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Monday, March 4, 2019

The Franchise Comes To the Steel City - or - The Trade That Broke The Whalers

A condensed version of this post originally appeared over on Puck Junk as part of the Most Lopsided Trades article.  This is the whole article in it's complete form if you wanted to read it.

March 4th, 1991, seemingly a typical Monday 28 years ago, will go down in history as one of the biggest, franchise defining moments for both the Pittsburgh Penguins and Hartford Whalers. While there were many other trades, draft picks, and acquisitions in those late 80s-early 90s years, this trade spawned a couple Stanley Cup Championships and many years of Penguin dominance in both their division and conference while assisting in the eventual demise of the brass bonanza in Hartford.

1992-93 Fleer Ultra
After an abysmal road trip to Western Canada, Penguins GM Craig Patrick worked a deal with (former Penguins GM) Whalers GM Ed Johnston to acquire Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings in exchange for John Cullen, Zarley Zalapski and Jeff Parker. If you can believe it AT THE TIME, the trade was seen as a benefit to both clubs and in some circles, people thought Hartford came out on top.

In the press, The Hockey News gave the edge to Hartford.  The Hartford Courant spun the trade as something positive for the organization and they could only get better.  Both Ed Johnston and team owner Richard Gordon, believed it was a great deal as well.   Johnston even went on to say that he thought Cullen and Francis were equal, in terms of play and ability.   In an interview with back in 2006, then Pens radio announcer Paul Steigerwald was quoted as saying, “People were saying that in Hartford,” in reference to the Whalers coming out on top. “They had soured on Ronnie Francis and Ulfie was talking about going back to Sweden because he was so upset.” Well, those “glass is half full” people in Hartford were wrong.

It's true though that Ron Francis had begun to fall out of favor with the organization and coaching staff.  Head coach Rick Ley even stripped him of his captains “C” earlier in the season and gave it to Pat Verbeek (Ley was subsequently fired at the end of the season). Both Jennings and Samuelsson were seen as expendable because the Whalers needed offensive minded defenseman and grinders, which fit the style of play for both Double Z and Jeff Parker. The Whalers also sought to get younger and that helped.

1991-92 Parkhurst
For Pittsburgh, although John Cullen had virtually taken the team on his shoulders with Mario Lemieux missing 50 games after back surgery (and I honestly doubt the Pens even get to the playoffs without Cullen’s season play), GM Craig Patrick knew they needed extra grit on the ice because they were frequently man-handled in front of the net and in the corners. They also looked to add a forward that could not only score but also play defense. Both Francis and Samuelsson fit that bill, while Grant Jennings was a value added bonus that would add some character over the next couple years.

In the short term…

Pittsburgh played out the rest of the season 9-3-2, winning their division.  Francis posted 11 points, while Samuelsson had five and Jennings four.  Both Ulfie and Grant racked up a ton of PIMs in only 14 games, as expected, showing their willingness to do the dirty work the Penguins needed.  Pittsburgh won out their playoff matchups and went on to earn their first ever Stanley Cup in franchise history.  For Hartford, Cullen chipped in 16 points in the last 13 games and helped Hartford push into the playoffs, eventually losing to Boston in the first round.

In the long term…

1994-95 Fleer
For Pittsburgh, after a few additional personnel moves in 1991-92 that were capped by the three-way trade with the Flyers and Kings that sent Mark Recchi to Philly for Rick Tocchet and Kjell Samuelsson, Pittsburgh won their second of back-to-back Stanley Cups followed by the President’s Trophy in 1992-93.  As a side note, I hated this trade then and still don’t like it today because Pittsburgh gave up Mark Recchi, however, it's hard to argue with the success it brought and the Pens eventually got the Wreckin' Ball back.  But getting back to the bigger point...

The Penguins did not miss the playoffs again until the 2001-02 season!  

That's right!  10 straight years of playoff appearances.  Ron Francis played eight of those seasons for Pittsburgh, scoring 613 points in 533 regular season games and another 100 points in 97 playoff games. Oh, and did I mention he was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2017 in his first year of eligibility?  Ulf played another four seasons for the Pens, racking up 804 PIMs, 94 points (28% of his career total), received his second Norris Trophy nod (he didn’t win) and finished 11th in defensive voting for the 1992-93 All Star Game.  He also cemented his legacy as one of the most feared (polarizing) big-men in the league (just ask any Bruins fan).  Grant Jennings played a total of 198 games over another 3 ½ seasons with Pittsburgh, racking up 357 PIMs and playing some memorable playoff games.

1994-95 Be A Player Autograph
For Hartford, they made the playoffs again in 1991-92 but were eliminated in the first round, this time by Montreal.  John Cullen scored 77 points in 77 games, which was an overall disappointment considering what his services cost.  He then followed with a very rough start to the 1992-93 season that led to his quick quick departure to Toronto.  Zalapski continued as a Whaler for another 2 ½ years but was unceremoniously traded to Calgary amidst what had become a GM and head-coaching carousel in Hartford.  The “for good measure” Jeff Parker only played 19 total games for the Whalers.  After the 1991-92 season, Hartford never made the playoffs again.  Let me repeat...They never made the playoffs again.  Their record after the trade was 164-243-53, leading to attendance becoming abysmal.  Even seats that were pre-sold were left empty for many of their games.  This helped lead the teams relocation to Carolina, becoming the Hurricanes after the 1996-97 season.  All that is left of the Whalers original franchise is fan's memories of the good times and the occasional appearance of their jerseys on throwback nights or tribute nights in Raleigh.

2012-13 Panini Classics Signatures
Obviously the key to the trade was Ron Francis and ultimately, as already mentioned, he was elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame due to his life's work in Hartford, Pittsburgh and Carolina.  I believe the fact that he didn't have to be relied on as a #1 center did wonders for his stat sheet and longevity in the league.  He was already a star player with a great career prior to arriving in Pittsburgh and not having to shine in the spotlight any longer was just what he needed.  Playing with superstars like Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr helped him flourish in his game.  613 pts in 533 games over eight seasons in Pittsburgh (with another 100 playoff points) is definitely nothing to balk at.  Five of his last six seasons saw 87+ points per season (the lockout kept it from 6/6.)  When he eventually retired, as a Hurricane, he was 4th all time in points.

Advantage = Pittsburgh

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