Zalapski.

The Penguins won two straight Stanley Cups following that deal -- and with the help of deadline deals for Rick Tocchet and Kjell Samuelsson in '92.

From that point on through the 1990s to today, you can usually point to a deal that had a big effect on who won the Stanley Cup. Like Rob Ramage in Montreal in 1993. The Rangers acquiring Stephane Matteau, Brian Noonan, Glenn Anderson and Craig MacTavish in '94 to help them win their first Cup since 1940. Neal Broten made a big impact on the New Jersey Devils after coming over from the Dallas Stars in 1995. And though Colorado GM Pierre Lacroix was relatively quiet before the March deadline in 1996, he had already sprung his magic wand on deals to acquire Claude Lemieux and Sandis Ozolinsh before punctuating his trading period by obtaining Patrick Roy and Mike Keane from Montreal.

In 1997, the Red Wings traded future considerations to Toronto for a defenseman who was being booed out of town by Maple Leafs fans, Larry Murphy -- who previously won Cups in Pittsburgh in '91 and '92. Murphy teamed with Nicklas Lidstrom for the next couple years to form one of the most consistent defensive pairings in the NHL. That acquisition also helped make Detroit powerful enough to win again in 1998.

OK, the Dallas Stars really didn't beef up before their 1999 Cup run, but the Devils brought back the magic in 2000 when they reacquired Claude Lemieux and went after high-priced Alexander Mogilny, along with defenseman Vladimir Malakhov (there he is again).

The Colorado Avalanche who went after future Hall of Famer Ray Bourque before the 2000 deadline but fell short, traded for Rob Blake, another All-Star defenseman, before the 2001 deadline -- and, this time, they won it all.

But there is a school of thought that too much tinkering can have a devastating impact on a team.

"Chemistry is a big thing," three-time Stanley Cup Devils GM Lou Lamoriello says. "You can really jeopardize your chemistry if you make the wrong trade."

To win the Stanley Cup, a team can't be predictable because it might meet a finesse team in Round 1, a physical team in Round 2, a defensive team in the Conference finals and then a uniquely skilled team in the Stanley Cup Final.

A team also can't be too small. It can't be too big and slow or too fast with no muscle. And it won't win without being accountable in all three zones.

"It's a bit of a gamble," former Red Wings coach Dave Lewis said. "We've lived through both in Detroit. We've made trades to go on a long run and we've made trades and stumbled along and not been successful."

And while some point to deadline deals that didn't work out immediately, you can go back to 1988 when Calgary Flames GM Cliff Fletcher parted with a youngster named Brett Hull. He got Ramage for his defense and Rick Wamsley to back up Mike Vernon in goal. No one would argue that that pair was important in the Flames’ 1999 Cup victory.

Along those same lines, I remember Devils defenseman Scott Stevens and Ray Bourque both talking about what St. Louis did in 2001, when they tried to add muscle in Scott Mellanby from Florida and Keith Tkachuk from Phoenix. And made it to the Western Conference finals before losing to Colorado.

"Now," Stevens said, "St. Louis has two home-run hitters -- Mark McGwire and Keith Tkachuk."

"If you ask me who was the best, most passionate left winger I've ever had to face, it would be Tkachuk," said Bourque. "He doesn't take no for an answer when you try to clear him out in front of the net. It's like a wrestling match whenever he's around. And he doesn't lose those matches very often."

"This isn't tennis or golf, where a Tiger Woods can capture everyone's attention with his individual skills," Lamoriello says. "This is a team game to the nth degree. Chemistry within the entire group is the most important commodity. If you have the best passer in the game, you'd better find someone who can put the puck into the net to make them both work out. If you have two talented finesse players on one line and they are being pushed around a little, you'd better find someone with size and grit to work with them.

"We're all looking for the most complete players we can find. But even if you took the five most talented players in the world, you might not have the best power play."

Or even the best team.

It is rare indeed that so many teams go out and find players in a matter of weeks who perfectly define presence, impact and make their team tougher to play against like the group of contenders just might do because the competition for the Stanley Cup is expected to be so close. So, to say it's mostly about chemistry wouldn't be wrong.

"Think about it," Torrey said of the Goring deal. "To have an outsider come in our room and say, ‘Who the heck is going to beat this team?' was huge for us. The way Butchie strutted around, he's a cocky little son of a gun. It had a huge impact on our team."

Everyone talks about March Madness in college basketball. But hockey's March trading madness is usually just as fun to watch.