In sports, not every trade works. Not every trade is spun gold. And that being the case, being a successful general manager means having to have a short memory. Fans do not have that burden. They remember, especially the bad trades, sometimes to the point of obsessive discomfort. And sometimes, fans place too much burden on thoughts of “what might have been” with respect to trades.
That brings us to June 13, 1987. It was the day of the annual entry draft, this one being held at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan. The Capitals had other issues to deal with, in addition to their draft picks. Goaltender Bob Mason, who was coming off a 20-win season for the Caps (but an unfortunate finish), informed the club that he would not be returning to the team and signed with the Chicago Blackhawks as a free agent. It left a hole in net for the club, and the front office addressed the matter by making a trade with the Quebec Nordiques.
The trade seemed simple enough, if hugely significant concerning the players involved. It was a two-for-two swap of roster players, forwards Alan Haworth and Gaetan Duchesne going to Quebec, and goalie Clint Malarchuk and forward Dale Hunter coming to Washington. And, it involved players in their prime, none of them older than 26 (Hunter was the oldest, less than two months short of his 27th birthday).
But it was the non-roster player part of the trade that would take on significance in Capitals lore as the years went by. The Capitals also sent their first round pick in the 1987 entry draft to the Nordiques in the deal. With that pick, the 15th pick of the first round, the Nordiques selected a center from the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League, Joe Sakic. One might not have foreseen it at the time, but Sakic would have one of the legendary careers in NHL history and was arguably the most accomplished player in that 1987 draft class. Of his 1987 cohort, Sakic ranks fourth in career games played (1,378), second in goals (625), first in assists (1,016), first in points (1,641). He won the Hart Trophy (most valuable player) and Pearson Award (now the Ted Lindsay Award as most outstanding player) in 2000-2001. He was named to the All-Star Game 12 times and was a first team NHL All Star three times. Sakic appeared in the postseason 13 times in his 20-year career, playing in 172 games, scoring 84 goals (seventh in NHL history), posting 188 points (ninth), recording 19 game-winning goals (tied for third), and won the Stanley Cup twice (he was the Conn Smythe winner as MVP of the postseason in 1996).
Although Dale Hunter’s career is remembered fondly by most Capitals fans (even as his style of play would not suggest “fondness”), many of those same Capitals fans might ask themselves, “what if?” What if the Caps had held the pick and taken Sakic? Would their arc of history been different?
Considering those questions, we are still left with the Caps having the matter of shoring up their goaltending. Pete Peeters would have been the only returning goaltender (the Caps traded Al Jensen to the Los Angeles Kings earlier in the 1996-1987 season). And it was not as if the Caps were deep at the position in their system. If you look at their draft picks at the position in the five drafts leading up to 1987 (Jim Holden, Jamie Reeve, Alain Raymond, Marty Abrams, Jim Hrivnak, and Shawn Simpson), there were no apparent sure-fire pros in that group. Raymond (one game) and Hrivnak (85 games) would be the only ones ever to dress in the NHL. Clearly, there was work that would have remained at the position on the parent roster.
But perhaps more important, there was the matter of the Caps’ draft history that renders such “what if” speculation irrelevant in hindsight. This was not the golden age of Capitals’ draft choices, especially in the first round. The Caps hit home runs with first round picks in 1981 (Bobby Carpenter) and in 1982 (Scott Stevens), but then the dark time set in. From 1983 through 1990, their first round draft history of skaters was as follows:
- 1983: No pick
- 1984: Kevin Hatcher
- 1985: Yvon Corriveau
- 1986: Jeff Greenlaw
- 1987: No pick (this was the pick traded to Quebec that was used by the Nordiques to take Sakic)
- 1988: Reggie Savage
- 1989: No pick (they took goalie Olaf Kolzig in the first round)
- 1990: John Slaney
That group played a combined 1,796 regular season games in their respective NHL careers, but 1,157 of them were accounted for by Hatcher. The five combined for 964 games played for the Caps, 685 of those by Hatcher.
It would be reasonable to wonder, even if the Capitals were inclined to take a forward, one out of the Western Hockey League, even one from the Swift Current Broncos, whether that player would have been Joe Sakic, of whom it was said at the time, “he doesn’t have much quickness,” and “usually, a player of this calibre would be certain to go in the top five. The reason he probably won't is his size and average skating ability." Or, would the Caps have gone for a teammate of Sakic’s, one of whom it was said, “he is a good skater, has a great shot and is described as a dependable and good positional player, " and “[he is] strong”, and who himself recorded 31 goals in 52 games in the 1986-1987 season with Swift Current after arriving from the Kamloops Blazers in a trade?
Would the Caps have taken Peter Soberlak, who would be taken with the 21st overall pick in the 1987 entry draft by Edmonton? Soberlak never played in an NHL game.
The choices made in real time are rarely an either-or proposition. Those are the luxuries of hindsight.