Claude Lemieux has a featured place in New Jersey Devils history. He is best remembered for shadowing and shutting down opposition wingers while putting up 13 goals in the playoff run that ended with the team’s first Stanley Cup. Lemieux was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the playoffs. He is also remembered for being a total pain to play against as he would constantly goad opponents. So much so that you could call him the Grate One. Lemieux was also a very good player in general, he was more than a “clutch” performer. So much so that the Devils traded for Lemieux twice. As far as I can tell at NHL Trade Tracker, that in of itself is rare. Let us look back in history to kick off a week of looking at notable Devils deals in the past.
The First Claude Lemieux Trade
The Deal: On September 4, 1990, the New Jersey Devils traded Sylvain Turgeon to the Montreal Canadiens for Claude Lemieux.
The Background: The genesis for this trade on the Devils’ side goes back to June 17, 1989. General manager Lou Lamoriello sought to add another scoring winger to the lineup in the wake of a 1988-89 season that saw the team miss the playoffs after the team’s first run in 1988. Pat Verbeek in particular had a poor season in terms of production with 26 goals and 21 assists in 77 games. This came after a breakout season in 1987-88 where he potted 46 goals - which was the franchise record until Brian Gionta broke it in 2005-06 - and 77 points. In retrospect, it was just an off season but a change had to be made and Lou chose Verbeek among others to change.
Hartford’s Sylvain Turgeon was available. In 1988-89, he had an injury-shortened season to just 42 games. He did put up 16 goals and 14 assists in those games and the 24-year old was still thought to have plenty of offense in his game. After all, in his 21-year old season in 1985-86, he scored 45 goals and 34 assists. While he did not come close to those marks in following seasons, some were beset by injury. He was still young and he also was not taking nearly as many penalties in minutes as the Little Ball of Hate. So a one-for-one deal took place.
This deal did not work out in the Devils’ favor. Turgeon did put up 30 goals and 17 points in 72 games in the 1989-90 season. It was not like he was a total bust. While the team did end up making the playoffs, Turgeon was not one of the team’s featured producers like John MacLean, Kirk Muller, Patrik Sundstrom, or the burgeoning Brendan Shanahan. As Verbeek was thought to be one of the team’s top forwards, the expectations for Turgeon were higher than just to put up two more points than Mark Johnson. The sting was really felt when one looked at the Whalers that season. Verbeek absolutely flourished in Hartford. His off season in 1988-89 was just that as he put up 44 goals and 45 season. He received some votes for the NHL All-Star teams as he set a career high in points. Imagine if the Devils never made that deal. Given how much Verbeek was a fan favorite at the time, I think there were a lot of fans that were not happy with the deal. While that sentiment faded with time, the Verbeek for Turgeon deal is regarded as one of the worst trades in Devils history.
Therefore, heading into the 1990-91 season, Lou was faced with the same issue. How can they add more offense? And perhaps someone with an edge? While this was being asked in New Jersey, there were issues up in Quebec.
Claude Lemieux was an established player with the Montreal Canadiens. The winger had a few tastes of the NHL before getting 10 games in the 1985-86 regular season and appearing in 20 games in the 1986 playoff run where Montreal won the Cup. The attention for that run mostly went to Patrick Roy, but Lemieux played a significant role given he scored ten goals and six assists. He led the team in goals and finished behind Mats Naslund in points. From then on, he became a regular. While he was not a high-end scorer, he did more than just chip in while playing his chippy, two-way style. The 1989-90 season was a rough one for Lemieux. He was only able to play in 39 regular season games due to an abdominal injury. He did get into 11 playoff games for Montreal but only contributed a goal and three assists.
There were issues off the ice, too. Lemieux was not happy with how much head coach Pat Burns played him among other spats. According to Coach: The Pat Burns Story by Rosie DiManno, this came to a head when Lemieux refused to join the Canadiens for training camp, which was held in Moscow at that time. Lemieux went to Montreal general manager Serge Savard and asked for a trade. Savard agreed to do that and sought to make a deal. In September, Savard and Lou got to talking and the move was made.
The Impact of the Deal: The one-for-one trade of Lemieux for Turgeon was a massive victory for the Devils. It did not immediately seem that way as Lemieux put up the same number of goals and points in 1990-91 as Turgeon did in the 1989-90 season. However, Lemieux was feister, shot the puck more, and played better defense. His 30 goals was second to John MacLean’s 45 among the players. In the same season, Turgeon was only able to play in 19 games for Montreal as he missed most of the season due to hernia surgery and a kneecap injury. At the least, the Devils received more value than they would have had in keeping Turgeon.
The 1991-92 season was where any doubts of the deal were blown out of the water. Lemieux broke out in a huge way as he led the Devils in goals and points with 41 goals and 27 assists. While the 1992 playoffs ended in first round against the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins, Lemieux finished second in playoff scoring behind Peter Statsny with four goals and three assists. Lemieux was playing like the player Devils fans and management hoped he would. Turgeon, on the other hand, managed to be in more games but he was only able to put up nine goals and eleven assists in 58 games. He would be exposed and claimed by Ottawa in the 1992 expansion draft. In DiManno’s book on Burns, general manager Savard wished Burns and Lemieux could have reconciled. I do not blame him; this deal was one of the poorer ones in Montreal history.
The value of the deal grew for the Devils in time. The 1992-93 season was another important one for Lemieux and the Devils. Once again, Lemieux led the team in scoring with thirty goals and fifty-one assists. He was one of the team’s most important forwards. However, he butted heads with head coach Herb Brooks. Lemieux was benched for a few games because of this as the beef continued to roast. According to Herb Brooks: The Inside Story of a Hockey Mastermind by John Gilbert, Brooks and went to management to make a choice. Either Lemieux goes or he goes. Dr. John McMullen liked Lemieux and so Lou chose Lemieux. Brooks resigned in May. This led to Lou needing to hire a new coach. In June 1993, Lou found and hired Jacques Lemaire.
Lemaire would be the architect behind the bench responsible for how the Devils would play. He was a key reason in the team’s rise to become the contenders in the mid-1990s. Lemieux’s production may have dropped in 1993-94 and in 1994-95, but he played Lemieux, knew his worth and skills, and utilized him effectively in the 1994 and 1995 playoff runs.
The Deal in Retrospect or Who Won This One: The Devils won this one. There is no question that this was one of the best trades in Devils history. Lou managed to trade his way out of a problem into events that led to a top scorer for the team for two seasons, an effective pest of a two-way forward throughout his time in New Jersey, and the player was a reason why Lemaire was hired at all. All that plus someone who played a key role for the team’s first ever Stanley Cup.
The Second Claude Lemieux Trade
The Deal: On October 3, 1995, the Devils sent Claude Lemieux to the New York Islanders for Steve Thomas. The New York Islanders sent Lemieux to the Colorado Avalanche for Wendel Clark.
The Background: Nothing gold can stay. Months after winning the Stanley Cup with New Jersey and earning the Conn Smythe Trophy, the relationship between Lou and Lemieux was toxic. Enough to the point where Lou publicly stated he would trade Lemieux. What happened? What would go wrong?
The short answer: Arbitration. The longer answer is a bit more complicated.
What happened with Lemieux ended up being a situation presented in Sports and Courts: An Introduction to Principles of Law and Legal Theory Using Cases from Professional Sports by Frederick J. Day. On June 30, 1995, the Devils faxed a contract worth $5.2 million over four seasons to Lemieux. Lemieux signed this contract. However, Lemieux regretted the decision and contended that this was not a valid contract because he signed a faxed copy and not an original copy. Lemieux refused to show to training camp until this was resolved. The matter was taken to an arbitrator in September. The arbitrator agreed with the Devils’ argument that signing the faxed contract was as legitimate as signing the original document.
However, arbitration hearings tend to wreck relationships between the player and the team. It is where business is paramount and every side is arguing for themselves. I do not know what was said, but it must have been significant. On October 1, 1995, wire services (link goes to the Spokane Spokesman Review) reported that Lou would trade Lemieux even though the Devils won the hearing.
It was more common back then for players to hold out and go to arbitration, which would generally lead to trades. Free agency was not as free as it is today. Per the Baltimore Sun, Colorado and the Islanders had their own disputes. Wendel Clark was unhappy that the Avalanche were not willing to renegotiate his contract despite a promise made to do so. Steve Thomas was holding out from the Islanders for a new contract. Three teams had three forwards who were unhappy. So they decided a change of scenery was best for all involved. Lemieux to the Isles for Thomas, who signed a three-season contract with New Jersey; and then Lemieux to the Avs for Clark to play out his deal whilst Lemieux signed a deal with Colorado. (By the way, a young me did not know any of this, so I was just bummed he was dealt at all. Writing this now, I totally understand it.)
The Impact of the Deal: Lemieux became an infamous figure for the Avalanche. Colorado was on the rise in those days and he was a significant part of their team in the 1995-96. Lemieux put up 39 goals and 32 assists, fourth in points to Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, and Valeri Kamensky. In the team’s run to the Cup, he put up five goals and seven assists in 19 games. That is not a lot but he showed he could still bring it in the playoffs in following seasons. While Lemieux’s regular season totals became more modest, he finished tied in goals across the league in playoff scoring in 1997 with 13; he put up three goals and three assists in the 1998 playoffs that ended early for Colorado in seven games; and he put up three goals and eleven assists in Colorado’s run in 1999 that ended in the Western Conference Finals. All the while, Lemieux became the most hated sports man in Detroit and a revered player in Denver, as per Joe Dunham’s description way back at Mile High Hockey.
Clark, whom I associate so much with Toronto that I forgot he was an Islander, appeared to do well in his short time on Long Island. In 58 games with the Isles, he did put up 24 goals and 19 assists. He was not the throwdown enthusiast he was in the past but he was providing value. As Dan Saracini wrote at Lighthouse Hockey, the season was lost and was both coached and managed by Mike Milbury (note: Milbury became GM during the 1995-96 season so he did not acquire Clark), so it made sense to deal Clark away. Fittingly, he was sent back to Toronto in a rather substantial trade. Clark, defenseman Mathieu Schneider, and DJ Smith was sent to Toronto in exchange for Kenny Jonsson, Darby Hendrickson, Sean Haggerty, and Toronto’s first round pick in 1997. This pick would end up being fourth overall and used on goaltender Roberto Luongo. Which would have been great for the Isles had they not traded Luongo away to Florida years later. Oh, Milbury.
Out of this three-way deal, the Devils acquired the greatest hockey player to have ever been born in Stockport, England: Steve Thomas. Thomas was in the league for quite a while and had a reputation for being a hard-nosed winger that had a knack for scoring. Not so much to be a star, but enough that he could fit on a lot of a teams. He did end up playing in 1,235 NHL games and scored 421 goals. Prior to the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, he did put up 37 goals and 89 points in 1992-93 and 42 goals and 75 points in 1993-94. There was reason to believe at the time that Thomas could be a solid producer for the Devils. To a degree he was. As much as fans understandably want to forget the 1995-96 season, Thomas did lead the team in goals with 26 and points with 62. He did that much. And he did was part of a line known as Hell’s Angels with a young Petr Sykora and Dave Andreychuk in the following season that had an impact for a time. While the Devils would go on to have great regular seasons in 1996-97 and 1997-98, Thomas’ contributions were fewer than what he did in his first season in New Jersey. He only scored fifteen and fourteen goals respectively in those seasons; he put up just 34 and 24 points in those same seasons; and he played fewer than sixty games in both. Thomas played out his contract and hit the market in the 1998 offseason. Toronto signed the 35-year old, who had two fairly productive seasons before playing out his career for multiple teams in the early 2000s.
The Deal in Retrospect or Who Won This One: Colorado won this deal without question, both in the short-term and long-term. Lemieux contributed more for the Avs than Clark did for the Isles or Thomas did for the Devils. He did more than both combined in terms of longevity - four seasons - and success. He helped Colorado earn their first Cup, produced well in following playoff years, and earned the kind of love in Denver that a player would get for a player that you would hate to play against but would love on your team. Clark did not last the whole season with the Isles. It would be one thing if they had kept Luongo, but Milbury had to be himself so that was never realized. As for the Devils, again, Thomas was OK in spots but he did not make a significant impact on the team and he walked in free agency. Colorado took the prize - and would get a kind of return in the future.
The Third Claude Lemieux Trade
The Deal: On November 3, 1999, the Devils traded Brian Rolston and a conditional third-round draft pick in 2001 to Colorado for Claude Lemieux, Colorado’s second round draft pick in 2000, and the option to swap first round picks in the 2000 NHL Draft.
The condition for the 2001 third rounder was based on whether Lemieux would re-sign with the Devils. If he did, the Devils give Colorado that pick. If not, then no pick is exchanged.
The Background: The Devils were looking for a playoff performer. While the Devils bounced back from missing the playoffs in 1996, they went into the 1997, 1998, and 1999 playoffs with great regular season records and high hopes and left each of them early. The team won all of one playoff series since winning the Cup in 1995. While there were many core players from the 1995 Cup-winning team still on the roster in 1999-2000 such as Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens, and Bobby Holik, there were plenty of noticeable absences. Lemaire was gone as the team was coached by Robbie Ftorek and assisted by Larry Robinson. Bill Guerin was gone. John MacLean was gone. Bruce Driver was gone. Neal Broten was long gone. Stephane Richer was gone. The team was transitioning to a new core group being led up front by Jason Arnott, Patrik Elias, and Petr Sykora. Recent newcomers like Scott Gomez, Brian Rafalski, John Madden, and Jay Pandolfo claimed their roles. Few doubted that they could be a great team in the regular season, but the organization was just as tired as the fans of the early exits. If the team needed anything, then it was another veteran presence with playoff experience to help them get over the proverbial hump.
Meanwhile, in Colorado, Claude Lemieux was well-regarded but his time in Denver was coming to an end. He was in the final season of his contract. Lemieux was 34 and not what he used to be as a scorer. Younger players were commanding and earning more minutes, such as Milan Hejduk, Alex Tanguay, and Adam Deadmarsh. Lemieux was also somewhat expensive with his contract having him earn $2.4 million in that season. From the perspective of general manager Pierre Lacroix, one could see how they wanted to get something for the pending free agent. Surprising to Lacroix, as per this ESPN article about the trade, it was the New Jersey Devils that were interested. The terms were discussed and on the evening of November 3, 1999 and about fifteen minutes before Rolston took to the ice for warm-ups for a Devils-Montreal game, he was given the news that he was dealt. (And a younger me was happy to see Lemieux come back as Rolston struck me as a good but not great player. Lemieux was at least great in the past.)
The Impact of the Deal: News of the deal broke right before the Devils-Montreal game, which the Devils won 3-2, and it was discussed during the Fox Sports New York broadcast of the game. Here is a clip of Matt Loughlin relaying some of the reactions each player felt about the deal to Doc. It was initially seen as a surprise that Lemieux was coming back to New Jersey. Both Lemieux and Lou have strong personalities. While the Devils won the arbitration case in 1995, Lou publicly announced that Lemieux was getting traded and did so shortly after then. Would they get along? Apparently so. In these two articles by Mark Everson at the New York Post from November 4 and November 5, both Lou and Lemieux made it clear that the past was the past and they would get along. Which was an issue at the time since Ftorek had to clarify that a “me first” attitude on the team meant himself and Brendan Morrison demanded a trade.
Lemieux did get off to a good start to the 1999-2000 season in terms of production with the Avs with three goals and six assists in thirteen games. (And, amazingly, just four penalty minutes) In New Jersey, Lemieux’s rate of production was lower but it was not bad at all for a role player. He put up seventeen goals, twenty-one assists, and 221 shots (!!) in 70 games with the Devils in the regular season. While the Devils’ season was great, the pressure was still on for playoff success and Robinson took over as head coach prior to the end of that season. Would Lemieux help out in the playoffs? Yes. His two-way play earned him plenty of minutes to assist the team in their games. While four goals and six assists in 23 games on its own may not seem like a lot, he finished tied for fifth on the team in playoff points along with Scott Gomez and Bobby Holik. Among those ten points include the primary assist on Sergei Nemchinov’s power play goal that sealed the sweep of Florida in the first round, two assists in New Jersey’s Game 3 win over Toronto, and scoring the first goal of the game in the 2-1 win in Game 6 against Philadelphia. Lemieux was asked to play a role and he did that well. The Devils wanted playoff success and achieved the ultimate success: a Stanley Cup. Business was taken care of and that was pretty much the end of Claude Lemieux’s second run in New Jersey. Lemieux hit the free agent market and ultimately signed with Phoenix (now Arizona) in December 2000. He played two seasons before being traded in the third one to Dallas, played abroad for many years, and then returned for one last hurrah in San Jose in 2009.
As far as Rolston goes, he made a comment - the end of this ESPN article about the deal - after the trade that he wanted a fresh start and that he could be more than a defensive player. He would show that albeit for another team. Rolston’s time in Colorado was not productive or memorable. After just scoring three goals and putting up one assist in eleven games with the Devils, his lack of points would continue in Denver. In fifty games, Rolston put up only eight goals and ten assists along with 107 shots. Whatever slap shot he could provide on the power play yielded just one power play goal. Not that Lemieux lit the world on fire in New Jersey but he was serving his role. If the Avs wanted Rolston to be a secondary scorer behind Sakic, Forsberg, Hejduk, and so forth, then that was not working out. And when management sees something is not working out, they seek to change it.
On March 6, 2000, Rolston was traded for the second time this season. And it involved two of the three assets from the Lemieux deal. The deal was Rolston, Martin Grenier, Samuel Pahlsson, and New Jersey’s first round pick to Boston for Dave Andreychuk and Ray Bourque. Yes, that Ray Bourque. The defenseman who did it all for Boston wanted his Cup and Colorado sought to make that happen with Rolston. Bourque would not get his Cup in 2000. He would in 2001. At the expense of the Devils. Sigh. Rolston, by the way, did see his production blossom with the B’s.
The picks were used as follows. Back then, a team’s record decided the playoff order. The Devils finished 1999-2000 with a better record than Colorado, so they understandably used the option to swap first round picks. This meant the Devils moved up to 22nd overall and Boston, who had this pick from the Bourque deal, would select 27th. The Devils selected defenseman David Hale. Boston selected forward Martin Samuelsson. This Martin Samuelsson did not make an impact in the NHL; he played just 14 NHL games. Hale was a defensive defender that started to break through to the depth of the Devils’ blueline in the mid-2000s. He was dealt to Calgary in 2007 for a third round pick that would become Nick “Not Related to Kyle” Palmieri. Hale would bounce around the NHL for a few more seasons, finally scored a goal in his fifth season and ended up playing 327 games. Not exactly what you would hope for in a first round pick, but he did much more than Samuelsson. It was also much more than what Matt DeMarchi accomplished, whom the Devils selected in the second round in 2000 with Colorado’s pick in the deal. Lemieux never re-signed, so New Jersey kept their third round pick in 2001 and used it on Robin Leblanc. Leblanc never played in the NHL.
The Deal in Retrospect or Who Won This One: This is not a simple question.
The Devils ended up getting exactly what they wanted out of the trade. They wanted a proven veteran performer to play a role in both ends of the rink and was very familiar of “what it took” in the postseason. They got that in Lemieux and the Devils won a Cup in 2000. They gave up Rolston to do it and they were right to think that they could afford to do that. Especially with Madden and Pandolfo rising up to become prime defensive forwards for the decade. The picks ended up working out in favor of the Devils in that they did not give Colorado an extra pick. While Hale was not a massive success and the second rounder did not pan out, it was not like the Devils’ first round pick came back to haunt them or they lost a third rounder out of the deal either. Rolston did not play well in Colorado, so if you isolate the deal from everything that happened after, then the Devils won it.
However, you cannot isolate the deal from everything that happened after. Rolston’s main value to the Avalanche primarily came from how they flipped him as part of a package for Bourque and Andreychuk. While Andreychuk did not do particularly well in Colorado and would have to wait longer for his Cup opportunity, Bourque did very well for the Avs. Even at his advanced age of 39 and 40 years old, he still took on a huge amount of minutes, put up plenty of points from the back end, and commanded a lot of his shifts in Colorado. He finished second for the Norris Trophy in 2000-01 and made the NHL First All-Star team. He also was a big reason why Colorado won a Stanley Cup at the expense of the Devils in 2001. This was not some old guy looking for an opportunity to pitch in, this was a old guy who had a lot left to give and gave a lot make it so - although I still wish it did not happen. Colorado made the most of their end of the deal in the end. They wanted to add an offensive player to supplement their offense that can also skate well and defend. They ended up moving him for two future Hall of Famers, one of whom did not play well and Ray Bourque absolutely did. They would get their Cup, just in the following season.
With that in mind, I’m calling this one a push. Again, if you just focus on the deal by itself, then it’s clearly another win for Lou. But I do not think you can separate this trade as it directly led to the Avalanche acquiring Bourque, who did play a major role in the stretch run of the 1999-2000 season, their 2000 playoff run that ended to Dallas, their 2000-01 season, and their successful 2001 playoff run.
Final Thoughts & Your Take
Claude Lemieux is really good and he had a wildly successful career. Four Stanley Cup rings, he is one of the most prolific playoff scorers in NHL history, and he is a total pest. While I am sure dealing with him off the ice was a challenge given his past beefs with coaches, one of them ended up with the Devils hiring the legendary Jacques Lemaire, which in turn led to the hiring of legendary Larry Robinson. Through exploring his first trade to the Devils, what happened and what led to his trade out of New Jersey, and his second trade to the Devils, it gives a snapshot of the 1990s of the Devils. I do not think anyone would question it, but Lemieux is an important part of the Devils in this decade.
The fact that Lou traded for him a second time also speaks to how he is willing to try to do what he thinks is best for business instead of letting past feelings get in the way. While many fans criticize later moves to bring back former Devils as they did not work out, this one for Lemieux did work out and it led to another championship.
Throughout this week, we at AAtJ will be going over other notable deals in Devils history. We encourage you to follow along, remember, reminisce, and offer your own feelings about the deals when they happened, if you remember them. To that end, if you were around for either Lemieux trade, then I want to know what you thought about it then and what you think about them now with the benefit of hindsight. If you were not around for either of these deals, then how do you regard them? Please leave your thoughts and feelings about either of the three Lemieux deals. Thank you for reading.
Special thanks to NHL Trade Tracker, Hockey-Reference, and HockeyDB for the research used in this post.