Stéphane Richer, picked in the early second round of the 1984 NHL Draft by the Montreal Canadiens (29th overall), made a name for himself as a young goal scorer in the NHL. With Montreal, he broke into the league at age 19, scoring 21 goals in 65 games with an 18.8 shooting percentage. In the 1985-86 season, Richer won the Stanley Cup, scoring four goals and an assist in 16 games as the 40-33-7 Canadiens beat the Calgary Flames four games to one. At the time, the New Jersey Devils was a bottom-of-the-barrel team, led by 22 year old Greg Adams and 19 year old Kirk Muller, who had 77 and 66 points that season, respectively. With Alain Chevrier and a 37 year old Chico Resch playing at goaltender, the Devils had a whopping 4.61 goals against average, and finished that season 29-49-3.
Kirk Muller was selected in the same draft as Richer - one pick after Mario Lemieux as Muller was selected second overall by the Devils. Muller was great with the Devils as he put up 520 points in 556 regular season games, and led the team to the infamous Prince of Wales Conference Finals of 1988 as the Devils’ captain, scoring 37 goals and 57 assists in the regular season. Muller had something of a weaker playoff performance where five Devils outscored his four goals and eight assists. The Bruins went on to lose to the Edmonton Oilers in the Cup Final.
Richer had his highest scoring season two years later, as he scored 51 goals and 40 assists for the Montreal Canadiens. Richer led his team in scoring as Patrick Roy had an insane 47.15 GSAA during the regular season, but the Canadiens ran into the Boston Bruins in the Conference Semi-Final. Richer had a good postseason, with seven goals and three assists - but he also only on the ice for nine of the eleven games that Montreal played. The Bruins went on to lose to the Edmonton Oilers in the Cup Final.
The Walk-out: On September 17, 1991, Kirk Muller - captain of the New Jersey Devils - walked out of training camp to force renegotiation of his contract. At the time, Alex Yannis of the New York Times had this to say about Muller’s decision to walk out.
Lamoriello, the president of the Devils, was told by Gus Badali, the agent for Kirk Muller, that the captain of the team had decided to walk out of training camp effective this morning until his contract was renegotiated.
Badali went a step further this afternoon in a telephone interview from his Toronto office. He said that Muller’s days with the Devils were numbered unless a deal was struck fairly soon.
This was on top of Ken Daneyko’s decision to walk out of the same training camp. After the Devils acquired the contracts of Peter Stastny and Scott Stevens, Kirk Muller was the third highest player on the team. Lou Lamoriello, famed for wanting a tight grip on his team, was likely not in a negotiable mood, as Scott Stevens had not yet reported to the Devils following the arbitration hearing that ruled him a Devil as compensation for the Blues’ signing of Brendan Shanahan.
Without his captain or his new superstar defenseman, Lou Lamoriello had to act fast to ice a full team before the preseason ended.
The Trade: On September 20, 1991, The New Jersey Devils traded Kirk Muller and Roland Melanson for Stéphane Richer. As far as blockbuster trades go, this was one of the most fateful for both teams - but it arose out of contract disputes.
Since Muller was in a contract dispute with the team, Lamoriello gave the impression that trading Muller was to serve the purpose of sending a message to the team, as Daneyko was holding out over his contract and Stevens had not yet reported to the team. Lamoriello denied this sentiment. Alex Yannis wrote about the trade:
Lamoriello admitted, however, that Muller’s desertion of the team Monday morning made him think. He said he had discussions with Serge Savard, his Montreal counterpart, only in the last few days. “The team is bigger than anyone,” Lamoriello said. “We felt we had an opportunity to do something to improve our team. I’m looking at this as an improvement for our team.”
At the time, Kirk Muller was the franchise-leading scorer. The Devils would need a new captain and a new top scorer. At the time of the trade, Muller had 520 points in 556 games. Second to Muller was John MacLean, who had 441 points in 546 games with the Devils at the time. While Muller was a great player, Stéphane Richer was known as one of the most explosive wingers in the league - and Lamoriello took the opportunity. When Richer was traded to the Devils, he had 198 goals and 168 assists in 413 regular season games with a 16.7 shot percentage. 144 of his goals were even strength goals compared to Muller’s 109 with the Devils - and Richer’s great shot and one-on-one skill would be a boon for the Devils.
Richer on the Devils: Stéphane Richer made an immediate impact with the New Jersey Devils - as he was expected to. In 1990-91, Richer had 61 points in 75 games, scoring 31 goals on 221 shots. In the playoffs, he had nine goals and five assists in 13 games, but the Canadiens lost to the Bruins in the semi-final (who for once did not lose to the Oilers in the Stanley Cup but the Penguins in the Conference Final). Expectations were high for Richer on the Devils - but then injury struck hard to cap off one of the craziest months in New Jersey Devils history.
On September 30, the pre-season debuts of Stéphane Richer and Scott Stevens were both made, as the Devils beat the Islanders 9-1. But in the first period, John MacLean had went down with a knee injury - and the man who caused the injury is currently quite an important man in the Devils organization. Alex Yannis wrote about a scrum that occurred as a result of goaltender interference committed by the Devils:
Except for Chris Terreri, the goaltender of the Devils, all the players on the ice got involved in the melee. MacLean, who found himself underneath Tom Fitzgerald of the Islanders, was writhing in pain when he got up and skated off.
Tom Fitzgerald, current interim GM of the New Jersey Devils, was the man on top of John MacLean that likely caused the torn ACL in his right knee. Thus, John MacLean would be out for the whole season - right after Lamoriello’s hellish end to an offseason that included two holdouts, the pre-season trade of his captain, and a month-long saga involving the Scott Stevens arbitration. Yannis continued in the article:
Richer and Stevens did what they do best in their home debut. The flamboyant Richer scored three goals and Stevens was a force at the blue line.
Stéphane Richer had a solid first season with the New Jersey Devils, scoring 29 goals - 23 of which were even strength - along with 35 assists. The only Devil with more points was Claude Lemieux - as he had 41 goals that season. Without John MacLean, the Devils finished fourth in the Patrick Division with a 38-31-11 record, and made it into the playoffs. Against the first place New York Rangers, Richer put up a measly single goal and two assists as the Devils lost in seven games.
In his second season, Richer finished third on the team in scoring. Claude Lemieux hit his career high of 81 points, Alexander Semak scored 79 points, while Stéphane Richer led the team in goals with 38 (73 points). In his return to the Devils, John MacLean only had 48 points in 80 games. While the team had more scoring than the year before, their defense suffered - giving up 40 more goals than in 1991-1992. In the playoffs, the Devils were steamrolled in five games by the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Richer had two goals and two assists in those games, tying Scott Stevens and Bruce Driver for the team lead in playoff points. With Chris Terreri and Craig Billington giving up 22 goals on a combined .860 save percentage, a team-leading scorer of four points in five games would not be enough.
Muller in Montreal: That same year, Kirk Muller would tie his career high with another 94 point season (his 37 goals and 57 assists were also the same counts as 1988). As the second leading scorer on the Canadiens behind the 97-point scoring Vincent Damphousse, Muller helped lead Montreal into the playoffs at third place in the Adams Division with a 48-30-6 record. In the playoffs, Montreal was bothered most by the Quebec Nordiques, who were led by Mats Sundin and Joe Sakic, as Quebec won as many games (two) as the next three teams Montreal played. After falling back two games to none against Quebec, Montreal won the next four in the series, which included an overtime goal in Game Five by Kirk Muller.
In the Stanley Cup, the Canadiens took on the Los Angeles Kings, who had five Hall of Fame skaters on the team. Luc Robitaille had a 63 goal, 62 assist regular season. Jari Kurri had an 87 point season for second on the team. Rob Blake and Paul Coffey anchored the Kings’ defense - and Wayne Gretzky returned from a herniated disk to score 65 points in 45 games in the playoffs. Robitaille lost some steam in the playoffs, but Gretzky was as good as ever - scoring 33 points in the first three rounds (19 games). The Kings only won one game in the Stanley Cup Final, however - and Gretzky scored four points that game. For the rest of the series, he only scored one goal and tallied two assists as the Canadiens took the Kings down. Muller, second on the team with 10 goals and 17 points in the playoffs, happened to score the game-winning goal in the clinching game.
Richer Proves His Worth: At a glance, it would have seemed Lamoriello had “lost” the trade when Muller won a Stanley Cup with Montreal. But riding the consistent scoring of Stéphane Richer, the comeback season of John MacLean, Scott Stevens’ career-high 78 point season, and the emergence of Martin Brodeur, the Devils had their best regular season ever in 1993-94 with a 47-25-13 record - good for second in the Division. Us Devils fans know how that season unfortunately ended, but the stage was set for next season. Stéphane Richer was the perfect offensive forward for Jacques Lemaire’s trap system. As Richer told Rich Chere in 2015,
“We had guys who could score 30-35 goals a year but we believed in our system. I would’ve liked to score 45 goals, but that wasn’t the plan. The plan was for all of us to play well defensively.
In 1995, the Devils again finished second in theirr Division despite the roughr season for Martin Brodeur. Scott Stevens dropped to 22 points in 48 games, and John MacLean only had 29 points (17 goals) in 46 games. The far-ahead team leader in scoring was none other than Stéphane Richer - who had 23 goals and 16 assists in 45 games. Without Richer’s season - where he scored goals at a higher per-game clip than any other season with the Devils, the Devils might not have made it into the playoffs. In the playoffs, Richer continued to shine.
In Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals, after Jim Montgomery opened the scoring for the Philadelphia Flyers, Stéphane Richer scored a rare power play goal past the halfway mark into the period. Later in the game, he got a secondary assist on Claude Lemieux’s 11th goal of the postseason, and the Devils were headed to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in their history.
Lemieux might have been the best goal scorer those playoffs, but Richer was great in the Cup Final against the Detroit Red Wings. Halfway through the game, Kris Draper took a roughing penalty after the whistle, and the Devils went to the power play. Seconds off the draw, Richer unloaded a slap shot on Mike Vernon.
Richer kicked off the scoring in the 1995 Final, and the Devils really never looked back. After Dino Ciccarelli tied the game later in the period, Claude Lemieux scored the game winning goal of Game One. Richer did not get an assist in Game Two, but he did get the empty net goal.
In Game Three, Stéphane Richer got on the scoresheet for his fourth game in a row. On the power play in the third period, with the score already 3-1, Devils, Stéphane Richer struggled to handle a pass in the neutral zone, and reached his stick out to prevent Nicklas Lidström from getting the puck. With Lidström off-balance, Richer was able to sneak a pass for Bill Guerin, who sent it across for Bobby Holik.
In Game Four, Stéphane Richer did not open the scoring as he did in Game One, but he very much created the goal. On the heels of three wins, the Devils were looking to put the Red Wings Down. Hounded by Lidström, who was hooking and slashing at Richer speeding into the zone, Richer sent a puck around a diving Mike Ramsey, which deflected off of Neal Broten into the net.
The Devils, of course, had to come back from a 2-1 deficit after goals by Sergei Federov and Paul Coffey - but Richer as a tone-setter in the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals. Without Richer, they would not have made it that far - and his team leading 21 points in the playoffs was instrumental in their victory.
As the Devils had a disappointing 1995-96 season, so too did Stéphane Richer. After scoring 39 points in the shortened season, he only had 20 goals and 12 assists in 73 games with the Devils as they missed the playoffs. On August 22, 1996, Stéphane Richer was traded back to the Montreal Canadiens for Lyle Odelein, who was traded for Deron Quint and a third round pick on March 7, 2000. Richer was late reacquired by the Devils on March 19, 2002 from the Pittsburgh Penguins for a seventh round draft pick. In the last ten regular season regames of his career, Richer scored a goal and had two assists, followed by three scoreless playoff games against the Hurricanes. Richer retired in August of that year at 36 years old.
The Deal in Retrospect: Devils fans should be glad that this deal was made. With the captain of the team holding out in an already-turbulent offseason, I don’t blame Lamoriello for unloading Muller. From the trade, both teams involved got a Stanley Cup, Montreal got a much better return when they traded Muller (Pierre Turgeon and Vladimir Malakhov), but the Devils got a great goal scorer who provided much-needed even strength offense on the 1995 Devils - who happened to have an awful power play during the regular season.
Even with the better return that Montreal got for trading Kirk Muller - they never won a Stanley Cup again. For that matter, they never made it to a Stanley Cup Final again. The deal made between the Devils and Canadiens helped both teams win a cup in the early to mid 90s - and had very little bearing on their respective success after that. While the Canadiens struggled to regain their footing in the late 90s, and never made it back to the Conference Finals until 2010, Stéphane Richer was the leading Devils forward on the team that kicked off a dynasty.
Your Thoughts: How did you feel at the time of the trade? Or, if you, like me, were either not watching hockey or hadn’t been born yet, how do you think you would have felt? Do you think the Devils should have traded him after the 1996 season? How do you think the Devils and Canadiens would have respectively fared if this trade never happened? Do you think Richer should be held in higher regard for his time with the 90s Devils? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.