COHEN’S KINGS CATASTROPHES – CHAPTER 9



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Much is made of “The Trade” that brought Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles in 1988.  His arrival heralded an expansion of hockey across the southern states and popular culture.  Less frequently discussed is the trade that ushered Wayne Gretky out of Los Angeles.  His departure heralded an exodus of players and a rebuilding period that would have Kings fans singing the blues.

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CHAPTER NINE : The Great Goodbye

 

BACKGROUND

Wayne Gretzky didn’t want to play for the Los Angeles Kings anymore.

He was 35 years old and was going to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 1995-1996 season.  The Kings had missed the playoffs in the two seasons following the heartbreaking loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the 1993 Stanley Cup Final.  During those two seasons, the ownership and financial viability of the Kings was in almost constant turmoil.  In September of 1995, Phil Anschutz and Ed Roski, Jr. purchased the Kings and began the slow process of rebuilding the franchise.

In January of 1996 Gretzky issued the Kings an ultimatum: acquire a 50 goal scorer and an offensive defenceman or he would leave at the end of the season.  

Associated Press The Free Lance-Star, Jan 16th, 1996

Associated Press
The Free Lance-Star, Jan 16th, 1996

On January 26th, 1996, The Kings traded Rick Tocchet (known to be one of Gretzky’s closest friends) for former 50 goal scorer, but injured, Kevin Stevens.  The rumors and speculation surrounding Wayne Gretzky and the Kings swirled for six weeks and dominated the All Star Game in Boston.

 

WHAT THE KINGS DID

On February 27th, 1996, The Los Angeles Kings traded Wayne Gretzky to the St. Louis Blues for Roman Vopat, Patrice Tardif, Craig Johnson, a fifth-round choice in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft and a first-round choice in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft.

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The jerseys are only the third worse thing about this photo.

WHY IT LOOKED LIKE A GOOD MOVE

The Kings were looking to the future.  Constructing a winning team to play around a 35 year old star was a tall order, but they could use that star to stock the franchise with young talent.  The Kings had a history of trading away high draft picks, including 1st round picks in 1989, 91 and 93 to acquire Gretzky and this trade offered them a chance to reverse that trend.  General Manager Sam McMaster assured Kings fans the trade was a solid move for the organization.

three best prospects

Associated Press
The Item, Feb. 28th 1996

WHY IT WAS A TERRIBLE MOVE

Tardif and Vopat were non-factors, Craig Johnson was a third liner and the team mismanaged the first round draft pick. 

Tardif and Vopat combined to play 72 games and score 14 points in Kings uniforms and were both out of the NHL by 1999.

5319-252BkCraig Johnson scored 62 goals and 141 points in 429 games in a Kings uniform (sadly that makes him the 55th all time scorer for the Kings).

With the 15th overall pick in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft, the Kings passed up players like Scott Hannan and Brenden Morrow and selected Matt Zultek of the Ottawa 67s.

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They would fail to sign him to a contract and he would wind up re-entering the draft and being taken by the Boston Bruins in the second round of the 1999 NHL Entry Draft.  He never played a game in the NHL.

The Kings failed to make the playoffs again and failed to make the playoffs the following season as well.

Wayne Gretzky was made Captain of the St. Louis Blues and scored 21 points in the final 18 regular season games before scoring 16 points in 13 playoff games.  GretzkyBlues90292424

WHAT THE KINGS SHOULD HAVE DONE

Ultimately there was nothing the Kings could do but trade Wayne Gretzky.

With 81 points in 62 games at the time of the trade (he finished the season 12th in scoring with 102 points), Wayne Gretzky was still a highly productive offensive player.  Even as a trade deadline rental, the return for a player as prestigious and productive as Wayne Gretzky should have been substantial.

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There were rumors that the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs were also interested in Gretzky and with the the amount of time that passed between his public announcement and the trade to St. Louis it’s hard to believe the package the Kings received from the Blues was the best the Kings could do.

HOW IT WOULD LOOK TODAY

The Kings, having missed the playoffs the two previous seasons, traded their high scoring veteran captain to the Conference rival of his choice after he demanded a trade and publicly questioned team management.

If it happened in 2014, The Tampa Bay Lightning would trade Martin St. Louis to the New York Rangers for a bunch of prospects that won’t pan out and a 1st round draft pick in 2015.

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HOW IT LOOKS IN HINDSIGHT

FINAL ANALYSIS

BENEFIT

7 years of Craig Johnson, who never scored 20 goals in a season.

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COST

Wayne Gretzky, arguably the greatest hockey player of all time.

OPPORTUNITY COST

The last three seasons of Wayne Gretzky’s career, including three appearances in the All Star Game.

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GRETZKY

EMOTIONAL COST

Wayne Gretzky should have retired as a member of the Los Angeles Kings.  He should have taken a position in the front office and still been involved, ala Luc Robitaille, with the day to day operation of the franchise.  Instead we had to watch this…

and this…

and this…

Los Angeles Kings v Phoenix Coyotes

Yea Gretz… that’s how we feel too.

 

WHO’S TO BLAME

Sam McMaster, Bruce McNall and Wayne Gretzky

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Sam McMaster “The Disaster”, found himself in an almost impossible situation and managed to make it worse by trading one of the greatest assets in NHL history for almost nothing.

McNall annihilated the teams ability to compete with his financial skullduggery.

Gretzky  just wanted another chance to compete for the Stanley Cup.

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LEGACY

While Tardif, Vopat, Zultek and Hogan had almost no impact on the franchise, Craig Johnson played a crucial role in shaping the future success of the Kings.  On December 15th, 2002, in a game against the Phoenix Coyotes, Craig Johnson kneed teammate Adam Deadmarsh in the head.  At the time, Deadmarsh had 13 goals and 17 points in 20 games.  Deadmarsh would never play another game in the NHL.

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Thanks a lot Craig Johnson.

SILVER LINING

The only real silver lining is that the St. Louis Blues didn’t profit from this trade anymore than the Kings did.  Had Gretzky gone on to win a Stanley Cup with Brett Hull when he failed to win one in L.A. it would have been heart breaking.  Instead Gretzky was on the ice and turned the puck over when Steve Yzerman eliminated the Blues in a historic 2OT Game 7 against the Detroit Red Wings in the second round of the 1996 Playoffs.

In the summer,  Gretzky signed a free agent contract with the Rangers and the lasting memory of his time in St. Louis will forever be this horrible poster.

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The Blues still haven’t won the Stanley Cup.

ROYAL REPUGNANCE RATING

*-99* 

get it?

Of all the members of Team TRH Jesse Cohen probably comes closest to actually hating the Kings. Whether obsessing over the 1998 sweep at the hands of the St. Louis Blues, wishing he had witnessed the fight between Dmitri Khristich and Barry Potomski or cursing their attempts to fool the fans by dressing Randy Robitaille for 18 games, Jesse harbors a deep-seeded resentment towards the Kings.You can follow Jesse Cohen on Twitter @KingsMenPodcast.