NHL Stars & Their “Almost Teams”

At this point, most NHL fans know that Eric Lindros reshaped two organizations when the Quebec Nordiques traded him to the Philadelphia Flyers in 1992. The Flyers received a franchise superstar, and the Nordiques walked away with a slew of assets, including Peter Forsberg.

The Lindros trade also impacted the New York Rangers, who believed they had a deal in place to acquire the power forward. In fact, the NHL had to bring in an independent arbitrator to determine whether the Rangers’ or the Flyers’ trade offer stood, since both were accepted by the Nordiques.

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In the end, the Flyers “won” when the arbitrator ruled in their favor. But it could also be argued that the Rangers won as well – the players they held onto directly or indirectly helped the franchise capture the 1994 Stanley Cup. That said, in the grand scheme of things, Lindros was almost a Ranger.

With that in mind, let’s explore a few other scenarios where NHL stars almost joined other teams. Doing so would have greatly altered the trajectory of the player’s career, their old team, and the franchise that attempted to acquire them.

Wayne Gretzky – Detroit Red Wings

Surprising, right? When the Edmonton Oilers explored trading The Great One in 1988, it came down to the Detroit Red Wings and the Los Angeles Kings, with the latter ultimately acquiring Gretzky.

Wayne Gretzky, Edmonton Oilers
Wayne Gretzky skating with the Edmonton Oilers. (Photo by B Bennett/Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

I covered this at length previously – Gretzky preferred the opportunity to create his own legacy in a new city over a chance to follow in his idol’s footsteps. But the idea of No. 99 in a Red Wings sweater seems far-fetched these days – even though it almost came to fruition.

Related: Wayne Gretzky – The Great One’s 10 Most Unbreakable Records

Steve Yzerman – Ottawa Senators

Speaking of the Red Wings, the Original Six franchise considered trading star center Steve Yzerman a few years after the Gretzky blockbuster. This was before the 1997 and 1998 Stanley Cups – when they were on the verge of greatness, but couldn’t get over the hump.

Steve Yzerman Detroit Red Wings
Steve Yzerman skating with the Detroit Red Wings. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)

The Senators offered an intriguing return for Yzerman: Alexei Yashin. Keep in mind, this happened when Yashin was in his prime and well before he crashed and burned with the New York Islanders.

Think about it: the then-30-year-old Yzerman grew up outside of Ottawa and was coming off one of worst seasons from a statistical standpoint. Yashin, on the other hand, was a rising star at 21 and would have completed the Russian Five. (Note that these discussions took place before the acquisition of Igor Larionov.)

Surely, Red Wings fans are thankful this trade never panned out.

Joe Sakic – New York Rangers

Yep, that’s correct. Joe Sakic almost became a Ranger.

Imagine if the Avalanche did not match New York’s offer sheet back in 1997. The Rangers had just reached the Eastern Conference Final earlier that spring – Sakic could have propelled them to new heights, especially with Mark Messier off to the Vancouver Canucks.

On the note of offer sheets, a few other NHL stars attempted to join new teams before their old clubs retained their services:

  • Keith Tkachuk – Chicago Blackhawks (1995)
  • Sergei Fedorov – Carolina Hurricanes (1998)
  • Shea Weber – Philadelphia Flyers (2012)
  • Ryan O’Reilly – Calgary Flames (2013)

If these five offer sheets were not matched, today’s NHL landscape and recent history could look a lot different than it looks now.

Mark Messier – San Jose Sharks

Believe it or not, Messier was actually dealt to the San Jose Sharks in 2003. There’s a catch, though.

Before the 2004-05 NHL Lockout, there were rules in place that granted teams compensatory draft picks if they lost key unrestricted free agents. Messier’s trade to the Sharks was a workaround for the Sharks to receive one of those picks. It also allowed the Rangers to recoup some assets.

“Because New York has intentions to sign other unrestricted free agents, the Rangers would not qualify to receive a compensatory pick if they lost Messier. In trading his rights, New York at least gets some value by taking advantage of a loophole teams exploit in the current collective bargaining agreement that expires after next season.”

–Ross McKeon, San Francisco Chronicle (from ‘Sharks acquire rights to Messier — temporarily’ – San Francisco Chronicle – 7/2/03)

Messier ultimately re-signed with the Rangers that summer. But for a brief moment, he was a Shark – despite never playing a game for them.

Alex Ovechkin – Florida Panthers

I’m sure this one will make Washington Capitals fans cringe: Alex Ovechkin could have been a Florida Panther if former GM Rick Dudley had his way.

Alex Ovechkin Washington Capitals
Alex Ovechkin skating with the Washington Capitals. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

During the 2003 NHL Draft, Dudley attempted to select 2004-eligible Ovechkin in the ninth round. His birthday missed the 2003 draft cut-off by just two days.

“Dudley tried to convince the NHL that if you subtracted the leap-year days that had been added to the Gregorian calendar during the course of Ovechkin’s lifetime, he actually turned 18 by the required date,” noted Sportsnet’s Ryan Dixon, “so the Panthers tried to draft him in the ninth round in 2003.”

Dudley’s request was denied, of course. That said, imagine if Gary Bettman had allowed the Panthers to proceed with selecting Ovechkin, who was already staking his claim as the top player of the 2004 draft class. It wouldn’t have been the first time the NHL stepped in to assist a franchise in need of a boost.

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