Historically, how important has the NHL’s March (now late February) trade deadline been to the Washington Capitals? What is the general nature of the typical deal made by the Caps then — major, middling, or minor? Curious to assess the Caps’ approach to the deadline through the years, I scrolled through the team’s media guide transactions pages. I wanted to know how formative March moves had been to the club in the organization’s history. What I found was striking: really the Caps have made what I think can be classified as only one genuinely blockbuster deal at deadline time. Their other big personnel moves with other clubs have occurred most often at other points in the calendar — especially the offseason.
I restricted my survey to the past 25 years — the Poile and McPhee reigns. David Poile’s first significant transaction for the team, the September 1982 hoodwinking of the Habs, is widely regarded as an organization saver and the milestone that transitioned the club from laughingstock to established outfit.
And it just neatly happened to have transpired 25 years ago.
But first I needed a classification system to categorize individual trades. I settled on three classes of deals; they were conceived with the March deadline in mind but applied to the whole of the calendar year as well. Significant trades involved at least one name/impact player and or at least a first round pick being moved. Major trades had multiple name/impact players and or high draft picks moving in both directions. And Blockbusters were, well, easy to identify. The Caps haven’t been involved in too many of those. They are landscape-altering enough so as to occasion above-the-fold, sports page 1 placement by The Washington Post. Even if the Redskins are holding offseason mini-camp at the time.
So for instance, Brendan Witt’s being moved to Nashville at the eleventh hour last March for a first round pick (and Kris Beech) was a significant trade but not a major one. (It seems more significant now that that pick delivered Simeon Varlamov.) Anyway, to no one’s surprise, the vast majority of deals made in the NHL are of the sub-significant variety, and this holds true of course with the Caps.
My next finding in my survey was that the three most significant trades/transactions in Caps’ history, in my humble opinion, had no relationship with the March trade deadline whatsoever. And Poile’s September 1982 magic topped my list. Without it, it’s highly doubtful there is a Capitals team in D.C. today. To refresh, Poile shipped Ryan Walter and Rick Green to Montreal for Rod Langway, Craig Laughlin, Brian Engblom, and Doug Jarvis. There was so much talent brought in with that deal that half of it retired to notable hockey broadcasting careers as well. It’s a wonder any Montreal telephone operator has put through any call from Poile to the Habs’ offices since. If we still had telephone operators.
The second most significant transaction played a foundational role in my growing to hate Washington summers. On July 16, 1990, the Caps lost Scott Stevens to a restricted free agent signing sheet from St. Louis. The Caps were awarded five first round picks as compensation, among them Jason Allison and Sergei Gonchar. Still, there’s no compensating for the loss of one of the five greatest blueliners in NHL history. The Stevens’ departure almost certainly remains the greatest “What if?” lament among the Caps’ fanbase.
And my third most significant trade/transaction in club history — however fruitless its harvest proved — was the July 11, 2001, deal with Craig Patrick and the Pens that landed Jaromir Jagr and Frantisek Kucera for a bag of prospect pucks. It made the cover of The Hockey News the following week, Jagr was widely identified as the greatest player in the game at the time, and in his prime, and the deal bred no small number of Stanley Cup forecasts for the Caps the falling fall.
April was the cruelest month for T.S. Elliot; July is for Caps’ fans.
Soon into my survey I encountered a murky tension with my classification system, namely, the effect that time always has on assessing a trade’s significance. To wit, in March 1989 the Caps acquired Calle Johansson and a second round pick (which turned out to be Byron Dafoe) for Clint Malarchuk, Grant Ledyard, and a sixth rounder. The hockey world didn’t gasp that March. Nor did much of D.C. And yet, 10 years later, what seemed only a moderately significant deal at the time certainly proved to be a major one in the history of the Caps’ blueline. So how do I classify it?
I decided not to give the advanced intelligence of the future a role in my classification system. Remember that many trades involve not merely two dance partners at their conclusion but from their genesis until the evening’s last slow song weeks later scores of phone calls, faxes, now email correspondence of any number of organizations and their GMs. Pulling off a big deal — landing quality players in their prime or near prime, while competing with any number of clubs for those players’ services, is a big deal in real time. Landing a Mark Tinordi or an Al Iafrate was a big deal for the Caps, irrespective of the frailty subsequently visited upon both players. The Jagr deal remains a blockbuster within this line of thinking.
Herewith, then, is my classified tally of notable Caps’ deals from the past 25 years:
March 2006: Witt to Nashville for a first and Beech
February 2004: Fleischmann and a 1st and a 4th from Detroit for Robert Lang
October 2003: Konowalchuck to Colorado for Bates Battaglia and Jonas Johansson
November 1996: Curtis Leschyshyn and Chris Simon from Colorado for Keith Jones and a 1st
July 1995 (remember the cruelty): a 1st in ’96 (no. 4 overall — Alexander Volchkov) and a 4th for Dmitri Kristich and Byron Dafoe
January 1991: Al Iafrate from Toronto for Peter Zezel and Bob Rouse
March 1989: Calle Johansson and a 2nd (Dafoe) for Clint Malarchuk, Grant Ledyard, and a 6th
June 1983: Dave Christian from Winnipeg for a 1st
March 2004: Shaone Morrisonn and a 1st and a 2nd from the Bruins for Gonchar
March 2002: Maxime Ouellet, a 1st, a 2nd, and a 3rd from Philly for Adam Oates
March 2001: Trevor Linden, Dainius Zubrus, and a 2nd from Montreal for Jan Bulis, Richard Zednik, and a 1st
January 1995: Mark Tinordi and Rick Mrozik from Dallas for Kevin Hatcher
March 1994: Joe Juneau from Boston for Al Iafrate
March 1989: Dino Ciccarelli and Bob Rouse from Minnesota for Mike Gartner and Larry Murphy [This deal gains a decided Blockbuster aura as Murphy's career blossoms into a Hall of Fame one.]
June 1987: Dale Hunter and Clint Malarchuk for Gaetan Duschesne, Alan Haworth, and a 1st (which became . . . Joe Sakic)
October 1983: Larry Murphy from Los Angeles for Brian Engblom and Ken Houston
July 2001: Jagr and Kucera from Pittsburgh for Beech, Lupaschuk, and Sivek
March 1997: Bill Ranford, Adam Oates, and Rick Tocchet from Boston for Jason Allison, Jim Carey, Anson Carter, and a 3rd
January 1987: Bob Crawford, Kelly Miller, and Mike Ridley from the Rangers for Bobby Carpenter
September 1982: Langway, Laughlin, Jarvis, and Engblom from Montreal for Rick Green and Ryan Walter