It’s been over 22 years since the fateful day when, in some people’s interpretations, a broke Peter Pocklington sold the sport itself to the Americans by dealing/selling the greatest hockey player who ever lived to the Los Angeles Kings. Peter Puck had been shopping Wayne Gretzky around for months prior to their 1988 Stanley Cup victory, to teams like Los Angeles, Detroit, Vancouver, Winnipeg and the Rangers.
Glen Sather, who objected to the trade as strenuously as a GM is capable and even threatened to resign, was eventually persuaded by the Great One to support the deal. The press conference was an emotional one, with genuine tears shed by normally stoic warriors. The announcement caused an immediate uproar across Canada, to the point where Member of Parliament Nelson Riis asked the government to intervene in a truly historic fashion, and to acquire the legendary scorer themselves.
It’s understandable to still feel a range of strong emotions about hockey’s most famous trade. Did the trade cost the Oilers several more Cups? Did it truly mark the end of Canadian control of the league? Did it set off a chain reaction that ultimately led to the Winnipeg and Quebec franchises moving to Phoenix and Colorado?
Given the emotional impact of the trade, is it even possible to objectively determine who really won this trade? Is it conceivable that it might even have been a good move for the Oilers? Using the dispassionate eye of GVT, which measures in goals the value a player provides to a team both offensively and defensively relative to a replacement-level player, we can determine which team walked away with the greater collection of assets August 9th, 1988.
How It Looked
The trade certainly didn’t look very good that day. The Oilers were giving up three players in their prime who had already combined for over 750 goals, 2000 points and 9 Stanley Cup rings. Gretzky already had 1086 assists which, at the time, was already an NHL record, ahead of Gordie Howe’s 1049 and Marcel Dionne’s 1024. Arguably it was only an injury that broke Gretzky’s incredible streak of 8 consecutive Hart Trophies and 7 consecutive Art Ross trophies.
Age Player GP G A PTS +/- GVT
27 Wayne Gretzky 696 583 1086 1669 +551 339.8
28 Mike Krushelnyski 452 146 196 342 +166 54.3
25 Marty McSorley 247 24 40 64 -14 9.8
TOTAL 1395 753 1622 2075 +703 403.9
And what were the Oilers getting? Fifteen million in cash, three first round draft choices, and a couple of kids. Even for the known commodity Slats insisted on Luc Robitaille, but was forced to settle for Jimmy Carson.
Age Player GP G A PTS +/- GVT
20 Jimmy Carson 160 92 94 186 -24 32.9
Walking away with only one NHL player was as incredibly high-risk deal for the Oilers. The prospect and three picks could have resulted in absolutely nothing, an extension of their dynasty, or anything in between.
So What Happened?
We all know how things worked out for the Kings. Gretzky would win the Hart trophy his first season in Los Angeles, but never again, and add only three more Art Ross awards to his massive trophy case. At the time of the deal Gretzky had already achieved well over half of his scoring, and two thirds of his goal scoring. The Kings would never win the Stanley Cup, and see the Finals only once.
Player GP G A PTS +/- GVT
Wayne Gretzky 791 311 877 1188 -33 202.0
Marty McSorley 714 84 211 295 -4 61.4
Mike Krushelnyski 445 95 132 227 +13 25.2
TOTAL 1950 490 1220 1710 -24 288.6
Fortunately both the prospect and one of the picks worked out well for the Oilers, and together they contributed more than Gretzky from that point forward. Martin Gelinas and Martin Rucinsky would outscore Gretzky 550 to 311, and 1272 to 1188 in points, earning 22.2 more goals above replacement value than the Great One.
Player GP G A PTS +/- GVT
Martin Gelinas 1273 309 351 660 +52 117.9
Martin Rucinsky 961 241 371 612 +46 106.3
Jimmy Carson 466 183 192 375 +3 60.8
Nick Stajduhar 2 0 0 0 +2 0.2
Jason Miller 6 0 0 0 0 -0.4
TOTAL 2708 733 914 1647 +103 284.8
The only known commodity the Oilers received was the young Jimmy Carson, and though the benefit of hindsight reveals that he was worth less than Marty McSorley at the time of the trade, the Oilers shrewdly and quickly leveraged his talent to get Petr Klima and Joe Murphy from the Detroit Red Wings, who helped bring one more Stanley Cup to Edmonton in 1990.
So Who Won the Trade?
Even to the dispassionate eye, the Los Angeles Kings still won the trade, but it was by fewer than 5 goals. This trade was hardly the disaster that people anticipated at the time, or that more emotional fans still believe today. In fact, it’s remarkable how such a crapshoot could have turned out so evenly for both teams.
Both teams walked away winners that day. The Los Angeles Kings, and California hockey in general, enjoyed a boom under Wayne Gretzky, the likes of which they surely wouldn’t have enjoyed with Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas and Martin Rucinsky. And imagine how great a deal it would have been for the Oilers if they had gotten Luc Robitaille instead of Jimmy Carson, or if they had drafted Saku Koivu or Todd Bertuzzi instead of Nick Stajduhar, or had perhaps gotten a better prospect than Corey Foster from New Jersey for L.A’s first choice in 1989. Even with their relatively average luck, the Oilers still walked away with assets that would ultimately prove to be equivalent in value.
Even after 22 years the debate over this trade rages on, and though the objective eye of GVT is unlikely to end it, it might at least add some clarity. This trade was practically dead even, and suited the needs of both teams at the time.