Notable NHL Captains Who Got Traded

The calendar recently turned to August, and disgruntled Buffalo Sabres captain Jack Eichel remains on the roster. Whether or not he needs significant surgery to repair any ailments he has is not the topic of discussion these days, instead, the Sabres claim to be in control of the process. They refuse to let Eichel go for nothing, despite the relationship with their captain being all but destroyed. 

A neck injury can be career ending and life-threatening. However, the Sabres and Eichel’s camp have yet to release the exact details of the injury, so most of us can only speculate what is really going on in Buffalo. 

Eichel’s name has been in the rumor mill for the better part of two seasons, but the captain’s agent recently came out and requested that his client get dealt. If and when that transaction occurs, he will join an exclusive group of star players, captains of their respective teams, who found themselves traded. 

10 Erik Karlsson – Sept. 13, 2018

Erik Karlsson was one of the best defensemen in the NHL at the beginning of the 2018-19 season. He spent his entire career with the Ottawa Senators, climbing their all-time scoring list while capturing two James Norris Memorial Trophies in the process. 

Erik Karlsson #65, Ottawa Senators
Erik Karlsson was the second Swedish captain in Senators history. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In 2012, Karlsson signed a new seven-year contract with the Senators with the hopes of playing his entire career in Canada’s capital city. The team had some decent success with him in the lineup, but by 2018 they had fallen to the bottom of the standings. Four seasons after trading their previous team captain, Jason Spezza, and five years removed from letting Daniel Alfredsson, their captain of 13 years, walk in free agency, the Senators once again let a leader get away. 

Karlsson made his way to the west coast, joining the San Jose Sharks in September 2018. He was part of a trade package that included Francis Perron going to San Jose, while Chris Tierney, Dylan DeMelo, Josh Norris, Rudolfs Balcers, a first-round pick in 2020, and a conditional second-round pick in 2021 going to Ottawa. Since the trade, neither franchise has had much success, with Ottawa hanging around the bottom of the league standings. Karlsson appears to be a shell of his former self in San Jose, however, it is not every day that a multiple-Norris winner and team captain gets traded. 

9 Ryan Callahan & Martin St. Louis – March 5, 2014

During the 2013-14 season, the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning were on different paths. The Rangers had a team ready to win the Stanley Cup with Henrik Lundqvist in the net. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, had failed to make the playoffs in five of the six seasons leading up to the 2014 trade deadline. 

Callahan has been a leader with the Lightning since day one. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Lightning captain, Martin St. Louis, serving his first season in the role, was unhappy with the situation in Florida. He didn’t hide his feelings as the relationship between the star player, and team management began to fall apart. When the time came, St. Louis requested a trade to New York, and the team worked out one of the only trades when a team captain got traded for another. 

Related: Revisiting the Callahan-St. Louis Trade

In New York, Ryan Callahan was in his third season as team captain. His relationship with the team began to break down when they couldn’t agree on a new extension. Unable to solve the problem internally, the Rangers shipped their leader to Tampa Bay. The deal broke down as such: St. Louis and a 2015 second-round pick went to the Big Apple, while Callahan, a first-round pick in 2014, a first-round pick in 2015, and a seventh-round pick in 2015 went south to the Lightning.

8 Mike Richards – June 23, 2011

The Los Angeles Kings had been to the Stanley Cup Final just once in their history, a five-game loss to the Montreal Canadiens in 1993. In the later part of the 2000s, they were stocking up on prospects like Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick, to name a few. The stars were aligning, and Los Angeles was on the verge of becoming kings of the league. 

Bill McCreary NHL referee
Mike Richards was the last captain to lead the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final. (THW Archives)

Mike Richards started his career in 2006, and by the start of the 2008-09 season, he was named captain of the Philadelphia Flyers. He was a vital member of the team who lost in the Stanley Cup Final in 2010, but the Flyers paid a heavy price to achieve their one shot at a ring. Philadelphia loaded up on expensive contracts in hopes of their first championship since 1976; however, it lost in six games causing management to disassemble the core. 

The Kings were a willing trade partner, acquiring Richards and Rob Bordson for a second-round draft pick in 2012, Brayden Schenn, and Wayne Simmonds. Within one year of the deal, Los Angeles won its first Stanley Cup and then won a second title in 2014. Richards was the veteran presence the Kings needed to get them over other powerhouse teams in the Western Conference.

7 Ron Francis – March 4, 1991

When Ron Francis retired from playing, he got into management, and after being let go as general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes, the Seattle Kraken ultimately hired him as their first general manager. The fifth-leading scorer (1798 points) in NHL history was an impact player with the Hartford Whalers during the 1980s, scoring 101 points in 1989-90. 

Ron Francis Hartford Whalers
Ron Francis, while a member of the Hartford Whalers. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Pittsburgh Penguins were a team on the brink of the ultimate prize, but were still missing a few pieces. The team’s general manager, Craig Patrick, swung a deal with the Whalers, acquiring Francis, Grant Jennings, and Ulf Samuelsson; all important players who put the team in the winner’s circle. The Penguins traded John Cullen, Jeff Parker, and Zarley Zalapski to Hartford in the exchange.

Within months of this transaction, Pittsburgh hoisted the first of back-to-back championships. Francis grew his legacy with the Penguins, scoring over 100 points twice and becoming the team’s captain when Mario Lemieux retired in 1997. He would return to the Hartford franchise, which relocated to Carolina and led them to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2002. 

6 Jaromír Jágr – July 11, 2001 

Lemieux was the Penguins’ greatest player from the moment they drafted him in 1984 until his first retirement in 1997. He did everything in his power to keep the franchise in Pittsburgh, including buying the team out of bankruptcy in 1999. After everything Lemieux did for the team on and off the ice, Jaromír Jágr took over the team and dominated the league from 1995-2001, winning five scoring titles. 

Jaromir Jagr Pittsburgh Penguins
Jagr is the second-highest scorer in NHL history. (Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images)

Jágr was morphing into the second-best player the franchise had ever seen, and many thought he would be a player to lead them to another championship. Unfortunately, things never went that way, and Jágr’s only two Stanley Cup rings came in his rookie season (1991) and sophomore campaign (1992). Francis took over for Lemieux when he retired as a captain; however, Jágr assumed the captaincy in 1998-99 — the first time in his career he had earned such an honor. 

Related: Revisiting the Capitals’ Disastrous Jagr Trade

Things didn’t work out when Lemieux returned to the club in December 2000, picking up where he left off. Jágr was still the captain, but not the main attraction anymore with his boss on his line. He had a hefty contract on the books, and to get out of the financial mess the team found itself in, they traded their captain and reigning scoring champion to the Washington Capitals. Jágr and Frantisek Kucera went to the Capitals for Kris Beech, Ross Lupaschuk, Michal Sivek. Although Jágr didn’t achieve the success he had in Pittsburgh, he did get a new massive new contract with the Capitals.

5 Jarome Iginla – March 27, 2013

Jerome Iginla was the heart and soul of the Calgary Flames, winning a handful of individual awards (Art Ross, Lester B. Pearson, Maurice Richard) during his 16 seasons in Alberta. He remains the longest-serving captain in club history, assuming the role in 2003-04 before a trade to the Penguins in 2013 ended his tenure. 

Jarome Iginla Flames
Iginla took pride in being the Calgary Flames captain, serving the community any chance he got. (Icon SMI)

This particular trade hurt the Flames fanbase because they watched Iginla grow from a young man into one of the game’s most respected players. Unfortunately, the team was no longer considered a Stanley Cup contender at this point of his career, failing to qualify for the playoffs for five seasons starting in 2009. Iginla’s only shot at winning a ring came in 2004 when the Flames lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in a seven-game series. 

Facing free agency in the summer of 2013 and uncertain of his future in Calgary, management traded their best player at the deadline to the Penguins. In a three-for-one deal, the Penguins traded a first-round pick, Kenny Agostino and Ben Hanowski for Iginla. For the first time in his career, Iginla had a fresh start and scored 12 points in 15 postseason games as the Penguins lost in the Conference Finals that season. It would be the second to last time one of the game’s best goal scorers would appear in the postseason. 

4 Joe Thornton – Nov. 30, 2005

The Boston Bruins drafted Joe Thornton with the first overall selection in the 1997 Entry Draft. At the time, the Bruins were struggling and in danger of losing their contender status after failing to make it deep into the postseason. As finalists in 1988 and 1990, they yielded the Stanley Cup, while back-to-back losses in the 1991 and 1992 conference finals were the last hurrah for a team that featured Hall of Famers like Ray Bourque, Cam Neely, and Adam Oates. 

Joe Thornton
Many people forget that Thornton was once captain of the Boston Bruins. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

The Bruins’ historic playoff run of 39 years ended in 1996-97, signaling a change in the hockey market that was unseen for almost a generation. Thornton would be the franchise’s new face, picking up where Bourque left off whenever he planned to retire. Unfortunately, as you will read later, Bourque was traded, and the Bruins became Thornton’s team much sooner than anyone expected. 

Despite Thornton’s successes, the Bruins struggled and never went deep into the playoffs. Management felt it was time to take the team in a new direction and traded their captain of three seasons out west to San Jose. The Bruins received Wayne Primeau, Brad Stuart, and Marco Sturm in a three-for-one deal. Thornton then set career highs with 96 assists and 125 points to win the Art Ross and Hart Trophies with San Jose. To this day, Thornton is the only athlete in the four North American sports leagues history to be traded and then be named as the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) in the same season. 

3 Mark Messier – Oct. 4, 1991

When you walk into Madison Square Garden and close your eyes, you can probably still hear legendary commentator Sam Rosen yelling, “The waiting is over — the New York Rangers are the Stanley Cup Champions! And this one will last a lifetime!” That moment in hockey history may not have happened if Mark Messier never requested a trade from the Oilers. (from ‘Mark Messier trade got Rangers the right player at right time,’ NY Post, 06/09/2020)

Mark Messier of the New York Rangers
Messier is the only captain in NHL history to lead two different franchises to the Stanley Cup. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

Messier was a vital part of the Oilers dynasty that won five Stanley Cups titles in seven years, serving as captain during the 1990 playoff run. He was handed the “C” shortly after the Wayne Gretzky trade in August 1988. Instead of playing in the shadow of The Great One, The Moose (Messier’s nickname) finally had the team to himself. Messier proved to the hockey world he was indeed a phenomenal leader who could get results by winning the league’s two Most Valuable Player awards in 1990. 

The Rangers traded Louie DeDrusk, Bernie Nicholls, Steven Rice, and future considerations (David Shaw) for Messier and future considerations (Jeff Beukeboom). Within three seasons of putting on a Rangers uniform, Messier led the Rangers to their first Presidents’ Trophy (1991), won the Hart Memorial Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award for a second time (1992), then guaranteed a playoff victory before scoring a hat trick, and finally broke the game’s longest championship drought after 54 years. 

2 Ray Bourque – March 6, 2000

In one of the league’s most emotional trades, the Bruins traded their longest-tenured player to the Colorado Avalanche. Bourque became co-captain (with Rick Middleton) in 1985-86. He remained in the role until 2000, building a Hall of Fame career in the process. Bourque was a 19-time All-Star and a five-time Norris Trophy winner, finishing his career with 1,579 points, most for a defenseman.

Ray Bourque Colorado Avalanche Joe Sakic
Most players want to retire on top. Bourque got to live out his dream and leave on his own terms. (Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images)

The trade broke the hearts of every fan in the New England area because the man who gave so much never won the Stanley Cup with the black and gold. He requested a trade with the hope of landing with a contender and achieve the only thing that had eluded him his entire career. 

The Avalanche sent Martin Grenier, Samuel Pahlsson, Brian Rolston, and a 2000 or 2001 first-round pick. The Bruins opted for a 2000 pick, selecting Martin Samuelsson. Meanwhile, the Bruins sent Bourque and Dave Andreychuk west to the Avalanche, who lost that season’s conference finals. Andreychuk moved on after the season, missing out on Bourque’s send-off celebration the next spring with the Cup held high over his head. 

1 Wayne Gretzky – Aug. 9, 1988

It is no surprise that the trade that sent The Great One from a Stanley Cup champion to a Stanley Cup contender would come in as number one on any list involving notable transactions in league history. 

The Edmonton Oilers traded their captain, the best player in the league, just a couple of months after winning their fourth championship in five seasons. Included in the deal were Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski from the Oilers. Meanwhile, the Kings shipped one of their top prospects, Jimmy Carson, along with Martin Gelinas, and three first-round picks in 1989, 1991, and 1993. Rumors say that Oilers owner Peter Pocklington was in financial trouble, so Los Angeles included $15 million cash in the deal. 

Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton Oilers
The Gretzky trade in 1988 changed the game forever. (Photo by B Bennett/Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

Edmonton carried on without much interruption, winning the Stanley Cup again in 1990. Since then, the franchise has only been to the Final in 2006, losing a Game 7 nail-biter to the Hurricanes. Los Angeles became an instant contender but failed in their only Final appearance with Gretzky in 1993 to the Montreal Canadiens. 

The trade shocked the hockey world and help build the league’s reputation in California, which now has three franchises. When Gretzky agreed to the transaction, it showed that no player is untouchable and that the NHL is still a business at the end of the day.  

Conclusion

The list of NHL captains traded is pretty long. This article highlighted some of the most notable names and the impact those players had on their new teams. Many players depart teams via free agency; however, some found themselves in some of the most significant trades in league history. 

The game’s greatest player was dealt twice in his career, which means that anyone is tradeable for the right price. When superstars like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews don’t extend their contracts on the first day of eligibility, their names pop up in the rumor mill, and could alter the structure of this list if they end up dealt at some point during their careers. 


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