Down Goes Brown: Revisiting the golden age of three-way NHL trades

Elliotte Friedman joined Tim and Sid to talk about the complexities and timing of the Matt Duchene trade, involving the Predators, Senators and Avalanche.

NHL fans had plenty to talk about over the weekend thanks to a major trade involving the Senators, Predators and Avalanche. The deal finally ended the long-running Matt Duchene saga, sent pending UFA Kyle Turris to Nashville with an extension in hand, and signaled a major change in direction for all three teams involved.

While it’s rare to see a trade of this significance go down so early in the season, the deal was notable for another reason. It resurrected a concept that’s all but disappeared from the NHL over the years: the blockbuster three-way trade.

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Fans love the concept of the three-way deal. In theory, they should be more common in the modern NHL, where we’re constantly told that good fits and cap space are tough to find. Adding another team to the mix seems like an ideal way to address those issues, and it’s not surprising that so many hot-stove rumours inevitably see speculation about a third team getting involved.

But it rarely happens, at least on any sort of significant scale. We’ve seen a few in recent years, like last year’s Mark Streit deal and the whole John Scott thing, but those were relatively minor moves. The Kyle Quincey deal from 2012 was bigger, but hardly earth-shattering.

(And yes, we’ll pause to acknowledge that technically, three-way NHL trades don’t exist. A trade can only involve two teams, so a three-way deal is actually a series of discrete two-team trades. Settle down, comment-section pedants — you know what we mean.)


So what happened? Where did the three-way blockbuster go?

Maybe modern-day GMs are right when they tell us that trading is just too hard. Maybe today’s front offices, clogged with assistants and analytics experts and consultants and a dozen other voices, just aren’t built for creativity. Maybe three-way deals are meant to be a relic of the past, when a table full of impatient GMs could order a few pints and then swing a deal or two.

Or maybe — now that the Senators, Predators and Avalanche have reminded us how it’s done — we can hold out hope that the concept will come back into style.

So today, let’s head back to the 1990s and revisit the golden age of the three-way blockbuster. Here are five significant three-way NHL trades from a decade when NHL GMs often found that three heads were better than two.

1) Nov. 2, 1993: Acquiring an iron man

The background: By the time the 1993-94 campaign arrived, Steve Larmer had spent 11 full seasons with the Blackhawks. And they had been full – Larmer had never missed a game over that time, playing 884 straight to get within range of Doug Jarvis’s all-time iron-man record. But Larmer’s streak ended on opening night, not due to an injury or a benching, but because he was holding out to force a trade.

One month into his holdout, with Larmer holding firm on his demand for a change of scenery, the veteran winger got his wish.

The deal: The Blackhawks sent Larmer and Bryan Marchment to Hartford for Patrick Poulin and Eric Weinrich. The Whalers then flipped Larmer along with Nick Kypreos, minor-league defenceman Barry Richter and a draft pick to the Rangers for James Patrick and Darren Turcotte.

The move was part of the Rangers’ push to build a contender around Mark Messier, one that would see them add veterans from around the league as the season went on. It was also part of the mid-’90s Whalers’ apparent attempt to have every star player of the era show up on their roster and then immediately leave.

The winner: Larmer. He’d play only two years in New York, retiring after the lockout-shortened 1995 season, but he’d arrive just in time to be reunited with Mike Keenan and help the Ranges win the 1994 Stanley Cup. Weinrich and Poulin were fine for Chicago, but didn’t exactly represent a windfall, while Marchment, Turcotte and Patrick all lasted less than two years in Hartford.

(Kypreos ended up doing OK for himself, too.)

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2) Oct. 3, 1995: Winging it

The background: When they happen, three-way trades have a tendency to get complicated. But back in 1995, three teams facing holdouts from star wingers figured out a simple solution to the problem, and the hockey world saw the rare one-for-one-for-one deal pulled off.

The Devils were coming off the franchise’s first Stanley Cup, thanks in large part to Claude Lemieux’s Conn Smythe-worthy playoff performance. But Lemieux was pushing for a new deal, which didn’t sit well with Devils’ GM Lou Lamoriello. Meanwhile, the Avalanche were facing a similar situation with Wendel Clark, who they’d acquired a year ago in a blockbuster trade with the Maple Leafs that cost them Mats Sundin. And the Islanders had a disgruntled winger of their own in Steve Thomas.

The deal: Thomas went to the Devils, Clark headed for New York and Lemieux was off to Colorado.

The winner: To some extent, this deal worked out for everyone involved. The Avalanche went out and won the Stanley Cup, although in fairness there was probably another trade that season that had more to do with that. The Islanders held onto Clark for less than a season before reaping a nice windfall by sending him back to Toronto. And while it took him some time to adjust to their defensive style, the Devils eventually got several decent seasons out of Thomas while sending a strong message not to mess with Lamoriello.

But the biggest winner was all of us. If this deal had never gone down, Lemieux wouldn’t have been in Colorado to throw the cheap shot that kicked off the Red Wings rivalry and led to all sorts of fun.

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3) June 22, 1991: The blue-line brigade

The background: We’ll see your one-for-one-for-one winger deal, and raise you a three-way deal of veteran blueliners. The Canucks, North Stars and Islanders hooked up for a deal that saw the teams exchange three players who’d all be among the first results to come up if you Googled “grizzled early-’90s defenceman.”

The deal: The North Stars sent Dave Babych to Vancouver, the Canucks sent Tom Kurvers to New York and the Islanders sent Craig Ludwig to Minnesota.

The winner: Ludwig and Babych both ended up being long-term additions, with each sticking with their new teams well into the late ’90s. Kurvers didn’t last as long with the Islanders, although that wasn’t really his style. He was traded six times over the course of his career – Leaf fans will remember one of them – and was on the way to Anaheim by 1994.

Fun fact: Hours after this trade was completed, the Nordiques drafted Eric Lindros with the first overall pick of the 1991 draft, setting in motion a chain of events that would end with a very different kind of three-way trade.

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4) Jan. 23, 1996: Blue-chip blueliners and a good Kingston boy

The background: The Maple Leafs and Senators don’t trade much these days. With the exception of the Dion Phaneuf deal a few years ago, the two organizations don’t seem to want much to do with each other. But back in 1996, the Battle of Ontario didn’t exist yet and the two teams were stuck in different conferences. So when a struggling Maple Leafs team went looking for veteran reinforcements, the Senators were happy to help out while relieving a headache of their own.

The 1995-96 Maple Leafs were old and fading, and turned out to be weeks away from the end of the Pat Burns era. As part of a last-ditch effort to turn things around, GM Cliff Fletcher targeted Islanders’ veteran Kirk Muller, who’d been holding out to force a move.

Meanwhile, the struggling Senators had a holdout problem of their own in first-overall pick Bryan Berard, who was refusing to report to the team.

The deal: The Senators sent Berard and Martin Straka to the Islanders for the rights to Wade Redden. Muller and veteran Ottawa goalie Don Beaupre went to the Leafs, who sent prospect Ken Belanger to New York and backup Damian Rhodes to the Senators.

The winner: On paper, the Leafs landed a reasonably big name without giving up all that much. But while Muller was OK, the deal didn’t reverse the Leafs’ downward trend, and they wouldn’t win another playoff round until 1999.

Berard was probably the biggest asset in the trade at the time, and he went on to win the Calder in 1997. He’d eventually end up in Toronto, too, as part of the Felix Potvin trade in 1999. Straka was a bust as an Islander, and would be lost on waivers within weeks.

Meanwhile, the Senators’ acquisition of Redden and the underrated Rhodes signalled the start of the franchise’s transition to playoff contender. Along with rookie Daniel Alfredsson, Redden would form the core of what would eventually become a Stanley Cup finalist.

But while the deal worked out well for Ottawa, the same can’t be said for their coach, Dave Allison. Moments after the trade was completed, Allison was fired.

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5) Feb. 19, 1992: The Pens get mightier

The background: Ask a hockey fan to recall the biggest trade the Penguins made during the early ’90s, and they’ll inevitably name the Ron Francis blockbuster from the 1991 deadline. And rightly so – that deal added the final piece to the Penguins’ puzzle, and stands as one of the most important deals in modern hockey history. After all, what’s bigger than a trade where you add a future Hall of Famer?

Well, how about a trade where you send away two?

That’s what the reigning-champion Penguins did midway through the 1991-92 season, when they hooked up with the Kings and Flyers in what may stand as the biggest three-way deal of the decade, if not all time. The mega-deal featured seven players and two picks, and saw three struggling teams attempt to address a need.

In Pittsburgh, the Penguins were barely hovering over .500 and at risk of missing the playoffs. The roster was stacked with skill, but GM Craig Patrick wanted the team to be more physical. For their part, the Kings were regressing after what had seemed like a breakthrough, and were looking to reunite Wayne Gretzky with more of his former Oilers dynasty. And the last-place Flyers just wanted to shake things up, and maybe add some scoring in the process.

The deal: The Kings sent defenceman Brian Benning and a first-round pick to the Flyers. The Penguins gave up Paul Coffey to the Kings and Mark Recchi to the Flyers, and received Jeff Chychrun from L.A. and a package of Rick Tocchet, Kjell Samuelsson, Ken Wregget and a third from the Flyers.

The winner: On the day it went down, the deal seemed like a loss for the Penguins. Recchi and Coffey had finished the year as the team’s two top scorers in 1991, and all they got back was a star power forward in Tocchet and some useful depth.

Meanwhile, Recchi would go on to have a career-year in Philadelphia, scoring 123 points in 1992-93; the Flyers eventually traded him to Montreal for John Leclair, who was a regular first-team all-star during the Eric Lindros era. And Coffey helped the Kings get to the Stanley Cup final in 1993 before heading to Detroit, where he won his third Norris.

At the time, Penguins players were furious. Recchi had reportedly turned down a free-agent offer from the Flyers in the off-season, choosing to stay loyal to the Penguins, and he was devastated by the trade. Meanwhile, Wregget arrived on a roster that already had three veteran goalies and didn’t seem to need another. Frank Pietrangelo called the trade “a slap in the face,” and Kevin Stevens openly questioned the move. “I just don’t understand sometimes how they do it,” he told reporters. “We definitely needed some help somewhere. But I don`t know if this is the way we should have gone about it.”

It was a rare case of players on a team calling out their own front office. But presumably, most of the Penguins were slightly happier a few months later when the new players helped the team win its second straight Stanley Cup.

Let that be a lesson: Sometimes, NHL GMs really do know what they’re doing.

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