Twenty-five years ago tonight, the Montreal Canadiens suffered their most lopsided defeat in franchise history. The 11-1 drubbing at the hands of the Detroit Red Wings, Slava Kozlov had four goals, Sergei Fedorov five points. Mike Keane was minus-5 on the night. And Patrick Roy, who allowed nine goals on 26 shots, played his last game for the Canadiens.
We all know what followed. Roy, who had told Canadiens president Ronald Corey that he had just played his last game for the team after being pulled, accused former teammate and Canadiens coach Mario Tremblay of keeping him in the net to humiliate him. Four days after the game, Roy was the centerpiece of a deal to the Colorado Avalanche along with Mike Keane in exchange for goalie Jocelyn Thibault and forwards Martin Rucinsky and Andrei Kovalenko. The Canadiens haven’t had many dark days in their franchise history, but this would rank as one of them.
But perhaps it didn’t have to turn out as badly as it did for the Canadiens. According to Forever Canadien, the biography of former Canadiens GM Serge Savard written by Philippe Cantin, Savard had a deal with Avalanche GM Pierre Lacroix to trade Roy to the Colorado in exchange for Owen Nolan and goalie Stephane Fiset. But after the Canadiens lost their first four games of the 1995-96 season and were outscored by a combined 20-4, the Canadiens fired both Savard and coach Jacques Demers and replaced them with Rejean Houle and Tremblay.
The interesting thing, according to Savard’s book, is that Roy would have been dealt out of Montreal, and likely to the Avalanche, regardless of whether he or Houle was the GM. “Patrick had gotten too big for the team,” Savard says in the book. “He took up too much space in the locker room and he had too much influence on the coach. In previous years, I’d had to deal with him with kid gloves. I still admired him just as much as I had during our Stanley Cup runs in 1986 and 1993, where he played an instrumental role. But a change of scenery had become necessary. The team revolved far too much around him. For everyone’s sake, he needed a change of scenery.”
Savard said he had been speaking with Lacroix about the Roy-for-Nolan-and-Fiset deal, but was fired by the Canadiens on Oct. 17, 1995. Nine days later, Lacroix dealt Nolan to the San Jose Sharks for defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh. “In 1994, when the Nordiques put Mats Sundin on the market, I was interested in acquiring him,” Savard goes on to say. “Would they have demanded Patrick Roy in return? Maybe. I don’t know if I would have agreed. At that point, I wasn’t thinking of trading him. So serious talks never took place. A trade as big as that between our two organizations would have been almost unthinkable. But now that the Nordiques had become the Avalanche, there was nothing to get in the way.”
(I’d love to corroborate all of this with the principals involved, but none of them seems to be in the mood to talk about it. I reached out to Roy through the Quebec Remparts and was told Roy is not doing interviews. Same with Lacroix. Tremblay did not return a phone call or text message.)
So the question is, would the Canadiens have been better off with Nolan and Fiset rather than Rucinsky, Kovalenko and Thibault? Probably. But the goaltenders were probably a wash. Both turned out to be good, not great goalies at the NHL level. And in terms of production, Rucinsky was actually pretty good for Montreal. As for Kovalenko, he played only that season with the Canadiens, scoring 17 goals and 34 points in 51 games before being dealt to the Edmonton Oilers for Scott Thornton.
From 1995-96 through 2000-01, Rucinsky scored 136 goals and 304 points in 434 games for the Canadiens before being dealt to the Dallas Stars early in the 2001-02 season. In the same period of time, Nolan scored 165 goals and 351 points in 441 games. But while the difference in offensive output wasn’t as bad as it might seem, the reality is that during those years, Nolan was establishing himself as one of the league’s most feared power forwards. He also had far more productive years than Rucinsky after 2000-01. But who knows how he would have reacted to the pressure of playing in Montreal? He may very well have thrived, but it’s not a situation that everyone can handle. In San Jose, he was able to play in relative anonymity.
Assuming Nolan would have been able to perform as well in Montreal as he did in San Jose, the Canadiens would have done much better with Nolan. But even more, they would not have had to part with Keane, who was a heart-and-soul player who would have been able to help the Canadiens players chart the choppy waters that were ahead of them. When the Roy trade was made, the Canadiens were two seasons removed from winning a Stanley Cup, although they missed the playoffs in Roy’s last season as a Canadien. After Roy left, the Canadiens could not advance past the second round of the playoffs for three seasons, then followed that up by missing the playoffs entirely in four of the next five.
For his part, Savard says he thought he was better positioned to trade Roy than Houle was. “I thought my credibility among the fans was enough for the deal to be accepted,” Savard says in the book. “Patrick would have left the Canadiens quietly. And with Fiset and Nolan, we would have been very well positioned for the future.”