NHL History: Eight Key Players Dumped After Winning a Stanley Cup
Photo Credit: Paint It Blackhawks
Today's NHL world of salary caps, hidden bonuses, and strict roster regulations make it impossible to not understand why even the best players are often relegated to the free agent market.
But when teams dump stars just weeks after they helped the franchise win the NHL's biggest prize, the Stanley Cup, it's clear that a loyalty's broken. However, this has been done by more than a few of just the past 13 Cup Champions (1997-2010), and the most recent titlist, the Chicago Blackhawks, have truly re-opened the wound.
Following several major trades with the Atlanta Thrashers and one very notable arbitration hearing, a number of major contributors in the Hawks' Cup run are now unwelcome in Chicago, whether it was their choice or not.
Since 1997, though, six more major players have gone through similar situations as many of Chicago's players did this summer, and four more Cup-winning coaches have also seen ties cut with their team just two years after their triumph.
Was the release of these components a valid decision? In some cases, perhaps. But no matter the complexities, the verdicts handed to these eight players (listed by "date dumped") after they won a Stanley Cup were clearly baffling, to the least.
Due to a readers' recommendation, I extended the time period examined to include Mike Vernon. Vernon is the prime example of what all the other players in this collection have been through, having played perhaps the most important role in winning his team (in this case, the Detroit Red Wings) the Stanley Cup and then being forced to walk the plank.
After 11 seasons in Calgary, which including one Cup victory in 1989, Vernon came to Detroit on a three-year deal in the summer of 1994 hoping for his second hoisting of the NHL's biggest prize. Vernon managed an impressive 54-21-6-5 combined record during his first two years there, but began to struggle on the final regular season, winning just 13 out of 33 starts and posting a .899 save percentage.
However, Vernon completely turned his fate around during the playoffs. The Canadien led the Wings with a stunning .927 save percentage and unbelieve 1.76 GAA during the postseason to go along with a 16-4-0-1 record, leading Detroit through one of the most one-sided playoffs ever. Deservedly, Vernon was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy and put his name in the record books forever.
But while Vernon's accomplishments in the spring of 1997 can never be taken away from him, the Red Wings still planned on taking his job away. To a complete utter shock, Vernon was dismissed from Detroit and never glanced at again from the Motor City...or, for that case, the rest of the NHL.
Vernon's career went into a tailspin following those playoffs, as he played for San Jose, Florida, and Calgary (once again) until his retirement at age 39, but never again won a playoff series. If he had not been distrusted by Detroit, Vernon may have taken part in more than one more Cup title during the rest of his hockey tenure...but, then again, it just goes to show some players deserve more than they get.
Coaches: Ken Hitchcock, Larry Robinson, Bob Hartley, & Peter Laviolette
Photo Credit: FOX Sports
Although none of the five Stanley Cup winners from 1998 to 2002 made news afterwards by dumping one of their key players, three of these five teams ended up firing the coach who won the franchise the Cup two seasons earlier. Dallas's Ken Hitchcock (1999), New Jersey's Larry Robinson (2000), and Colorado's Bob Hartley (2001) all found themselves out of work following not even two mediocre seasons following their title. Peter Laviolette, winner of the 2006 Cup with Carolina, also joined the group more recently in 2008.
However, it wasn't as if all four coaches had experienced a severe drop-off after their title that led to their firing. In fact, before his firing, Hitchcock had won five consecutive division titles for Dallas, and a similar situation was also the case for Robinson and Hartley, who had made two and four consecutive Stanley Cup Finals appearances, respectively.
Laviolette had been slightly less accomplished in the years following holding the Cup, having finished out the playoffs for two straight years before his firing. In this case, though, the coaching switch (to Paul Maurice) proved effective, as Maurice overcame Carolina's lackluster start to eventually lead them to the Eastern Conference Finals.
While each team obviously had their reasons to support the firing, all four of these coaches probably deserved more leniency and a longer tenure than they received, hence their place in this collection.
After a long and accomplished career with Calgary and Dallas, where he posted seven seasons of at least 75 points, Joe Nieuwendyk arrived with the New Jersey Devils late in the '01-'02 season looking to win his third Stanley Cup ring.
He did just that one year later, and was a significant contributor to the title. Nieuwendyk recorded 17 goals, 28 assists, and a plus-10 rating during the regular season, in addition to proving himself as a true veteran standing up for teammates, and then added nine more points in 17 playoff games.
At the time, Niewendyk had established himself almost as a hockey household name for his consistent production throughout his 18 NHL seasons (at that point). Naturally, when Niewendyk was ignored that summer by the Devils and instead had to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs, much of the NHL was quite surprised.
Although the center's point total continued to rise for the next two seasons, Niewendyk's career clearly wound down after his tenure in New Jersey, as he played for three different teams in three years and then retired.
Today, Niewendyk is the General Manager for the Stars, and has not had any connections with New Jersey since 2003.
In his ninth season in the NHL and his fourth with the Tampa Bay Lightning, goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin knew that the Bolts were finally in contention for the Eastern Conference title, and a lot of those hopes rested on his shoulders.
By the time April came around, Tampa Bay was entering the playoffs as the top seed in the conference. Although they had barely sneaked into the slot with 106 (five other teams had at least 100), the Lightning had won the miserable Southeast Division by a remarkable 28 points and had already begun to rest on the offense of Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Cory Stillman, and Brad Richards. While Khabibulin was steady in the back end, posting a 28-19-7-3 record and 2.33 goals-against average (GAA), Tampa Bay had finished third in the league in goals for and was primed for their intimidating attack to lead the way.
However, once the postseason began, it was realized that the "Bulin Wall" needed to step it up. The Lightning's offense faltered from their 2.99 goals-per-game mark during the regular season to a so-so 2.56 goals-per-game mark during the playoffs, and Khabibulin, who rested for 27 regular season games, was forced to start all 23 of the Bolts' playoff appearances.
Thankfully, the Russian netminder was up for the challenge. Khabibulin recorded a 16-7 record with a .933 save percentage and incredible 1.71 GAA, without doubt becoming not only the main reason Tampa contended in the playoffs, but the main reason they won the Stanley Cup.
That summer, hopes were high for the Lightning and their star goalie. But when it was announced the NHL would have a lockout for the 2005-2006 season, things changed. A year can make a big difference, and it obviously did in this case. The Lightning decided to shockingly pass on re-signing Khabibulin, partially due to the newly added salary cap, and the "Bulin Wall" was forced to move on to Chicago.
In the meantime, Tampa Bay was left to a terrible unpredictable rotation of goalies, from John Grahame to Johan Holmqvist to Yann Danis to, now, Mike Smith. Secondly, Tampa Bay fell seven spots in the standings from '03-'04 to '05-'06, barely sneaking into the playoffs by two points, and found themselves luckily in the playoffs the next year by still the same miniscule margin.
Then, in the 2007-'08 season, the Lightning plunged to the worst record in the NHL, and haven't climbed out of their hole since.
Was their doom following the Cup title due to their willingness to let their playoff hero Khabibulin leave? We'll never know, but as the goalie situation continues to grow more crowded and dire, who knows what could have happened if loyalty played a bigger part in their plans.
When we think Joe Nieuwendyk and Nikolai Khabibulin had it badly, just compare to Cory Stillman.
He's won the Cup twice...and was dumped from the team less than two years afterward twice.
During Stillman's tour of the Southeast Division, he's played for Tampa Bay, Carolina, and now Florida, yet has still never found much dedication to one team, obviously.
In the Lightning's win in 2003-2004, Stillman was second on the team in points during the regular season, recording 25 goals (six game winners) and 55 assists (80 points) to go along with a plus-18 rating and 11 powerplay tallies. By the time the Cup was in his hands, Stillman had become one of the key components in Tampa Bay's surprising championship.
However, like many of the other players on this list, Tampa Bay oddly decided to clear out several major players from their Cup-winning team following the NHL lockout, and Stillman signed with the Hurricanes.
Like he was in Tampa, Stillman also found a groove in Raleigh, posting 76 points during the regular season this time around and 10 more powerplay strikes. Stillman proved even more valuable in the playoffs, putting up 26 points, a plus-12 rating, and three game winners. He improved from a 0.3 points-per-game ratio during the postseason with the Bolts to a 1.04 ratio with the Hurricanes during the playoffs, too.
Carolina also decided to keep Stillman around for the next season. But after an injury held him to just 43 games and five goals the next season, the 'Canes quickly ran out of patience and traded him midway through the next season, dumping Stillman...again.
Although Miroslav Satan is certainly one of the lesser players on this list, his contributions to the Pittsburgh Penguins in their Stanley Cup victory just the season before last likely should've earned him more than half a season out of work.
After being picked up as a free agent from the Islanders, 33-year-old Satan, who had just ended his streak of eight consecutive seasons with more than 55 points, was regarded as a smart addition for the Penguins.
Indeed, Satan clearly lived up to his name, adding 36 points and six man-advantage goals during the regular season and six more points in the playoffs, although the totals weren't even close to what he could have done a few years before in his glory days with Buffalo. Despite that, Satan could still feel plenty deserving when he hosted Lord Stanley's Cup for the first time.
However, Pittsburgh decided to let the Slovakian right wing, who was anything but aged out, leave onto the free agent market. Little did they know, Satan would have some trouble getting off of it; he didn't sign a new contract until January, when Boston inked him to a cheap one-year deal. Strangely, back in Pittsburgh, the Penguins failed to repeat their title, falling in the second round to upstart Montreal.
It might seem off-key to call Satan's departure a key reason that Pittsburgh was eliminated so much earlier, but there's little doubt that Pittsburgh not only lost a vital veteran presence when they let him go, but also a reliable offensive playmaker. Perhaps loyalty and respect should have played a bigger role in their plans?
Petr Sykora arrived in Pittsburgh at the beginning of the 2007-2008 season as a player who'd always arrived with the right team at the wrong team. Sykora had left New Jersey just two years before they won the Cup, played for Anaheim just one year before their victory, and signed with Edmonton the year after their Western Conference title.
However, he'd always put in his fair share of production. Sykora had topped the 20-goal plateau seven times already, and at age 30, was pretty sure he still had more in him.
This trend was continued with the Penguins for his two seasons there. That season, Sykora had 28 goals, including 15 with the man advantage, and 35 assists to set his best total (63 points) since the '00-'01 year with the Devils. Sykora's usefulness carried over into the '08-'09 regular season, where he picked up right where he left off, recording 25 goals and 13 on the powerplay.
But then, with Pittsburgh right in the thick of contention in the playoffs, Sykora faltered. After posting no points and a minus-two rating in the Pens' first four games of their first round series, Sykora was shockingly scratched. He would only play in three more games for the rest of the playoffs, enough for him to hold the Cup, but not good enough for much else.
Pittsburgh's willingness to bench Sykora obviously meant their times were over, and, as expected, Sykora moved on to Minnesota. With the Wild, he only had three points in 14 games before an injury ended his season, and perhaps his career; Sykora is still a free agent this summer.
While the Czech winger might not have stood out enough for the Pens' liking, perhaps he deserved a better fate. In the long run, though, few will ever remember Sykora, the unknown piece that helped set up Pittsburgh's magical Cup run.
When Chicago's Dustin Byfuglien entered the 2010 NHL playoffs, few knew his name. The gritty 25-year-old forward had been consistent in his three full seasons with the 'Hawks, posting 36, 31, and 34 points, respectively, but certainly not flashy.
However, by the time Byfuglien was holding the Stanley Cup, "Big Buff" had almost become a household name. The winger had been everywhere at once during the postseason, notching 11 goals and five assists, as well as headlining one of the most discussed player battles in recent Cup history; Byfuglien vs. Pronger.
Byfuglien had scored almost half as many game winning goals (five) in his 22 playoff games as he had in his previous 235 regular season appearances. In terms of goals-per-shot ratio, Buff's playoff stat (24.4 percent) was almost triple his career regular season mark (8.6 percent). And lastly, if you thought Byfuglien was rough during the regular season (his 215 hits were eighth among league forwards, although 103 behind the leader), his 99 postseason hits weren't just the most of any player, they were more than 1.5 times as much as any other player (second place was Darrell Powe with 65).
This summer, though, we all knew that Chicago was going to need to shed a lot of salary. What we didn't expect, though, was that Byfuglien was going to be one of the biggest names to be dumped for that very reason. Instead of returning to Chicago for the next season as one of the key players, Byfuglien has now landed in Atlanta.
Although he'll have plenty of former teammates with him (Andrew Ladd, Brent Sopel, and Ben Eager), after all he did, Byfuglien went from the defending Stanley Cup Champion to a team who's made the playoffs once in the past 10 years.
Some players just can't get a break.
If there was ever a player who deserved more than he got after not just helping, but leading, his team to a Stanley Cup victory, it would have to be Antti Niemi. And, despite the many players who've suffered a similar fate over the past decade, Niemi's unfortunate fate was determined just two weeks ago.
After taking over the full time goaltending job from rip-off Christobal Huet midway through this past season, Niemi, still just 26, finally had his chance to shine.
And shine he did: the Finn recorded a whopping 26-7-4 record, including seven shutouts, a .912 save percentage, and a 2.25 GAA during the regular season. But if Niemi shone like a star from October to April, he was brighter than the sun over the next two months.
While his stats may not have been as impressive during the postseason (.910 save percentage, 2.63 GAA), Niemi still led his team to all 16 victories needed to hold the Stanley Cup, and, as unheard of as this is, became one of the team's biggest leaders...all as a rookie.
Due to his inexperience as a starter, though, Niemi won the Cup while getting paid only a little over $0.8 million per season. Naturally, a raise was needed, and although his contract extended past this summer, Niemi opted for arbitration (explained on the link).
After a tense three days of deciding, Niemi was awarded a salary of $2.75 million for the upcoming season; quite an astonishing raise, although probably deserving. Much to the shock of not only Hawks fans, but the hockey world, Chicago decided to reject the decision, let Niemi become a free agent (halfway through the free agent period, no less), and sign aging Marty Turco to a one-year deal.
In a sense, although the Blackhawks cut their goalie salary in half (Turco will only earn around $1.3 million), they shifted from a promising young rookie with one season and one Cup Championship under his belt, for a old former star with nine seasons under his belt and only three playoff series wins ever.
While the jury is still out on how the rest of the story will turn out on Niemi's end, exactly how smart was Chicago's decision? Frankly, from my point of view, fairly stupid, and from Niemi's point of view, fairly disloyal, too.
Did I miss someone? Feel free to comment below on any suggestions or observations you have.