When the Montreal Canadiens dealt P.K. Subban to the Nashville Predators for Shea Weber it was truly a blockbuster deal. With two indisputable No. 1 defencemen swapping uniforms, it was a fantasy trade between two real National Hockey League teams.
But less than an hour earlier a trade had occurred that left a far greater impact on the NHL’s trade market. Today, when the Toronto Maple Leafs consider trading a winger like James van Riemsdyk for a much-needed defenceman, they won’t be looking at the Subban for Weber deal as a comparable.
The deal that set the bar for the Leafs — and any other team that is rich in forwards but desperate to shore up an Achilles heel blue-line — was the Taylor Hall-for-Adam Larsson trade between the New Jersey Devils and Edmonton Oilers.
Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli shopped the market for six months, willing to use everything from a high first-round pick, to Hall, Jordan Eberle or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as trade bait. The deal he settled on with New Jersey scratched an important itch in Edmonton — even though the entire hockey world saw the disparity in profiles between the two players.
Hall, then 24 years old and the NHL’s No. 3 ranked left-winger in points per game since the start of the 2013-14 season (behind Jamie Benn and Alex Ovechkin), was the best Oilers forward not named Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl. But he went straight up for Larsson, then a 23-year-old, right-shot defenceman who was signed for five more seasons at a decent cap hit of $4.167 annually.
“That’s a niche on our team that drastically needed to be filled,” said veteran Oiler Matt Hendricks. “You look at trades, you can’t always look at … statistics. You have to look at what the player brings to the organization.”
Hall’s production — he leads the Devils this season with 25 points in 32 games — is something every fan can easily spot. But Larsson’s attributes are far more subtle: Tough, physical play; an ability to stop the cycle; the willingness to compete physically against any opponent. This was precisely the package Chiarelli was looking to add.
“Lars is a big loss for us,” said Devils coach John Hynes the day before New Jersey makes its first visit to Rogers Place. “He’s a character player who played a lot of hard minutes for us. One of those guys who drove practice, when you had to get in there and really work in some battle drills. He’d push the tempo and competitive level of the practice.
“He was a real valuable part of our team. We miss him in those areas.”
Oilers fans still sour about losing their top-scoring winger might not see those qualities in Larsson — or newcomer Kris Russell, another hard-nosed player – but the players see it.
“Every day,” said Hendricks, nodding his head.
Acquiring a Top 2 or 3 defenceman in trade is so rare these days, you can count the recent deals on one hand. Ryan Johansen for Seth Jones, Hall for Larsson. Guys like Russell, Dan Hamhuis, Trevor Daley or Rob Scuderi move at the deadline all the time. But the Leafs need a higher pedigree to move their project forward.
If Leafs fans thought Chiarelli got fleeced in the Hall deal, at least one scout we spoke with said Toronto won’t get a player as good as Larsson in return for the older van Riemsdyk, who has a modified no-trade clause and is one season away from becoming an unrestricted free agent.
“There’s no comparison between Hall and JVR,” said the scout, who thinks the Leafs will have to sweeten the pot. “You’re not trading (Mitch) Marner, so (William) Nylander has got to be the guy. He’s skilled, but how good?”
The Leafs are exactly where Edmonton was a year ago: Stocked with young talent up front, but with a blue-line corps that needs at least two quality NHL defencemen. Chiarelli knew he could deal from strength, though even he must have been surprised when he found himself trading a 70-point winger for a 15-point defenceman.
“Each team has a different circumstance,” said an assistant GM who wished to remain anonymous. “Edmonton felt they needed a culture or leadership change, and that was part of it too.”
Chiarelli also fortified his defence with Russell, got a healthy Oscar Klefbom back and signed UFA Matt Benning, who has been a big surprise in Edmonton. Meanwhile, Edmonton accounted for Hall’s offence by adding UFA Milan Lucic and having a healthy Connor McDavid, while left-winger Patrick Maroon has emerged as a producer with 16 goals.
Then there was the “illness and fatigue” factor. Sometimes a front office simply gets sick and tired of a star player, like Subban in Montreal, and — to a degree — Hall in Edmonton.
That Hall was the face of the Oilers’ failed rebuild under former management was not his fault, but the change of leadership over to McDavid adds to the sense of a fresh new start in Edmonton.
“We’re winning, it’s obviously a better feeling,” said Hendricks, who was careful not to speak ill of Hall. “More belief, and a more competitive group.”
Hall makes his return to Edmonton Thursday evening, with his Devils second last in the East and ranked 27th in the overall NHL standings.
That latter spot is in the same neighbourhood as where the Oilers resided for most of Hall’s career, but as of Wednesday the Oilers stood 10th in the NHL.
New Jersey clearly misses Larsson more than Edmonton does Hall.