The Canadiens' record when trading centers is a cautionary tale

Bruce Bennett

Why dealing good centermen away creates a big, big problem.

Earlier this week, my colleague Robert wrote a very interesting piece on whether or not it should be a priority for Canadiens management to trade a center, in order to move Alex Galchenyuk to the middle of one of the team’s top two lines.

My initial reaction to that proposal was one of skepticism. As I partially addressed a few days ago in my article (mostly) about Robert Lang, the best way to build a strong team at the NHL level is to stockpile talent and push players down the lineup via internal competition, instead of opening gaps in the depth chart by trading established players and hoping for the best. That theory is just a hunch at best and can be taken with a grain of salt. However, I dug a bit deeper into the history books and found some interesting data supporting that hunch.

In essence, looking back at the past 20 years in the Canadiens’ history, we can say with absolute confidence that trading an established top-two center never fails to be a bad idea.

***

Since 1994, only 10 Canadiens centermen have scored at a 40-point pace or better over the course of a full season, the type of offensive contribution one would expect from a #1 or #2 center on a good NHL team. Out of them, two are still with the team (Plekanec and Desharnais), one was bought out (Scott Gomez), three left via free agency (Saku Koivu, Robert Lang and Yanic Perreault), and the remaining four were traded out of town. By analyzing the before and after scenario using Hockey-Reference’s Goals Created metric (how many GC the player in question had after leaving Montreal, minus the GC of players who came back the other way in the case of a trade), we can break down impact that the 8 departed centermen had on the team.

8) Doug Gilmour: 3 goals gained

Traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for a 6th round pick (Mark Flood, 3 GC)

The Hall of Famer had his last moments in the sun as an NHLer in Montreal, putting up 41 regular season points in the absence of captain Koivu and leading the Canadiens to a second-round playoff appearance back in 2002. The following year, with the team regressing in a big way, he was dealt to Toronto at the trade deadline for a late draft pick. Gilmour played all of 5 minutes in his second stint as a Leaf before suffering a serious injury. It was a sad way for Killer to end a great career and an inconsequential trade for the Habs, Mark Flood having never skated for the Habs and playing just 39 total NHL games.

7) Scott Gomez: 9 goals lost

Bought out in the summer of 2012

For all the flak that Gomez got in his third year with the Canadiens, I thought he actually performed quite well in Montreal, all things considered. He was one of the main reasons why Gionta ended up signing, and was a big, if often overlooked, part of the 2010 and 2011 playoff runs. The funny thing is, the Canadiens paid Gomez to never play for them again, and in terms of future goals production lost, it was the second-best move the team has made when dealing away a top-two center in the past 20 years.

6) Robert Lang: 10 goals lost

Signed with Phoenix as an Unrestricted Free Agent in 2009

For the lowdown on Mr. Lang, please refer to my last article.

In any case, it’s hard to blame anyone for not re-signing a 38 year-old player coming off major surgery. Despite having just a fraction of his usual foot speed to work with, the Czech had himself a nice little season in the desert in his final year as a pro.

5) Yanic Perreault: 43 goals lost

Signed with Nashville as an Unrestricted Free Agent in 2005

A diminutive, sharp-shooting playmaker in the mold of David Desharnais and one of the best faceoff specialists in the league 10 years ago, Perreault was deemed expendable by the team with the emergence of Mike Ribeiro (who we’ll get to know a bit better in just a few paragraphs). After putting up 31 points in 69 games with the Habs in mostly third-line minutes during the 2003-04 season, Perreault signed with Nashville after the lockout and regained a regular powerplay shift. A career-best 57 point campaign (as a 34 year-old!) in just 69 games ensued.

4) Saku Koivu: 69 goals lost

Signed with Anaheim as an Unrestricted Free Agent in 2009

Great player, great leader; still had plenty of gas left in the tank. It could have been worse, as you’ll see in a bit.

3) Vincent Damphousse: 78 goals lost

Traded to San Jose in exchange for a 1st (Marcel Hossa, 25 GC), 2nd and 5th round draft pick

I was quite young when this trade happened, but as I recall it had a lot to do with the Habs not being able to offer market value to the ex-captain, who was an impending UFA. The return on the deal was actually pretty good, in theory; too bad about Marcel Hossa. The good news there was that at the Trade Deadline a few years later, the Habs’ management more than made up for this deal by shipping Craig Rivet to the Sharks for Josh Gorges and the first-rounder which netted Max Pacioretty. I’d have to look at more data in order to confirm that there’s a trend, but seems to me that trading veteran defensemen or goalies for futures is usually a much more profitable play than dealing a centerman with a good track record.

2) Mike Ribeiro: 173 goals lost

Traded to Dallas in exchange for Janne Niinimaa (1 GC)

In post-lockout NHL history, this is pretty much as bad as it gets in a one-for-one deal. You may remember Ribeiro as one-third of the infamous all-party Three Amigos clique, alongside Pierre Dagenais and Jose Theodore. Unfortunately, the Three Amigos were nothing more than a media fabrication (so said Dagenais recently), Niinimaa stopped being an NHL-caliber player immediately upon arrival in Montreal, and Ribeiro continued to score at a top-6 pace for the following 8 NHL seasons.

1) Pierre Turgeon: 182 goals lost

Traded to St. Louis with Craig Conroy (109 GC) and Rory Fitzpatrick (1 GC) in exchange for Shayne Corson (78 GC) and Murray Baron (19 GC)

This is, bar none, the worst trade ever made by the Montreal Canadiens. Not only did the Habs deal away a 26 year-old All-Star centerman coming off a 96 point season, but somehow also threw in a big, right-handed pivot who would eventually become Jarome Iginla’s setup guy during his 52-goal season in 2002. Turgeon - Koivu - Conroy (with Damphousse playing LW) would have been one of the great 1-2-3 punches in hockey during the late 90’s and early 2000’s, up there with Detroit’s Yzerman - Fedorov - Draper and Colorado’s Sakic - Forsberg - Drury combos. Instead, with a single phone call, the team opened a void at center ice which it is still trying to fill to this day. This is the move that killed the Flying Frenchmen and paved the way for years of league-average teams which relied on unsustainable goaltending to get ahead in the post-season. If you’re looking for a single trade which changed the face of a modern NHL franchise, this is it.

As an aside, I ran the numbers on the much-reviled Patrick Roy/Mike Keane for Andrei Kovalenko/Martin Rucinsky/Jocelyn Thibault trade. You’d be surprised to know that it was actually a good hockey deal. Even taking into account the performance of Roy versus Thibault, Hackett and Theodore between 1997 and 2003, the Canadiens came out 68 goals ahead, mostly on the strength of Rucinsky’s scoring and Theodore's mind-blowing 2001-02 season. It seem that even if you're giving up a Hall-of-Fame goaltender, you can always find someone else to take his place, at least for a little while.

***

Whichever way you cut it, trading a centerman in reaction to a perceived glut at the position just has not worked in the Habs’ favor.

However, to fast-track Galchenyuk’s development, there are a few tweaks that the Montreal coaching and management staff can implement. I’ll discuss those possibilities in an upcoming article. In the meantime, feel free to reminisce about Koivu, Damphousse, Turgeon, Ribeiro or Perreault in the comment section below.

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