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Sunday, August 10, 2021

rough trade
Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the hockey-rocking trade of all trades, when the Edmonton Oilers shipped Wayne Gretzky out of Canada and off to Los Angeles, thus proving that no pro athlete is ever untouchable.

The impact for the National Hockey League was significant enough, with Gretzky’s arrival in Southern California effectively making him the godfather of expansion/relocated teams in the Sunbelt. I question how much it raised the league’s profile; it was still clearly the weak sister among the Big Four team sports, and it remains so today.

For as much as the trade altered the fortunes of the Kings, the impact on the Oilers has been somewhat overlooked - specifically, how little Edmonton did with the package of players and draft picks they got in return for the NHL’s most valuable commodity.

Let’s review the specifics of the trade:

Kings got: Gretzky, D Marty McSorley, F Mike Krushelnyski

Oilers got: C Jimmy Carson, W Martin Gelinas, the Kings’ first-round draft picks in 1989, 1991, and 1993, and $15 million in cash

For Los Angeles, it began and ended with acquiring Gretzky; the supplemental players were gravy (although it’s been rumored they wanted Jari Kurri in the deal, the one roster player Edmonton owner Peter Pocklington refused to throw in). The $15 million was a ton of money in those days — well above most NHL teams’ payrolls — but Kings owner Bruce McNall understood that the cash infusion was what Edmonton was really after, and considered it the pay-to-play price for acquiring hockey’s only household name. The first-rounders would hurt, but if Gretzky’s addition turned the Kings into winners, they would be low enough to sting less; and indeed, the highest pick of the bunch went No. 16 in 1993.

As for Edmonton? Gelinas helped the team to their only post-Gretzky Stanley Cup win in 1990, and Carson indirectly helped that run via the players he yielded back when he was traded to Detroit that season. Neither ultimately stuck with the Oilers long, which was something of a disappointment as they were rising young players (both former high first-rounders) at the time of the trade.

It was generally thought, though, that those three first-rounders could vindicate the unthinkability of trading The Great One. Unfortunately, the Edmonton brain trust didn’t do much with them — nor with their own picks during those drafts:

1989 Entry Draft: Edmonton shipped the first Gretzky-compensation pick to the New Jersey Devils for defensive prospect Corey Foster. Foster was a bust-and-a-half, never playing for the Oilers and totaled just 45 NHL career games. He was part of a later trade that netted the 1991 Oilers Craig Berube, Craig Fisher, and Scott Mellanby. Essentially, this first first-round asset was parlayed into spare parts. (For what it’s worth, the Devils had no more luck on their end of the deal, as their draftee with that acquired pick, Jason Miller, never stuck with the NHL.)

What’s more, Edmonton’s own first-round pick that year, D Jason Soules at No. 15, never suited up for the Oilers. A forgettable draft year overall for Oil Town. In hindsight, it would signal the start of the organizational ineptness that had set in; consider that, from the next year’s Entry Draft (1990), not a single Oilers draft pick made it to the NHL — neither in an Oilers sweater nor for any other team.

1991 Entry Draft: The Oilers had already given up on Foster by the time their next Gretzky-yielded first-round pick rolled around. Perhaps not wanting to risk another bust, they held onto this pick at No. 20 and took Martin Rucinsky. Rucinsky wound up being a serviceable winger — he just completed his 16th NHL season this year, and will presumably play out the rest of his career in Europe. But he lasted only two games in an Edmonton uniform before he was traded for Ron Tugnutt and Brad Zavisha. So once again, the fruits of the Gretzky trade were parlayed into spare parts.

As for their own first-round pick at No. 12, the Oilers drafted Tyler Wright. He struggled through parts of four seasons, bouncing between Edmonton and the minors before leaving as a free agent.

Again, hindsight being what it is, an alternative could have been packaging one or both of these picks to move up in the first round. This 1991 draft was a star-studded one, with the infamous Eric Lindros maneuvers taking center stage. The Oilers couldn’t have traded up to No. 1 overall, but they could have done something to move into the top 5, where stalwarts like Peter Forsberg and Brian Rolston would have been available.

1993 Entry Draft: By now, the wheels were coming off the Oilers organization. The fallout of the big trade was punctuated by the Gretzky-led Kings’ run to the Stanley Cup Finals that past summer, and by Edmonton’s corresponding decline in the standings. The team didn’t have enough talent in the system to replace the players that were being shipped out over money issues, and rumors persisted that the team would soon be sold to American carpetbaggers who would relocate the franchise to Houston or elsewhere. In other words, the Gretzky trade, far from forestalling these types of problems, only ushered them in.

Against this backdrop, the Oilers used the final LA-delivered first-rounder on D Nick Stajduhar. Not much to say about him, because there wasn’t much to him — he suited up for two games for the Oilers, and that was it for his NHL career. He’s probably gotten a disproportionate amount of attention only because he was the final link in the blockbuster deal.

Edmonton did pick a winner with its other first-round selection at No. 7, Jason Arnott. He did become one of the many youngsters to eventually exit Edmonton during the ’90s as the team struggled to compete, but managed to stick around long enough to play some meaningful hockey for the club.

And once again, while Arnott was a quality pick, it’s worth wondering if the Oilers could have converted two first-round picks into something more in a fairly deep 1993 draft year, and thus perhaps salvage something out of the Gretzky transaction.

by Costa Tsiokos, Sun 08/10/2021 07:47:07 PM
Category: Hockey
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  1. Puck Headlines: Flyers coach gets a little more job security…

    … The Wayne Gretzky Trade celebrations have been over for days, but this post about how the deal between the Los Angeles Kings and the Edmonton Oilers affected the Oil’s next few drafts is an interesting read. [Population Statistic]

    - Mirtle checks …

    Trackback by Puck Daddy - A Y! Sports Blog — 08/14/2008 @ 05:41:27 PM

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