What if the Vancouver Canucks didn’t trade for Markus Naslund?

Photo credit:Vancouver Canucks/ Twitter
Bill Huan
2 years ago
Over the past few weeks, we took a look at how the Canucks might have been impacted if they didn’t trade Todd Bertuzzi for Roberto Luongo in 2006.
Now, we’re going even further back in time and analyzing another significant deal in the team’s history: Alek Stojanov for Markus Naslund.
This trade wasn’t just one of the most lopsided deals in Canucks history, but the history of the league as a whole. Naslund would go on to become one of the franchise’s greatest players ever by developing into an elite winger and winning the Lester B. Pearson Award (the equivalent of the Ted Lindsay Award today) in 2002-03.
Stojanov, meanwhile, would only play 45 games for the Penguins and put up six points in the process.
Yeah, we think it’s safe to say that the Canucks came out on top.
If the deal hadn’t happened, though, the club would have been in (spoiler alert!) a much worse state; the West Coast Express era would have been entirely different, along with the development of the Sedins.
So without further ado, let’s dive into the details.

Timeline of events

On March 20, 1996, the Canucks traded Alek Stojanov to the Penguins in exchange for Markus Naslund.
At the time, Naslund was in his third season in the league and had established himself as a good top-six winger after putting up 52 points in 66 games in Pittsburgh. However, the respectable stats he put up didn’t tell the whole story of his career up to that point.
Before even arriving in the NHL, Naslund filed a lawsuit against the NHL due to issues concerning his status as a potential free agent. He luckily won the case and subsequently signed with the Penguins as a restricted free agent, but not before souring some of his relationships in both the organization and the league.
During his rookie season in 1993-94, Naslund struggled to produce and only put up 11 points in 71 games. He split time between the Penguins and Cleveland Lumberjacks (what a name!), which was Pittsburgh’s International Hockey League (IHL) affiliate at the time. Naslund was also scratched during the playoffs and didn’t dress for a single postseason game.
Due to labour disputes, the 1994-95 season was shortened, but Naslund’s frustrations didn’t change. He appeared in only 14 games and scored four total points while still spending time in Cleveland, and was also scratched for the second postseason in a row. Crucially, this was also the season in which he requested a trade out of Pittsburgh.
Naslund’s third year in the league was when he really broke out, but the ship had already sailed by then. He faced constant media scrutiny and was even nicknamed “Mr. September” at one point for playing well in training camp but disappearing during the regular season. As a result, the Penguins shipped Naslund to Vancouver, and the rest is history.
In contrast, Stojanov was a former seventh overall pick of the Canucks who had registered a single point for them during the season in which the trade happened.
Oh, and he also happened to play in 58 games.
No, that’s not a typo, but at the time, the deal wasn’t viewed as poorly as you might expect.
See, the Penguins still had some guys named Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, and Ron Francis on the roster, so they didn’t believe that additional scoring was needed. The late 90s was also a time when big, bruising power forwards who could act as enforcers were still in high demand, and Stojanov having a 6’4, 232-pound frame along with soft hands was just too alluring for Pittsburgh to pass up.
That’s how the Penguins convinced themselves into trading for Stojanov, who only appeared in 45 more games before finding himself out of the league. As lopsided of a deal as it looks today, there was a time when Stojanov had real potential, which was also derailed by some injuries he suffered in junior.
Looking back, it seems a bit reminiscent of the logic behind the Cody Hodgson-Zack Kassian deal, just on a much smaller scale. If Hodgson had reached his full potential in Buffalo, there might have already been a what-if article on that scenario (who knows, there might still be one…) but it’s a shame that injuries derailed his career too.
Regardless of how you view it, the Naslund trade was one of the greatest heists in NHL history, and without him, an entire era of exciting Canucks hockey would have been wiped out.

1996-2000 seasons: not much change

The Canucks aren’t impacted heavily at first without Naslund since he produced at a middling rate during the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons. Without the presence of another winger, the team is more hesitant about trading away Trevor Linden 1998. Unfortunately, his relationship with Mike Keenan proved to be untenable, so the former Canuck captain is still dealt to Long Island for Bryan McCabe, a 1998 third-round pick, and most notably, Todd Bertuzzi.
The absence of Naslund is soon felt in the 1998-1999 campaign as he begins establishing himself as an up-and-coming star in Pittsburgh. Without the young Swede, the Canucks accumulate fewer points but still remain second-last in the standings due to Tampa Bay having a historically awful season. Thankfully, this also means that the 1999 draft remains the same, with Brian Burke pulling off some wizardry to land both Sedins.
The Canucks struggle again in 1999-2000 without the production of Naslund, and the team falls from 18th (their original rank) down to 21st in the league. Instead of selecting Nathan Smith 23rd, the Canucks now have the 11th pick in the 2000 draft and select Pavel Vorobiev, who turns out to be a bust and doesn’t impact the club in any meaningful way.

2000-2002 seasons: A new West Coast Express?

Without Naslund to take on much of the scoring burden, the Sedins are thrust into a big role immediately. They struggle at first to adapt to the North American game and are heavily criticized by the media, which results in trade rumours surrounding the twins in just their rookie seasons.
Naslund had also broken out at this stage by becoming a point per game player for the first time in 2000-01. The Canucks’ lack of firepower buoys them in a state of mediocrity as the club misses the playoffs by finishing 18th at the season’s end. They are then rewarded with the 14th pick in the 2001 draft, but still decide to select R.J. Umberger.
The one bright spot on the team is the emergence of Bertuzzi, who continues his development into the power forward that the club was hoping Stojanov could become. Bertuzzi finishes the year with 50 points and shows flashes of even higher upside, but the only problem is that he doesn’t have consistent linemates to play with.
That’s where the Sedins come in.
In an attempt to find the twins a wingman, then head coach Marc Crawford puts Bertuzzi on their line.
Thankfully, the trio develops instant chemistry.
In 2001-02, their first season together, Bertuzzi becomes a point per game player from receiving passes from the Sedins. This also helps the twins make a more immediate impact and avoid being labelled as disappointments.
Even so, the Canucks are a one-line team that doesn’t have an MVP candidate in Naslund leading the way, which results in them missing the playoffs for another year. On the bright side, this means that they get to move up in the 2002 draft and pick 15th, but in classic Canucks fashion, they select another bust in Jesse Niinimaki who never plays a single game in the league.

That’s it for part one of this what-if! Stayed tuned next week as we see what becomes of the new West Coast Express, which will definitely impact some other trades down the line.

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