Nobody really knows what is in store for the Pittsburgh Penguins this offseason but it seems likely that a significant trade is on the horizon, most likely involving Phil Kessel, champion of the people. Assuming it happens it will be the first truly major offseason trade involving the Penguins since they actually acquired Kessel in the summer of 2015. So with that in mind I wanted to hop in my own personal Delorean and take a trip back in time to look at some of the biggest offseason trades in Penguins history.
When I say “biggest” trades I am looking at deals that significantly altered the course of the franchise, involved a superstar, or was just the type of trade that really grabbed headlines.
Here are the ones that stood out.
July 1, 2015: Penguins acquire Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs for a first-round pick, Kasperi Kapanen, Nick Spaling, Scott Harrington, and a third-round pick.
The Penguins were coming off of year one of the Jim Rutherford-Mike Johnston experience and it ... did not go well. The team was completely mediocre, had to sneak into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, and instead of breaking apart the core they already had in place, decided to add to it by trading for one of the best wingers in the league. The price was right in terms of the compensation going to Toronto, and also in the sense that the Maple Leafs were picking up a significant portion of Kessel’s remaining contract. The Penguins were not only getting a top-line winger, they ended up getting him at a discounted price. Kessel had a slow start in his first regular season with the team (he was not the only one to start slow that year) but kicked it into a new gear in the playoffs and helped the Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cups over the next two years. Even though there always seems to be criticism sent his direction, the Kessel era in Pittsburgh has been wildly successful and it is to this day one of the best trades in the history of the franchise.
June 22, 2012: Penguins trade Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes for a first-round draft pick, Brian Dumoulin, and Brandon Sutter
This was tremendous theatre.
Staal was the third member of the Penguins’ big-three center model between the 2006 and 2012 seasons, playing behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The trio went to two Stanley Cup Finals, won one, and when all three were healthy was as consistently dominant as any other group of centers the NHL has seen in years.
In the summer of 2012 Staal was entering the final year of his contract and not only looking for a big payday, but also a bigger role. A trade was pretty inevitable and everyone knew that if it was going to happen, it was probably going to happen at the draft. Adding to the intrigue is that the draft that year was happening in Pittsburgh. I will never forget driving into the arena that night to cover it and listening to the radio and hearing how the Penguins had pretty much leaked the details of their contract offer, almost as a “hey, we tried, we’re not the bad guys here” type of move to soften the blow for the fanbase.
For weeks leading up to the draft it had been widely reported that Carolina was one of the teams that would be most interested in Staal, and when their pick at No. 8 overall came up Gary Bettman walked to the podium, soaking up his usual chorus of boos, smirked into the microphone, and said those magic words:
“We have a trade..”
... and then followed it up with, if I recall, “Pittsburgh, you’re going to be interested in this one.”
It was total chaos in the arena at the moment as the Penguins were now on the clock, one of their best players was gone, and there seemed to be a 50-50 split of people that either loved it or hated it.
My FAVORITE part of the night though was during then-Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford’s media scrum. I remember standing there and listening to him sing the praises of Staal and talking about reuniting him with his older brother, Eric.
It was at that point that someone (I did not recognize the person, so I have no idea who it was) asked Rutherford, “Now that you have Eric and Jordan are you going to try and acquire Marc next?”
I will never forget Rutherford giving that person a total death stare, pausing for a few moments and trying to figure out how he could possibly answer this question without being guilty of tampering, and firmly saying “... NO” and then shaking his head in disbelief for at least another 10 seconds.
If looks could kill, man.
This trade turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag for the Penguins. At the time Sutter and the first-round pick figured to be the keys of the deal because Sutter was supposed to replace Staal on the third line and the No. 8 pick was supposed to be a potential impact player, while Dumoulin was just viewed as kind of a throw-in.
Sutter ended up stinking before being traded for Nick Bonino in a deal that would play a huge role in the 2016 and 2017 championship seasons, while Dumoulin has blossomed into a legitimate top-pairing defender and the team’s most solid defensive player.
The No. 8 pick was used on Derrick Pouliot, who was mostly a flop. It turned out to be a huge “what if” pick as Jacob Trouba went to Winnipeg one pick later, while Filip Forsberg went to Washington three picks later. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Teuvo Teravainen, and Tomas Hertl also went within the next 10 selections and there is still an alternate universe where Tom Wilson (No. 16 overall pick) was selected by the Penguins in this draft class.
July 11, 2001: Penguins trade Jaromir Jagr to the Washington Capitals for Kris Beech, Michal Sivek, Ross Lupaschuk and $5 million dollars
Simply the most significant trade in Penguins history, and arguably the biggest trade in the history of Pittsburgh sports.
Jagr was already a first ballot Hall of Famer, an all-time great, and was still kind of in the prime of his career (he was only 28!) at the time of this trade. Still, it became increasingly obvious that his time in Pittsburgh had run its course and he was going to be on the move as the start of a significant overhaul and rebuild of the franchise. For months trade rumors swirled and all of them seemed to center on the Capitals, New York Rangers, and New York Islanders. I am mostly going on memory here but I seem to recall the rumored names heading to Pittsburgh revolved around the likes of Jeff Halpern, Brad Isbister, and some combination of Jamie Lundmark, Pavel Brendl, or Jan Hlavac from the Rangers.
It turned out to be none of those players.
Not only did the Penguins send a franchise icon to one of their biggest rivals, they sent him there for a combination of magic beans, all of whom were selected in the first 50 picks of the previous year’s draft (in hindsight one of the weakest and worst drafts in the history of the NHL).
Then-general manager Craig Patrick tried to sell it as a great trade for the future and made the now infamous mistake of comparing Beech to Hall of Famer Ron Francis.
This is a trade that turned out to be a failure for everyone involved. None of the prospects the Penguins acquired amounted to anything, Jagr was never a fit in Washington and was traded (eventually going to the Rangers after all straight up for Anson Carter!) just two years later, and really the only thing either team gained out of it is that it sent them both on their rebuilding paths that resulted in their past decade of dominance where they have combined to win four Stanley Cups. Not because the trade itself helped either one, but because it made both of them so bad it helped them land franchise-changing talents.
The sub-plot to this trade was weeks of rumors that it was definitely going to be followed up with another trade where the Penguins would send Jan Hrdina to the Capitals for Dainius Zubrus. That would have been ... something.
August 31, 1995: Penguins trade Luc Robitaille and Ulf Samuelsson to New York Rangers for Sergei Zubov and Petr Nedved
Luc Robitaille spent 19 years in the NHL and was one of the best, most productive wingers the league has ever seen. And I am still willing to bet most hockey fans have either completely forgotten his brief time in Pittsburgh or did not even realize it happened. He spent the lockout shortened 1994-95 season in Pittsburgh (he was awesome) and was one of the few actual NHL players to make an appearance in the movie Sudden Death (he scored the buzzer-beating game-tying goal to save the day!).
His time in Pittsburgh concluded in August, 1995, when he was traded to the Rangers in a pretty significant blockbuster alongside Ulf Samuelsson, a long-time fan favorite in Pittsburgh and a two-time Stanley Cup champion.
In return, the Penguins received Petr Nedved and Sergei Zubov, two younger players that were just beginning to enter their primes in the league.
The immediate results were promising for the Penguins as Nedved had a monster year in 1995-96, scoring 45 goals and 99 points, while Zubov broke out on the team’s power play. None of this, however, would continue. Zubov was traded after one just one season (most likely due to the fact he and Mario Lemieux didn’t click) in a one-for-one deal for Kevin Hatcher. Even though Hatcher was pretty good, and probably better than he was given credit for in Pittsburgh, the deal still looks bad because Zubov was six years younger and ended up having a borderline Hall of Famer career in Dallas.
After two monster seasons offensively Nedved was traded to New York following a lengthy contract dispute for Alexei Kovalev. That trade worked out far better for the Penguins. This is also all part of a pretty extensive and massive trade tree that ended with Marc-Andre Fleury and began with Ron Francis trade (the Samuelsson portion of it). But that is another article for another day.
June 16, 1990: Penguins trade a second-round pick to the Calgary Flames for Joe Mullen
Between 1988 and 1992 the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired four different future Hall of Famers from outside the organization, trading for Paul Coffey, Ron Francis, Larry Murphy, and Joe Mullen.
All of them were outstanding trades and helped build the complementary core of players for the team’s first two Stanley Cups.
The Mullen trade was probably the biggest steal because they got him for next to nothing, sending only a second-round pick to the Calgary Flames (which they used to select Nicolas Perreault, who never played a game in the NHL).
Mullen ended up spending six years in Pittsburgh (more than he spent with any other team in his career) and scored 153 goals and 325 points in 379 games, while also collecting a pair of Stanley Cup rings.
Other honorable mention trades
June 27, 2014: James Neal for Patrick Hornqvist and Nick Spaling — Hornqvist has been a part of two championship teams in Pittsburgh.
June 14, 1978: Dave Burrows for Randy Carlyle — Carlyle is the only Norris Trophy winner in Penguins franchise history.
July 29, 1994: Rick Tocchet for Luc Robitaille — The trade that set the stage for the Robitaille-Samuelsson trade for Nedved and Zubov.