Crafty Holland plays it safe, smart just before trade deadline

The 36-year-old defenseman arrived in Detroit, a moving piece in one of those NHL trade deadline deals, toting his equipment bag and maybe a bottle of Geritol. It was a chance for another “kick at the can,” as the hockey people like to say about the pursuit of Lord Stanley’s Cup.

The aging blueliner, booed out of his previous city, had already won two Cups by the time he was traded to the Red Wings in March of 1997. He gained those rings with the Pittsburgh Penguins, in consecutive years (1991-92).

Larry Murphy was already on his fourth team and was 11 years into his NHL career when he helped lead the Penguins to glory, but that was five years ago and he had added a fifth team to his travelogue when the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs swung a deadline trade.

For whatever reason, the Maple Leaf fans funneled their frustration with the team’s proclivity to spin its wheels on Murphy.

They booed whenever he touched the puck. They jeered him at every turn. If there ever was a player who needed to be moved, it was Murphy from the Maple Leafs in 1997.

The trade is listed on Hockey-Reference.com as Murphy to the Red Wings on March 18, 1997 for “future considerations.”

Murphy was an offensive defenseman who rocked the NHL as a rookie, scoring 16 goals and adding 60 assists for the 1980-81 Los Angeles Kings. He was 19 years old when the season began.

Sixteen years and two Stanley Cups later, Murphy was still known as a good puck-moving defenseman, except that the fans in Toronto used him as a figurative pinata. It is still a mystery as to why the Maple Leaf faithful turned on him so.

Regardless, Murphy jetted into Detroit on March 18, 1997 and there was one mission and one mission only: to win the Stanley Cup for a third time.

I asked Murphy about the treatment he got in Toronto. We chatted as we watched the Red Wings play Anaheim the night Steve Yzerman’s jersey went up into the rafters. It was January 2, 2007.

The brutality he went through in Toronto didn’t seem to have bothered Murphy all that much.

“Fans are fans,” he told me. “They pay their money.”

So it didn’t get to you?

“I thought it was kind of funny, actually,” Murphy said.

Murphy switched his Toronto blue for Detroit red and the results were palpable.

The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup the next two springs. Murphy was again on a team that won two straight Cups, the only player in NHL history to win consecutive Stanley Cups with two different franchises.

The Larry Murphy trade is among the best the Red Wings ever made at the deadline. And they’ve made a lot of them.

Two years after Murphy, the Red Wings made a big splash at the deadline, acquiring forward Wendel Clark, goalie Bill Ranford and defensemen Ulf Samuelsson and Chris Chelios in a whirlwind of trades.

But despite the pomp, the Red Wings were blasted out of the playoffs in the second round in 1999 by their arch nemesis, the Colorado Avalanche.

Sometimes deadline deals make all the difference in the world; sometimes they don’t do a lick for your Stanley Cup chances.

In 2002, Red Wings GM Ken Holland, by that time a five-year veteran of the art of the deal, landed veteran defenseman Jiri Slegr at the deadline. It wasn’t looked at as much more than a move for depth. Slegr wasn’t expected to contribute too much.

Slegr didn’t play in a single playoff game for the Red Wings that spring, except for one: Game 5 of the Cup Finals.

In Game 4, fellow defenseman Jiri Fischer got suspended for a game after taking some liberties in Carolina.

Slegr, who was a healthy scratch for the entire post-season, got the call for Game 5. The Red Wings led the series, 3-1.

Slegr played 17 minutes that night at Joe Louis Arena as the Red Wings won their third Cup in six seasons.

You never know.

Holland, who inexplicably has never won an Executive of the Year Award, gathered his scouts and coaches at the Joe on Sunday and Monday. It’s a routine that gets played out every year on the eve of the trade deadline.

The list of potential acquisitions gets bandied about. Holland listens to input, takes notes, asks some questions. His money people are in the room, too, because it’s a salary cap world now and the contracts have to fit, like a jigsaw puzzle piece.

Holland was under no real urgency to do a deal. His team is playing well and while you can never have too much depth, the Red Wings didn’t have to go crazy and mortgage the future. If something made sense, Holland said he would do it. But it was felt that a move wasn’t a prerequisite for this spring’s playoff run.

There would be no 1999-like splash.

On Sunday, Holland got on the phone with former assistant Jim Nill, now the GM in Dallas. Two good friends talked trade.

When the cell phones closed, Holland had acquired 36-year-old forward Erik Cole for some lower level prospects. Cole can be an unrestricted free agent on July 1. His future in Detroit beyond this season is uncertain to say the least.

On Monday, Holland fulfilled coach Mike Babcock’s wish for a right-handed shooting defenseman with some offense, getting Marek Zidlicky from the New Jersey Devils for a conditional draft pick. Zidlicky is 38 and he, too, is unrestricted come July 1.

These were old school Holland moves but with a new school team: bring in veteran guys who might be considered “rentals.” Only this time, the core of the Red Wings is more young than old, a reversal from the Cup-winning years.

But the price for Cole and Zidlicky was hardly steep, and in today’s NHL, these moves might be good enough to catapult the Red Wings.

The NHL post-season is a two-month roller coaster ride. It’s hockey’s version of March Madness, in that the eventual champion could be one of half a dozen (or more) teams. It’s not the NBA, where only a select few teams have a legitimate shot at the championship. You never see any six or seven seeds make it very far in pro basketball’s playoffs.

Whether you call it parity or just plain unpredictable, the NHL’s post-season is a crap shoot, like baseball and football’s.

For that reason, why unload a bunch of high-level prospects and front line players for someone who likely won’t improve your team’s Cup chances all that much?

This was Ken Holland at his best—accurately gauging his team’s current state and making smart, prudent moves without giving up the farm, literally.

Will Cole and Zidlicky do for the Red Wings, in their own way, what Larry Murphy did for them in 1997?

No one knows for sure, but again Holland has seemed to have improved his team without weakening its core.

One of these days, those who determine such things will name Holland the NHL’s Executive of the Year. It might be like when Paul Newman finally won a Best Actor Oscar for a movie that wasn’t his best work. But one day the voters are going to get smart.

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1954-55 Red Wings: Vic Stasiuk

THE VIC STASIUK FILE:

Born: May 23, 1929

Position: Left wing

NHL games played: 745 (330 with Red Wings)

1954-55 stats (Detroit): 59 GP; G: 8; A: 11; PIM: 67

CAREER: GP: 745; G: 183; A: 254; PIM: 669

When he first entered the NHL, Vic Stasiuk wasn’t really a goal scorer. Then, in the middle of his career, he was. Then, toward the end, he wasn’t again.

Stasiuk’s up-and-down playing career, goal-scoring-wise, is a little misleading, however, because he was actually known as one of the league’s best two-way players during his 14 years in the NHL.

Stasiuk, a left winger from Alberta, was originally a Chicago Black Hawk, but he found playing time hard to come by in the Windy City. For that reason, Stasiuk was no doubt excited when he was dealt to the Red Wings on December 2, 1950.

Stasiuk only scored three goals in 50 games with the Red Wings in 1950-51, but offense wasn’t his job. He was happy to be a checker and a grinder, and why not? He got plenty of ice time in Detroit fulfilling that role.

But while Stasiuk’s hard-nosed style of play was appreciated by the Red Wings, he again found ice time hard to come by because of all the depth those Red Wings teams of the early-to-mid 1950s possessed.

In 1952-53, for example, Stasiuk played just three games with the Red Wings, spending most of the season with the team’s Western League affiliate in Edmonton.

But it was in Edmonton in ’52-53 where Stasiuk found his goal scoring touch. He netted 37 pucks, by far the most goals he’d ever scored in organized hockey up to that point.

The 37 goals raised eyebrows in Detroit and it led to Stasiuk spending more time in the NHL and less in the minor leagues over the next several seasons.

But Stasiuk didn’t really become a goal scorer in the NHL until after his trade to Boston in 1955, the summer after he was on the roster of his third Stanley Cup-winning team in Detroit.

Stasiuk was part of the multi-player, blockbuster trade that also shipped legendary goalie Terry Sawchuk to the Bruins.

In Boston, Stasiuk flourished over the next five seasons, scoring 120 goals, including four straight campaigns with 20-plus markers.

Stasiuk landed back in Detroit thanks to a January, 1961 trade and he retired as a player after the 1962-63 season.

Then it was off to the world of coaching, and Stasiuk eventually landed back in the NHL after some years in the minors, coaching the Philadelphia Flyers, California Golden Seals and Vancouver Canucks between 1969 and 1973. Sadly, none of those three teams were very good at the time, so Stasiuk’s won/loss record in the NHL was a dismal 88-153-66.

Trivia: While in Boston, Stasiuk combined with Johnny Bucyk (another former Red Wing) and Bronco Horvath to form the “Uke Line”, thus named because all three players had Ukrainian roots. In 1957-58, the Uke Line became the first line in NHL history to have all three members score at least 20 goals.

NEXT WEEK: ┬áJohnny Wilson, the Lou Gehrig of the NHL for his “Iron Man” status.