Earlier this week, I broke down my 10 top trade-deadline deals of the salary-cap era. For every coup of a trade that puts a contender over the top, of course, there are many more flops, major acquisitions that cost teams significant pick-and-prospect capital and yield poor returns.
The very reason GMs are reticent to make major rental moves on deadline day is the notion that, with one bad bounce or game, they could bomb out in the first round of the playoffs and wind up losing some important foundational players and picks for pretty much nothing.
As we sort through my choices for the worst trade-deadline deals of the cap era, we’ll carry over some rules from my “best” list in that the rankings will focus on the buyer team. The spirit of trade-deadline day is the Stanley Cup contender going all-in, right? The criteria:
(a) The trade is considered a flop from the contending team’s perspective rather than the seller team’s perspective. The sellers sometimes make bad moves on deadline day but are often handcuffed, forced to sell off expiring assets for the best offers.
(b) A deadline flop can be defined as a deal in which the main acquisition performed poorly, a deal in which the contending team paid way too much and got too small a return, or some combination of both.
(c) The trade must have occurred within give or take a week of the deadline.
With that, here are my top 10 trade-deadline flops of the cap era, which began in 2005-06.
10. Toronto Maple Leafs acquire Nick Foligno from the Columbus Blue Jackets for a 2022 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick (Corson Ceulemans) as part of a three-team trade: April 11, 2021
Foligno made a ton of sense for Toronto on paper. He brought leadership, grit and the type of versatility that made him usable at any forward position on any line. But it just…fizzled, largely because he suffered a back injury in early May. It nagged him for the rest of the season, and he played just four of Toronto’s seven postseason games before the team’s fifth consecutive opening-round exit. So Toronto surrendered a first- and second-round pick for seven regular-season games and four playoff games of a hollowed-out Foligno husk.
9. New York Rangers acquire Eric Staal from the Carolina Hurricanes for a 2016 second-round pick (Artur Kayumov – CHI), a 2017 second-round pick (Luke Martin) and Aleksi Saarela: Feb. 28, 2016
It’s easy to misremember this one and think the Rangers paid a reasonable price for a declining Staal. But he was only 31 when the trade happened. He still had a 42-goal season ahead of him. Nothing about his performance in Broadway blue made sense. Staal cratered to three goals in 25 games, including none in five playoff games, as a Ranger rental. There were no hindsight revelations about injuries or any logical explanations as to why he flopped so badly. It was likely the product of struggling to find himself in a third-line center role when he was still talented enough to play higher in an NHL lineup.
8. Boston Bruins acquire Rick Nash from the New York Rangers for a 2018 first-round pick (Jacob Bernard-Docker – OTT), a 2019 seventh-round pick (Massimo Rizzo – CAR), Matt Beleskey, Ryan Lindgren and Ryan Spooner: Feb. 25, 2018
Sadly, the Bruins weren’t trading for the real Rick Nash, who was one of the most gifted and agile big-man scorers of his generation. They got a broken-down version for what turned out to be the final games of his concussion-shortened career, and it cost them a first-rounder plus a serviceable defenseman in Lindgren. Nash could only muster six goals in 23 games, largely because he suffered a concussion in March not long after being acquired and never bounced back from the lingering effects.
7. Washington Capitals acquire Kevin Shattenkirk and Pheonix Copley from the St. Louis Blues for a 2017 first-round pick (Morgan Frost – PHI), a conditional 2019 second-round pick, Brad Malone and Zach Sanford: February 27, 2017
This one was hyped in the moment. The Capitals were hell-bent on breaking through as real Stanley Cup contenders after a decade-plus of disappointment in the Alex Ovechkin era. They paid up to get one of the sport’s premier puck-moving blueliners at the time in Shattenkirk. He simply didn’t jive with their system on a pair with aging stay-at-home bruiser Brooks Orpik. With the two of them on the ice at five-on-five that post-season, the Caps were outscored 6-0 in 13 games. Since they were bounced in the second round and Shattenkirk departed as a UFA, the conditional second-round pick in the deal wasn’t triggered.
6. Atlanta Thrashers acquire Alexei Zhitnik from the Philadelphia Flyers for Braydon Coburn: Feb. 24, 2007
Aw, bless those Thrashers. They were seven years into their existence and poised for their first playoff appearance. I guess then-GM Don Waddell got a little excited. He sacrificed one of the franchise’s top prospects in the towering Coburn, who was just cutting his teeth as an NHLer — for what amounted to four playoff games of the grizzled veteran Zhitnik. Woof. Zhitnik was quite effective down the stretch for Atlanta, logging almost 26 minutes a game and amassing 14 points in 18 contests, but the New York Rangers absolutely steamrolled Atlanta in Round 1 of the playoffs. Atlanta didn’t make it back the following season, which was Zhitnik’s last. Coburn never realized his potential but spent half a decade or so as an important top-four contributor on the Flyers’ D-corps.
5. Chicago Blackhawks acquire Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise from the Montreal Canadiens for Phillip Danault and a 2018 second-round pick (Alexander Romanov): Feb. 26, 2016
Oops. Danault was, supposedly, a first-round bust, unable to break through as a regular during the glory days of the stacked Chicago teams, which won Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015. The Blackhawks barely used Danault and treated him as an expendable throw-in as they added established depth forwards Fleischmann and Weise. Those two were total non-entities on a team that fell to the St. Louis Blues in Round 1 of the playoffs. Meanwhile, Danault blossomed into an elite two-way center, and Romanov established himself as one of the Habs’ primary long-term building blocks on defense.
4. Vegas Golden Knights acquire Tomas Tatar from the Detroit Red Wings for a 2018 first-round pick (Joe Veleno), 2019 second-round pick (Samuel Fagemo – LA) and 2021 third-round pick (Adrian Hreschuk): Feb. 26, 2018
Everything broke right during Vegas’ magical 2017-18, the greatest expansion season in major-pro sports history. Well, almost everything. The Tatar trade was a disaster. He contributed five goals in 28 games between the regular season and playoffs and was a mere passenger during Vegas’ run to the final, healthy scratched more often than not. The Golden Knights were able to weasel out of their predicament by including him in a trade to Montreal for Max Pacioretty the ensuing summer, and Tatar found himself for a while as a Hab, but that doesn’t change the fact he was a horrible deadline acquisition for Vegas in 2018.
3. Minnesota Wild acquire Martin Hanzal, Ryan White and a 2017 fourth-round pick (Mason Shaw) from the Arizona Coyotes for a 2017 first-round pick (Pierre-Olivier Joseph), a 2018 second-round pick (Kevin Bahl), a conditional 2019 pick (Eric Hjorth) and Grayson Downing: Feb. 26, 2017
Why rank this deal so highly? Just walk up to a Minnesota Wild fan, say “Martin Hanzal,” and watch their face curdle. This one stung. It wasn’t just that the two-way pivot Hanzal didn’t end up moving the needle for a Wild team that lost in five games in Round 1. He had only one playoff point but delivered his usual brilliance in the faceoff circle and was hardly the team’s scapegoat. The problem was that the Wild couldn’t really afford to surrender the first-rounder at the time. Their farm system wasn’t bursting with talent, they didn’t have much salary-cap flexibility to sign veterans and the trade ended up setting back their pipeline development. Owner Craig Leipold later expressed regret over it.
2. St. Louis Blues acquire Ryan Miller and Steve Ott from the Buffalo Sabres for a 2015 first-round pick (Jack Roslovic – WPG), 2016 third-round pick (Linus Nassen – FLA), William Carrier, Jaroslav Halak and Chris Stewart: Feb. 28, 2014
The Blues felt they had the horses to win it all in 2013-14, en route to a 111-point season. Getting a Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender was the missing piece. But it just didn’t play out that way with Miller. He excelled in Buffalo while often lifting up a weaker team but, in St. Louis, joined a team adept at suppressing shots and lightening its netminders’ workloads. Perhaps that threw off Miller’s rhythm. He posted an uncharacteristic .903 save percentage in 19 regular-season contests as a Blue and tumbled to .897 in St. Louis’ first-round playoff exit.
I remember speaking to coach Ken Hitchcock after that season, asking what went wrong with Miller, and Hitchcock contrasted the situation to when Ed Belfour first joined his Dallas Stars teams in the late 1990s. Belfour came in as a UFA and worked with the team from training camp, developing chemistry, whereas Miller had to adjust midseason and get a feel for how St. Louis’ blueliners received pucks from him and played odd-man rushes. Miller never got comfortable, Hitchcock explained, and that was why Miller was such a trade-deadline bust.
1. Washington Capitals acquire Martin Erat and Michael Latta from the Nashville Predators for Filip Forsberg: April 3, 2013
The staggering thing about this trade: it was a foresight 20-20 situation, not hindsight. Most hockey pundits immediately lambasted Capitals GM George McPhee for sacrificing one of his best young forward prospects in a desperate rental deal for middling playmaker Erat. He was a horrific bust in Washington, delivering two goals and 27 points in 66 games between the regular season and playoffs in parts of two seasons. As for Forsberg? He’s five goals away from passing David Legwand for the Predators’ all-time lead.