School of Stats: The Gretzky Trade

Is there anything that sparks more discussion in sports than trades? Even rumors of potential trades generate a ton of interest and serves as a platform for several successful sports websites. Fans love to judge a deal as either good or bad as soon as the transaction is complete. Sometimes, though, it just isn’t that simple to determine the winner of a trade until years down the road.

Let’s go back to June of 1986 for a minute. The Vancouver Canucks, looking to add a goal-scoring center to their club, traded gritty winger Cam Neely and a first-round draft pick (which would be used to select D Glen Wesley) for Barry Pedersen. Pedersen was coming off a 76-point season for Boston and appeared to solve Vancouver’s need for a scoring center. The cost was Neely, a tough forward that showed some goal-scoring ability, and a future #1 pick. Unfortunately for Vancouver, this turned out to be the third overall choice in the 1987 draft.

Still, on the surface, it appeared to be a fair deal assuming Vancouver could rationally expect to compete for a playoff spot during the 1986-1987 season rather than finish near the bottom of the standings. As we know now, the trade turned out to be terribly one-sided in favor of Boston.

Pederson would pot only 60 goals in 203 contests as a Canuck. Neely would become the top power forward in hockey during the nineties. He scored 344 goals in 525 games as a Bruin. That averages out to 0.655 Goals Per Game (GPG). Meanwhile, Glen Wesley was a very solid defenseman for many years.

Clearly we need some time before attempting to decide definitively the outcome of a trade. This fact prompted us here at the School of Stats to revisit some of hockey’s biggest blockbuster trades that were viewed as one-sided at the time of the deal in a series of posts to gauge how one-sided they turned out to be in the long run.

First up is the biggest trade in NHL history; the acquisition of Wayne Gretzky by the L.A. Kings. But before we delve into the deal, let’s look at the ground rules we’ll be utilizing.

First, we need some way to measure the full value received by each participant in the trade. We’ve profiled Tom Awad’s work on the Puck Prospectus website and his creation of the GVT metric here at School of Stats earlier. That stat is more than suitable for our purposes. I think a simple compilation of GVT accrued by the players during their tenures with their new team will suffice in helping us pick the winner.

Next we need to address if and how we calculate value received by a team when dealing one of the players acquired in the initial trade elsewhere. For example, Wayne Gretzky played with Los Angeles until being traded to St. Louis in 1996 for three players and two draft choices. Those assets brought additional value to the franchise as a direct result of their original acquisition for the “Great One.”

We do have to be careful though. If we did a “trade tree,” so-to-speak, we could go on indefinitely almost. For example; Martin Gelinas, one of the players sent to Edmonton from L.A., was later dealt to Quebec for winger Scott Pearson. Pearson was later moved to Buffalo for D Ken Sutton. Sutton was packaged with fellow blue liner Igor Kravchuk to St. Louis for defensemen Donald Dufresne and Jeff Norton. Norton was eventually moved……. well, you get the idea.

Additionally, for players dealt mid-season, I calculated the relative GVT based on combining the percentage of the season the player spent with his original club and how many points he scored before the trade. For example; Gretzky was traded after playing 62 games for L.A. in 1996. He scored 81 of that season’s 102 points as a member of the Kings. I awarded 80% of that season’s GVT to his time with the Kings. It’s rough but it serves the purpose.

First, let’s review the trade and recall the players involved. L.A. acquired Gretzky along with F Mike Krushelnyski and the man who would go on to be known forever as Gretzky’s personal bodyguard, Marty McSorley.

Meanwhile, Edmonton added some nice pieces too. They picked up Jimmy Carson, who would record a 100-point season in his only full year in Edmonton, and Martin Gelinas, who would carve out an 18-year career in the NHL and scored 309 career goals. The Oilers would also receive three first-round draft picks.

Edmonton would use those selections to pick D Nick Stajduhar, Jason Miller and Martin Rucinsky. Let’s see how the first layer of the trade worked out for each team.

To L.A.
Gretzky: 154.8
Krushelnyski: 13.8
McSorley: 42.2
Total GVT: 210.8

To Edmonton
Carson: 16.9
Gelinas: 14.7
Miller: 0
Rucinsky: 0
Stajduhar: 0.2
Total GVT: 31.8

That’s not even close. But we do have to remember is Carson was shipped off to Detroit in a separate deal after a single season, Gelinas lasted four years before being moved and Rucinsky, the first first round pick Edmonton received, lasted all of two games before being dealt to Quebec.

To be fair, let’s see if Edmonton’s then GM, Glen Sather, was able to parley these assets into more long-term value. But first, let’s see what the Kings ultimately did with the players they acquired.

The Kings moved Gretzky to St. Louis late in the 1995-1996 season for Craig Johnson, Roman Vopat, Patrice Tardif and two draft picks. The Kings used the 5th rounder in 1996 to select Peter Hogan, who never made it to the NHL. With the first round pick in 1997, the Kings grabbed Matt Zultek. He didn’t sign with L.A. and re-entered the draft where he was plucked by the Boston Bruins.

Mike Krushelnyski was sent to Toronto for center John MacIntyre. Marty McSorley was traded prior to the 1993-1994 for Shawn McEachern. The Kings realized the error of their ways and reacquired the defenseman from Pittsburgh along with Jim Paek for the aforementioned McEachern and Tomas Sandstrom. This move was costly since Sandstrom was actually a good player and Paek really wasn’t. For the sake of this article, I’m going to forget about that move. The trade I’m going to focus on for McSorley’s second layer of value is the deal that sent him to the Rangers in a package that returned D Mattias Norstrom among others. In its entirety, it was a three-for-four trade but since McSorley and Norstrom were the only two defensemen in the deal I subjectively chose Norstrom as the return for Marty.

Meanwhile, Slats flipped Carson to Detroit in a multiplayer deal involving Adam Graves and Petr Klima going to Edmonton. The Oilers are so far behind the Kings in the Gretzky deal, I decided to help them out by counting the GVT of Graves and Klima as part of their residual return in the primary trade.

Martin Gelinas was moved to Quebec for Scott Pearson. Jason Miller, before ever playing for Edmonton, was sent packing to Jersey for Corey Foster. Rucinsky was traded to Quebec for Ron Tugnutt and Brad Zavisha. Nick Stajduhar played two NHL games before embarking on a long-winding minor league career.

So, after giving up far more value than he received in the Gretzky trade, did then-GM Glen Sather cash in any of his new chips for more value? Let’s look.

To L.A.
Craig Johnson (via Gretzky deal): 13.1 GVT
Roman Vopat (via Gretzky deal): -2.0 GVT
Patrice Tardif (via Gretzky deal): -0.5 GVT
Mattias Norstrom (via McSorley deal): 32.2 GVT
John McIntyre (via Krushelnyski deal): 1.6
Total GVT: 52.4

To Edmonton
Adam Graves (via Jimmy Carson deal): -1.0 GVT
Petr Klima (via Carson deal): 29.7 GVT
Scott Pearson (via Gelinas deal): 2.8 GVT
Corey Foster (via Miller deal): 0.0 GVT
Ron Tugnutt (via Rucinsky deal): -1.6 GVT
Brad Zavisha (via Rucinsky deal): -0.3 GVT
Total GVT: 29.6

That brings the tally to 263.2 GVT to 61.4 GVT in favor of the Kings. Clearly Slats was unable to close the gap in value received by dealing the assets he originally acquired in the Gretzky deal.

Cash also switched hands in this trade as the Kings sent $15 million to Edmonton in this trade. It’s difficult to quantify the value that money had to the on-ice product of Edmonton.

At the end of this exercise, this trade worked out far worse than any real hockey person would have thought at the time. Of course Gretzky was the best player in the game but it wasn’t as if Edmonton obtained a bunch of stiffs in exchange. It’s just that those players didn’t necessarily perform up to their abilities while members of the Oilers and/or Sather didn’t receive good value when he moved those assets.

The Kings are the overwhelming winner of the first blockbuster trade we examined. Next up is another complicated blockbuster with many moving pieces. Next time on the School of Stats, we look at the deal that brought Doug Gilmour (among others) to Toronto.


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