'If Wayne Gretzky can be traded ...': Ranking the 15 best NHL stars moved in their prime
"If Wayne Gretzky can be traded, anybody can."
It's a common refrain used in NHL circles to remind the masses that, when it comes to trades, anything can happen, as it did 31 years ago when the Oilers dealt the greatest hockey player of all time to the Kings in a stunning move that forever changed the league.
The unique ingredients that led to "The Trade" — a perfect storm of Gretzky's star power, two bold owners, and an NHL in desperate search for its next business frontier — make it nearly impossible to repeat. Gretzky is one of a kind, and so is this transaction. But the sentiment stands: Any player, from any team, at any time, can be traded ... in theory.
With that in mind, the 31st anniversary of the Gretzky trade is a perfect opportunity to look back on some of the other in-their-prime superstars involved in blockbusters over the course of NHL history. It's happened a lot more than you might think, especially since we're used to the modern-era practice of teams locking up their best players long term.
Our criteria: The trade must have occurred prior to the player's 30th birthday, an imperfect but generally accepted cross-era cutoff for "prime" performance in the NHL. The player also must have played in at least 300 NHL games (one recent example is Tyler Seguin, traded at the age of 21 barely 200 games into his career — before achieving "superstar" status). In the interest of brevity, we restricted this list to the NHL's free agency era (1972 or later).
Let's dive in.
1 Wayne Gretzky, 1988 (Oilers to Kings)
To the Kings: Wayne Gretzky, Marty McSorley, Mike Krushelnyski
To the Oilers: Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, first-round draft picks in 1989, '91, '93
The circumstances: Gretzky, then 27, had strung together eight consecutive NHL scoring titles, helping the Oilers mint their dynasty with a fourth Stanley Cup in five years. With some rumblings No. 99 planned to test the waters of free agency upon the expiration of his contract four years later (spoiler: it happened, but not until 1996), Oilers owner Peter Pocklington concocted an "unthinkable" plan to keep the Oilers relevant long term. The result was the most stunning transaction in NHL history. Known simply as "The Trade," those words are still reviled in Edmonton and equally celebrated by hockey fans in the United States for Gretzky's cultural impact on the NHL and its expansion boom of the 1990s.
The result: It wasn't a total loss of the Oilers. Jimmy Carson and Martin Gelinas helped capture another Cup in 1990, though neither was long for Edmonton. Gretzky carried the Kings to the Cup Final in 1993 but never again won hockey's ultimate prize. After a cup of coffee with the Blues (following a trade to St. Louis that received significantly less fanfare), he signed with the Rangers as a free agent to wind down his remarkable career. All said and done, the Great One scored 1,188 of his untouchable NHL record 1,963 points after leaving the Oilers, and those in Edmonton wil forever wonder how much more they might have accomplished with both Gretzky and Mark Messier in their primes.
2 Patrick Roy, 1995 (Canadiens to Avalanche)
To the Avalanche: Patrick Roy, Mike Keane
To the Canadiens: Andrei Kovalenko, Martin Rucinsky, Jocelyn Thibault
The circumstances: We're going to make an exception on this list for Roy, who turned 30 a few months before the ill-fated 11-1 loss to the Red Wings that sealed his 1995-96 midseason trade. Roy's friction with rookie coach Mario Tremblay famously came to a head when Tremblay left Roy in net for nine goals in a nationally televised embarrassment. Unable to mediate and hoping to spawn a culture change, the Habs sent Roy packing along with Keane, their captain, for an underwhelming return that set the franchise back.
The result: Roy and Keane helped the Avs hoist the Stanley Cup five months later, and Tremblay resigned from the Canadiens that summer. Though Roy never won another Vezina Trophy — he claimed three in Montreal — he doubled his Cup take and finished his career as one of the greatest goalies in NHL history, leaving the Habs to wonder what might have been.
3 Jaromir Jagr, 2001 (Penguins to Capitals)
To the Capitals: Jaromir Jagr, Frantisek Kucera
To the Penguins: Kris Beech, Ross Lupaschuk, Michal Sivek
The circumstances: The Jagr-led Penguins reached the conference finals in 2001 but, having filed for bankruptcy two years earlier, were facing a wildly uncertain future as a franchise. Jagr, then the NHL's most dominant player at 29, was coming off a fourth consecutive scoring title. His desire to bolt Pittsburgh for a lucrative free agent market in a year wasn't much of a secret, so the Penguins dealt their captain to the rival Capitals for pennies on the dollar.
The result: Neither team benefited. The Penguins eventually recovered from financial ruin but endured a painful four seasons before winning the Sidney Crosby derby. Jagr signed a seven-year, $77 million extension with the Capitals after the trade — an NHL record at the time — but his point totals fell off a cliff in D.C. and he was traded to the Rangers less than three years later, reviving a Hall of Fame career.
4 Mark Messier, 1991 (Oilers to Rangers)
To the Rangers: Mark Messier, Jeff Beukeboom
To the Oilers: Louie DeBrusk, Bernie Nicholls, Steven Rice, David Shaw
The circumstances: Like with Gretzky three years earlier, the summer of 1991 was marked by turmoil in Edmonton when Messier, the Oilers' captain who led the franchise to five Stanley Cups, staged his most famous holdout in an attempt to force GM Glen Sather's hand in a trade. The NHL's most accomplished clutch performer wanted to win under the bright lights of the Big Apple, and he quickly got his wish.
The results: Messier, the other exemption to this list's age cutoff, raised some eyebrows from Rangers followers concerned about giving up so much for a player in his 30s. But he turned in arguably the most brilliant season of his career in his first year on Broadway, scoring 107 points and winning a second Hart Trophy. Though the Rangers lost in the second round to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Penguins in 1992, Messier delivered the Blueshirts to the promised land a year later, ending their 54-year Cup drought. He would go on to play for 10 more years.
5 Marcel Dionne, 1975 (Red Wings to Kings)
To the Kings: Marcel Dionne, Bart Crashley
To the Red Wings: Terry Harper, Dan Maloney, 1976 second-round pick (Jim Roberts)
The circumstances: With free agency in its infancy, Dionne, 23, and his agent wanted a new contract and went to the Red Wings for more money after a 47-goal, 121-point fourth season. Instead, they struck a deal with the Kings, who agreed to pay Detroit a heavy but fair compensation for one of the NHL's brightest young talents. All of this came days after Jack Kent Cook, then the owner of the Kings and Lakers, signed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for his basketball team, beginning an electric era in Los Angeles sports history.
The result: Dionne was an offensive innovator and went on to become one of the greatest goal-scorers ever, piling up 731 in 19 NHL seasons. His 1,771 points rank sixth all time. The Red Wings missed the playoffs six times in seven years, ushering in the "Dead Wings" era.
6 Paul Coffey, 1987 (Oilers to Penguins)
To the Penguins: Paul Coffey, Dave Hunter, Wayne Van Dorp
To the Oilers: Dave Hannan, Chris Joseph, Moe Mantha, Craig Simpson
The circumstances: Coffey, second on the NHL's all-time defenseman scoring list, was traded seven times during his Hall of Fame career — seven! — including four times in a span of two years. But the biggest was the first. Coffey had two Norris Trophies in his pocket at the age of 26, helping the Oilers win three Stanley Cups. He held out at the start of the 1987-88 season over a contract dispute. Rather than settle their differences, Edmonton shipped him to Pittsburgh — a move that set the stage for another dynasty in the 1990s.
The result: Coffey had a pair of 100-point seasons with the Penguins, forming a super team that included five future Hall of Famers and delivered the franchise its first Stanley Cup in 1991. He was was shipped to Los Angeles for a Gretzky reunion a year later.
7 Erik Karlsson, 2018 (Senators to Sharks)
To the Sharks: Erik Karlsson, Francis Perron
To the Senators: Chris Tierney, Rudolfs Balcers, Josh Norris, Dylan DeMelo, 2019 second-round draft pick, 2020 first-round draft pick and a conditional 2021 second-round draft pick
The circumstances: A precipitous fall for the Senators, from the brink of the Stanley Cup Final to NHL bottom-dwellers a year later, reached its lowest point following the 2017-18 season with a troubling locker room scandal involving Karlsson, their captain, and teammate Mike Hoffman. The mess came to define the sorry state of the organization under embattled owner Eugene Melnyk, and Karlsson, a would-be free agent in 2019, clearly would not be long for Ottawa after the sides failed to made progress on a long-term contract extension.
The result: As many as six teams made advances for Karlsson during months of trade speculation. The win-now-minded Sharks, after failing to sign John Tavares, remained in the big-game hunt and completed the blockbuster on the eve of 2018-19 training camp. Karlsson, a two-time Norris Trophy winner at 28, joined a defense corps already with two other Norris candidates, forming arguably the NHL's most dynamic blueline. GM Doug Wilson pulled off yet another heist.
8 Ron Francis, 1991 (Whalers to Penguins)
To the Penguins: Ron Francis, Grant Jennings, Ulf Samuelsson
To the Whalers: John Cullen, Jeff Parker, Zarley Zalapski
The circumstances: When thinking of that 1990-91 Penguins super team, most recall the trade for Francis, one of the most important deadline deals in NHL history. Francis, 28, had been stripped of his captaincy in Hartford and was looking for a fresh start. The breakup had a bitter taste, with Francis expressing his frustration over front-office leaks about his contract situation and captain role. Safe to say, it worked out better for him.
The result: The Penguins won the Stanley Cup that year and again in 1992 with Francis and Mario Lemieux forming an unmatched one-two punch up the middle. Francis spent parts of eight seasons in Pittsburgh, scoring at least 90 points four times and 87 his final year. The Whalers relocated to Raleigh, N.C., in 1997, and Francis returned to the franchise as a free agent soon after.
9 Joe Thornton, 2005 (Bruins to Sharks)
To the Sharks: Joe Thornton
To the Bruins: Wayne Primeau, Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm
The circumstances: Thornton was a three-time All-Star with a 100-point season under his belt by 2005-06. He had just signed a three-year, $20 million extension with Boston in the summer, but the Bruins toiled in last place and sought a quick-fix shakeup by trading their captain (who said he was "blindsided," finding out about the deal while out for dinner with his parents and future wife) across the country to San Jose, another last-place team looking for a jolt.
The result: Thornton was tied for 11th in the NHL in scoring at the time of the trade Dec. 1. He finished the season with 125 points, claiming the Art Ross and the Hart Trophy after lifting the Sharks to the second round of the playoffs. The Bruins came in at 74 points, the fifth-worst record in the league. Thirteen years later, Thornton ranks first or second on the Sharks' all-time list in almost every major offensive category.
10 Chris Chelios, 1990 (Canadiens to Blackhawks)
To the Blackhawks: Chris Chelios, 1991 second-round pick (Michael Pomichter)
To the Canadiens: Denis Savard
The circumstances: The Canadiens passed over Quebec native Savard in the 1980 draft, taking all-time bust Doug Wickenheiser at No. 1 overall instead. They regretted it since. Given the chance to make amends, Montreal sent Chelios, the Norris Trophy winner a year earlier at 27, to Chicago for Savard, who at 29, it turned out, was on the downswing. The two future Hall of Famers took divergent paths post-trade.
The result: Chelios won two more Norris Trophies in Chicago and a pair of Stanley Cups after he was dealt to Detroit in another blockbuster later in his 27-year career. Savard, with seven seasons scoring at least 90 points with the Blackhawks, spent just three years with the Habs and never again produced more than 80 points in a season.
11 Scott Stevens, 1991 (Blues to Devils)
To the Devils: Scott Stevens
To the Blues: Brendan Shanahan
The circumstances: This one requires a little fudging of the "trade" label. Stevens was involved in the NHL's most famous case of player poaching, when the Blues signed Shanahan to an offer sheet in the 1991 offseason. Only one problem: St. Louis lacked sufficient draft pick compensation, having sent five first-rounders to acquire Stevens from the Capitals a year earlier. The Blues instead proposed a (very good) package of Curtis Joseph, Rod Brind’Amour and two draft choices, but the Devils declined, preferring the 26-year-old Stevens. The sides took the case before an arbitrator, who ruled in New Jersey's favor, paving the way for the Devils dynasties of the 1990s.
The result: Shanahan, 23 at the time of the trade, played four seasons in St. Louis, scoring 156 goals and 306 points in 277 games before heading to Hartford and, soon after, Detroit, where he did most of his winning. Stevens become the NHL's most feared defender and piled up three Stanley Cups in 13 years as captain of the Devils.
12 P.K. Subban, 2016 (Canadiens to Predators)
To the Predators: P.K. Subban
To the Canadiens: Shea Weber
The circumstances: It will go down as one of the NHL's most famous and surprising one-for-one talent swaps, one that didn't take long to skew in the Predators' favor. Amid rumors of locker room unrest, the Canadiens shipped Subban, 26 and three years removed from a Norris Trophy, to Nashville for Weber, an imposing force whose decade-long reign as one of the NHL's best defensemen was beginning to slip.
The result: Subban, initially slow to settle in with the Predators, led the team's underdog Stanley Cup Final run in 2017. He followed it up with a 16-goal, 59-point season as a Norris Trophy finalist. Weber, meanwhile, missed most of the 2017-18 season and is showing alarming signs of wear and tear that could one day cement this trade as yet another lopsided loss for the Canadiens.
13 Doug Gilmour, 1992 (Flames to Maple Leafs)
To the Maple Leafs: Doug Gilmour, Jamie Macoun, Kent Manderville, Ric Nattress, Rick Wamsley
To the Flames: Craig Berube, Alexander Godynyuk, Gary Leeman, Michel Petit, Jeff Reese
The circumstances: A bitter arbitration case set the stage for one of the most significant trades in NHL history, both for its volume and the one-sided return. Upset that the arbitrator's award favored Gilmour, Flames GM and coach Doug Risebrough became resigned to trading the star scorer who led their Stanley Cup victory two years earlier. Gilmour caught wind, and a month later, infamously walked out on the Flames on New Year's Day, threatening to join Team Canada instead and forcing Risebrough into a hasty trade with the Maple Leafs.
14 Larry Murphy and Mike Gartner, 1989 (Capitals to North Stars)
To the North Stars: Mike Gartner, Larry Murphy
To the Capitals: Dino Ciccarelli, Bob Rouse
The circumstances: The lone trade on this list involving three future Hall of Famers, perhaps the only one in history that took place before each player's 30th birthday. Moments before the 1989 trade deadline, then-GM David Poile drastically altered the complexion of the Capitals for the sake of change and a perceived defensive upgrade in Rouse.
The results: Ciccarelli, 29 at the time, went on have the longest stay with his new team, playing three full seasons with the Capitals — twice scoring 70 points. Gartner, also 29, and Murphy, 22, each were traded by the North Stars over the next two years. Gartner went to the Rangers, while Murphy became another integral piece on the Penguins' back-to-back Cup teams in the early 1990s.
15 Phil Housley and Dale Hawerchuk, 1990 (Sabres and Jets)
To the Jets: Phil Housley, Scott Arniel, Jeff Parker, first-round pick in 1990 (Keith Tkachuk)
To the Sabres: Dale Hawerchuk, first-round pick in 1990 (Brad May)
The circumstances: Hawerchuk, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1981 draft, was Winnipeg's all-time leading scorer as a perennial 100-point player in his nine seasons there, but requested a trade out of town after feuding with GM Mike Smith, and Smith obliged. Looking for an upgrade at center, the Sabres offered Housley, a prolific offensive defenseman coming off an 81-point season, his best in Buffalo, and a couple veteran forwards. The teams also swapped first-round draft picks.
The result: The trade mostly worked out for both sides. Housley's time with the Jets was brief, but chipped in 259 points across three seasons — the most successful three years of his career. Hawerchuk lasted five seasons in Buffalo, scoring at least 85 points each year until an injury-plagued 1994-95 season. Neither team reached the second round of the playoffs during those tenures.
16 Honorable mention
Mats Sundin, 1994 (Nordiques to Maple Leafs) — One of the most revered figures in Maple Leafs history arrived in Toronto at the age of 23 in the trade of another icon, Wendel Clark. Sundin never won a Hart Trophy or delivered the Stanley Cup, but the Hall of Famer synonymous with the Leafs' most recent era of success.
Taylor Hall, 2016 (Oilers to Devils) — The book is still being written on Hall, but a dynamic MVP season in 2017-18 has him on track to move up this list before his career is over.
Mark Recchi, 1995 (Flyers to Canadiens) — Recchi was traded from the Flyers to the Canadiens following a pair of 100-point season and back again four years later, uniting him with John LeClair, who went to Philly in the original deal, to form one of the NHL's most dynamic lines in the early 2000s.
Adam Oates, 1992 (Blues to Bruins) — Oates, 30, put together an incredible 142-point season in his first full year with the Bruins in 1992-93, but still finished third in the NHL's Art Trophy race behind Pat Lafontaine and Mario Lemieux.
Brendan Shanahan, 1996 (Whalers to Red Wings) — The most famous transaction involving Shanahan came earlier in his career, but he became a legend after joining Detroit at 28, winning three Stanley Cups.
Eric Lindros, 2001 (Flyers to Rangers) — After taking 16 months off, Lindros felt rejuvenated from the head injuries that plagued his time in Philly. But he never returned to Hart Trophy form, managing a post-Flyers high of 73 points in his first season with the Rangers.
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