I spent last weekend camping and canoeing on the Pokomoke River, but did not want to let an important Capitals anniversary slip by without mention. On Sept. 9, 1982, Washington general manager David Poile – at 33, the youngest GM in NHL history and less than two weeks into his tenure – made what is certainly the best trade in franchise history and one of the best ever in the NHL.
Poile sent quality (defenseman Rick Green and center and team captain Ryan Walter) to Montreal for quality and quantity: defensemen Rod Langway and Brian Engblom, center Doug Jarvis and winger Craig Laughlin. It’s not that the deal propelled the Caps to any Cup championships. It’s not that the guys the Caps got were great and the guys they gave up were stiffs. It’s simply that the deal saved the franchise.
Legend has it that when Poile was negotiating his own contract with former Caps owner Abe Pollin, days earlier the young GM insisted on a three-year deal, rather than the one-year pact that was being offered. Pollin relented in the end, figuring if things did not turn around in a year the franchise and Poile’s contract would someone else’s problem in some other North American city.
After eight straight losing seasons and dwindling attendance, the Capitals were on the verge of leaving town. A group of concerned fans had formed the “Save the Caps” committee. More local newspaper ink was devoted to the Caps’ plight that summer than is used during the entire regular season these days. The Capitals teetered all summer, then Pollin brought in team president Dick Patrick, who in turn hired Poile. Fourteen consecutive playoff appearances followed.
But what would possess Montreal to make such a deal?
The Habs were only three years removed from the last of their four consecutive Stanley Cup titles in the mid-1970s, but patience has a different definition up north. While the Caps had endured all eight seasons of their existence without so much as a single playoff contest, the Habs had claimed a phenomenal total of 16 Stanley Cups over the previous 30 seasons. Expectations and stakes were much higher in the hockey hotbed to the north.
The Caps sputtered to a 26-41-13 mark in 1981-82, finishing last for the third consecutive season and the sixth time in eight years. Montreal finished 46-17-17, earning an eighth straight division title and eclipsing the 100-point barrier for the eighth straight season. But after the Habs were bounced in the division semi-finals of the 1982 playoffs, Montreal general manager Irving Grundman began to get antsy. He had been trying without success to escape the long shadows of his predecessors.
Frank Selke (18 years) and Sam Pollock (14 years) had presided in the Habs’ GM chair during the team’s glory years. Grundman grabbed the reins in 1978-79 when Pollock stepped down. Pollock’s name is etched on the Cup nine times as the team’s general manager; Grundman is listed as the team’s “managing director” for the ’78-79 Cup champs.
Pollock’s specialty was dealing away aging vets to poor NHL clubs in exchange for what would almost invariably turn out to be top draft choices. In 1976, he obtained the Colorado Rockies’ first-round pick in the 1980 NHL draft, which turned out to be the first choice overall. With Grundman at the switch and the 1980 draft being held in Montreal, the Habs passed on flamboyant Denis Savard, a scoring star with the Montreal Juniors of the QMJHL. Instead. Grundman opted for Western League center Doug Wickenheiser. The locals were not pleased with the choice, or with Grundman.
By the end of the 1981-82 season, Savard had played in an NHL All-Star Game and had registered a 119-point sophomore season. Wickenheiser was still struggling to establish himself. Having squandered one of Pollock’s prescient picks and having seen the Habs exit the playoffs early three years in a row after four straight Cup titles, Grundman’s collar was feeling a bit tight in the summer of 1982.
The 1981-82 Caps had scored a franchise record 319 goals. Dennis Maruk set club records that still stand with 60 goals and 136 assists that season. Washington boasted five 30-goal scorers. But without goaltending and defense, the Caps were confined to the cellar. With the team’s status uncertain, the Capitals had done nothing to address their shortcomings over the summer. Training camp was days away when Poile and Grundman struck their fateful deal.
In Green and Walter, Washington was surrendering two of its best players. Green was the first overall choice in the 1976 NHL Draft, while Walter was selected second overall in 1978. At the time of the deal, Green was 26 and Walter 24 years old. Although his career had been beset by some nagging injuries, Green was Washington’s top defenseman, and he often played more than 30 minutes a night. Walter had been named the Caps’ captain at the start of the 1979-80 season. At 21, he was the youngest captain in NHL history at the time.
Walter was a personal favorite of Pollin’s, but Poile was well aware that Grundman also coveted the talented young center. Grundman and the Habs also believed that Langway’s career would be cut short because of dried blood in the knee that had weakened the muscle in his left leg.
Langway was 25 at the time of the deal, and was coming off a plus-66 season. The 27-year-old Engblom was even better at plus-78. Jarvis was also 27 at the time of the deal, a checking line center coming off a 20-goal season in which he was also plus-34. One of the league’s top faceoff men, Jarvis filled a glaring need for the Caps in that department. The durable pivot was also in the midst of what remains the longest iron-man streak in league history; he played in 964 consecutive games.
Laughlin was 10 days shy of his 25th birthday when the deal was made. After four seasons at Clarkson College and a season and a half with the AHL’s Montreal Voyageurs, Laughlin had scored 12 goals in just 36 games as a rookie with Montreal in 1981-82.
You probably know the rest. The Caps trimmed their goals against by more than half a tally a game in ’82-83, earning their first-ever playoff berth in the process. Langway became the first Washington player to win a major NHL award (Norris Trophy) in 1982-83, and the first U.S.-trained player to win the Norris. He won the trophy again the following season and quickly became the face of the Capitals, one of the NHL’s most successful regular season teams throughout the remainder of the decade.
Poile later spun Engblom into Larry Murphy; Murphy and Langway both went on to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Jarvis won the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward in 1984, and remains the only Capital ever to win the award. Laughlin enjoyed several solid seasons in Washington and has gone on to enjoy a lengthy career as the color analyst on the team’s television broadcasts.
More than anything else, the deal brought stability to the district. The team had employed three general managers and eight head coaches over its first eight seasons, but the duo of Poile and Bryan Murray stayed in place throughout the remainder of the decade.
Up north, the 1982-83 season was Grundman’s last with the Canadiens. He was later elected to the city council in Montreal, but had to resign in disgrace after admitting that he accepted a bribe to change a zoning bylaw. Grundman pled guilty and received 23 months of community service and a $50,000 fine. Green and Walter both stuck around long enough to win a Cup with the Habs in 1986.
It’s not a stretch to say that David Poile’s presence in Washington was as important and well timed as that of George Bailey in Bedford Falls. No Poile, no Capitals.
Moving along, it should be interesting to see the reaction around the league to the Ryan Kesler offer sheet. The “gentleman’s agreement” among NHL GMs to not poach other teams’ RFAs was conveniently ignored by Philadelphia’s Bob Clarke, and why not? With Flyers captain Keith Primeau apparently set to retire and training camp about to start, Clarke has a hole to fill.
The 22-year-old Kesler totaled 10 goals and 23 points for Vancouver in 2005-06, his first full season in the league. The Canucks were not expected to pay him much more than his qualifying offer of $564,000, while Kesler was said to be looking for a bump over his $772,000 salary of a year ago.
Vancouver’s first pick (23rd overall) in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, Kesler played collegiate hockey with Washington’s Dave Steckel at Ohio State in 2002-03. The Canucks have a week to match Philadelphia’s generous offer, and not a lot of salary cap room with which to do so. If they choose not to match, they will receive a second round draft choice from Philadelphia. That’s not much to show for a first round pick and all the time and money you’ve invested in him along the way.
By the way, how interesting is it than no one has tried this with the Devils’ trio of unsigned RFAs, Brian Gionta, Paul Martin and David Hale? It would cost significantly more (first, second and third round picks) to sign Gionta to an offer sheet of say, $3.9 million. And you’d have to get Gionta to sign it, too. If he did and the Devils did not match, you’d have a 48-goal scorer. What are the odds of one of those three compensatory draft choices developing into a 48-goal scorer? Not very good.
If Gionta signed and the Devils did match, you’d put New Jersey right up against the salary cap, making it almost impossible for the team to sign Martin and/or Hale. You could then swoop in and sign one or both of them.
I’d be surprised if one or more of New Jersey’s divisional rivals hasn’t at least entertained such fiendishly diabolical (or diabolically fiendish?) thoughts. Hurting one of the best teams in your division on and off the ice while helping yourself on and off the ice is win-win. But people – including NHL GMs – fear and respect New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello.
Dave Nonis? Not so much, apparently.