It has been 31 years since the biggest trade in NHL history, when the Oilers, a dynasty throughout the 1980s, did the unthinkable and traded Wayne Gretzky, the best hockey player on the planet and still in the prime of his career, to the Kings for a package of young players, draft picks and a pile of cash.
This is our look back at the trade, the sequence of moves that followed and the results that came from them.
On Aug. 9, 1988, the Oilers, just two months removed from lifting the Stanley Cup, sent Gretzky, Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski to the Kings in exchange for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, Los Angeles’ first-round draft picks in 1989, 1991 and 1993, as well as $15 million in cash.
In terms of the return, it was a stunning pile of assets for the Oilers (as it should have been for the game’s greatest player).
Carson was, at the time, probably the key piece to the trade, as he was the No. 2 overall pick just two years earlier and was one of the game’s best young players. His first two years in the NHL were more productive than almost any player in league history at the same point as he had already recorded 92 goals and 186 total points at only 19 years old.
He was coming off a 1987-88 campaign that saw him score 55 goals and record 52 assists, which is still one of the best individual seasons ever for a player under the age of 20. No player under the age of 20 has ever scored more goals in a single season, while only Gretzky and Sidney Crosby recorded more total points in a single season.
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Only two players (Crosby with 222 and Dale Hawerchuk with 194) have recorded more total points in the league before turning 20.
Gelinas was 18 years old and had just been drafted by the Kings with the No. 7 overall pick in the draft that summer.
Then there were the three future first-round draft picks.
Now, for a look at what happened to each of those assets following their arrival in Edmonton and how the trade really blossomed out from the original return.
Once you get one or two moves from the original trade, the branches tended to fizzle out without much of a significant return, and going into great detail on all of them would take a tremendous amount of time without much of an interesting result. There were still some fascinating tidbits here, though.
The Jimmy Carson branch
Carson’s first season in Edmonton did not disappoint. He picked up right where he left off from his time in Los Angeles and finished with a team-leading 49 goals and 100 total points, just two off the pace set by team leader Jari Kurri (102). Despite Carson’s individual success, his time in Edmonton would be short-lived.
Just four games into his second season with the Oilers, Carson – at his request – was traded to his hometown Red Wings for a package of players that included Petr Klima, Adam Graves, Joe Murphy (the only player taken ahead of Carson in his draft year) and Jeff Sharples.
It was a stunning blockbuster trade in itself because of how much success Carson had already experienced, and because he was traded for the guy that Detroit felt was better than him a few years earlier in the draft. Carson also made no secrets about his desire to get out of Edmonton due to the pressure that came from being acquired for Wayne Gretzky.
When he was introduced as a member of the Red Wings following the trade, Carson had this to say, via The Times Herald:
“I’m ecstatic about this. I’ve waited for a long time to put on this jersey. I’ve always dreamed of being a Red Wing. I wanted to be drafted by them, but most of the general managers in the league had Joe Murphy rated No. 1. I figured if I could play hard, maybe people would some day say, ‘Jimmy Carson is a better player than we thought he was.'”
“When I went to Edmonton I made it clear I didn’t want to play there. It was the negative feelings of the Wayne Gretzky departure that did it. The whole Gretzky syndrome. We’re talking about a legend, possibly the greatest player in the game. We would lose three games and everyone would start to analyze the whole trade over again.”
So, basically, he did not like being known as the guy who was traded for Wayne Gretzky. And honestly, who would? That is immense pressure, especially in Edmonton, where Gretzky basically walked on water in the eyes of the locals and the team shouldered constant Stanley Cup expectations.
This trade actually ended up working out quite well for the Oilers. While Carson would have a solid NHL career, his production drastically dropped off in the coming seasons and he never really recaptured the production he had during his first three years.
Klima not only nearly matched Carson’s production with Edmonton, he and Graves both ended up contributing to the Oilers’ 1990 Stanley Cup championship.
The Graves and Sharples branches were otherwise short-lived. Graves signed as a free agent with the Rangers following the 1991 season, while Sharples never actually played a game in Edmonton and was later traded to New Jersey for Reijo Ruostalainen, who would go on to play 10 games for the Oilers.
Eventually, Klima was traded to Tampa Bay in 1993 for a third-round draft pick (Brad Symes) that never panned out.
That same year, Murphy was traded to Chicago for Igor Kravchuk and Dean McAmmond. The Kravchuk portion of that branch ended in 2000 (after several minor trades involving the likes of Bobby Dollas and Jeff Norton) with German Titov leaving as a free agent.
The McAmmond portion of the branch ended up growing for years. Six years after being acquired by the Oilers, they traded him to Chicago in a multi-player deal that brought Chad Kilger, Dan Cleary, Ethan Moreau and Christian Laflamme to the Oilers. Moreau ended up spending 11 years with the Oilers until the 2009-10 season before being lost on waivers to the Blue Jackets, while the Laflamme portion of that branch made it until 2000 thanks to a series of smaller trades that ended with Igor Ulanov.
The Martin Gelinas branch
The Gelinas branch was not anywhere near as lengthy or impactful as Carson’s, but still ended up lasting for a while.
After five seasons with the Oilers, Gelinas was traded to the Nordiques following the 1992-93 season for a sixth-round draft pick (Nicholas Checco; he never panned out) and Scott Pearson. After a year and a half, Edmonton traded Pearson to Buffalo for Ken Sutton. Sutton spent parts of two seasons in Edmonton before being traded to St. Louis along with Igor Kravchuk (who was originally acquired as part of the Carson branch) for Jeff Norton and Donald Dufresne. This branch eventually merges with the Carson branch and ultimately came to an end in 2000 with German Titov leaving as a free agent.
The draft pick branches
1989 first-round pick (No. 18 overall) – The first draft pick the Oilers had a chance to use came in 1989, which they traded to New Jersey for defenseman Corey Foster, the Devils’ first-round pick the previous year. (The Devils drafted Jason Miller). Foster never played a game for the Oilers and was instead traded along with Dave Brown and Jari Kurri for Craig Fisher (later traded to Winnipeg for cash), Scott Mellanby (lost to Florida in the expansion draft) and Craig Berube. Just a few months later, Berube was traded to Toronto in another blockbuster, along with Grant Fuhr and Glenn Anderson for Vincent Damphouse, Peter Ing, Scott Thornton and Luke Richardson.
Damphouse only spent one year in Edmonton before he was traded for Shayne Corson, Brent Gilchrist and Vladimir Vujtek.
Mellanby, before he was lost to the Panthers, and Corson were probably the most impactful part of 1989 draft pick branch, as the rest of the pieces were dealt for various nondescript players.
1991 first-round pick (No. 20 overall) – The Oilers used this pick to select forward Martin Rucinsky, who would go on to have a very solid NHL career. He just never did it for Edmonton.
Rucinsky played only two games for the Oilers before being traded to Quebec for goalie Ron Tugnutt and forward Brad Zavisha. Tugnutt would play 29 games for the Oilers before he was selected by Anaheim in the 1993 expansion draft.
Zavisha, after two games in Edmonton, was traded to Philadelphia in 1995 for defenseman Ryan McGill, whose career ended after just eight games with the Oilers.
1993 first-round pick (No. 16 overall) – This one is easy. The Oilers used this pick to select defenseman Nick Stajduhar, who would play two games in Edmonton and nowhere else in the NHL. His career was also derailed early on due to a concussion he suffered in an “off-ice incident” – he was sucker punched during a bar room fight, as legend has it- while playing in the AHL.
In the end, the Gretzky trade tree ended up growing in Edmonton for parts of two decades.
Its legacy is a complicated one.
On one hand, the best player who put on an Oilers jersey as a result of the trade was Carson, but he lasted less than two years there because he no longer wanted to play in Edmonton. The return for him (as well as Gelinas) ultimately helped produce another Stanley Cup in the post-Gretzky era, wrapping up the Oilers’ dynasty with five championships in a seven-year stretch. There is something to be said for that.
But there was also a ton of missed opportunity here, especially when it comes to the three draft picks, none of which made an impact in Edmonton long term.
And then there is the big “what if” question: While the Oilers won another championship post-Gretzky, it is worth wondering if they left more titles on the table had he remained in Edmonton. He was still in the prime of his career at the time of the trade and had some absolutely monstrous seasons in Los Angeles, winning three more scoring titles between 1989 and 1994 (with two other top-three finishes mixed in) and helped lead the Kings to the 1993 Stanley Cup Final. He did the latter with a far inferior supporting cast than what he would have had in Edmonton in some of those years had the Oilers kept him.
The Oilers got plenty of quantity (and, yes, another championship), but it still all has to be a disappointment, even 30 years later, when looking back at the what-ifs and where things went wrong after the initial trade.
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