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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Trade Deadline: Today’s Wings Not As Willing to Trade Youth

In Toronto, it was quite evident when Larry Murphy was bringing the puck up the ice. All you needed to do was listen to the boos.

It was March, 1997, and Murphy, the veteran defenseman who already had his name inscribed twice on the Stanley Cup, was playing for a bad Maple Leafs team. The fan base, for reasons unclear, chose to use Murphy as its whipping boy for the team’s travails.

Murphy, 36 years old at the time, was treated viciously by frustrated Leafs fans who were staring down the barrel of a playoff-less year for the first time since 1992. 

The Red Wings swept in and essentially stole Murphy from the Maple Leafs at the trade deadline in 1997. The trade is officially listed as Murphy to Detroit for “future considerations” at Hockey-Reference.com.

What those future considerations turned out to be, no one seems to know.

Murphy joined the Red Wings, escaping the hell in Toronto, and helped Detroit snap a 42-year Stanley Cup drought less than three months later. A year hence, Murphy and the Red Wings won another Cup—Murphy’s fourth.

Back in 2007, on the night the Red Wings retired Steve Yzerman’s number, I saw Murphy in the team’s Alumni Suite at Joe Louis Arena. And I asked him what went wrong in Toronto.

He shrugged and wasn’t bothered by it, even if he couldn’t explain it.

“Ah, fans will be fans,” he told me, clearly having forgiven the Leafs faithful who booed him unmercifully ten years prior.

“It worked out pretty well,” he added with a grin.

Indeed.

Today’s NHL trade deadline is likely to come and go without the Red Wings making a move, despite their rather desperate situation—veteran stars injured and having to rely on kids to extend their playoff streak to 23 years.

The Red Wings are likely to stand pat because of that youth, which is serving them well now and figures to do so for many years to come. Unlike the Cup-winning teams from 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008, today’s Wings team embraces its young players rather than seriously considering using them as bargaining chips.

Gone are the days of when Murphy was acquired, which was in the heyday of Red Wings GM Ken Holland trading little-known, little-used, little-needed players, re: young guys, for capable veterans.

The Red Wings want into the playoffs, of course, but not at the expense of a cache of players like Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco, Gustav Nyquist and Riley Sheahan, which other teams are going to want Detroit to package to acquire someone like Vancouver’s Ryan Kesler or Buffalo defenseman Christian Ehrhoff.

The deadline is at 3:00 p.m. today. Stay tuned, but not with the same anticipation of years gone by.