NHL What-If is a series that looks at big moments in NHL history and wonders what might have happened had things played out slightly differently. The series is a focus on moments that impacted major games and franchises. The next moment to be examined is the Patrick Roy trade.
NHL What If… Patrick Roy Trade
The Montreal Canadiens drafted Patrick Roy in the third round of the 1984 draft. Roy was called up in February of 1985 and made his NHL debut in relief of Doug Soetaert. After the game, Patrick Roy was assigned to the Habs minor league affiliate in Sherbrooke. While Roy started as the backup, an equipment issue forced starting goalie Greg Moffett out of a game allowing Roy to take over. He never looked back and Sherbrooke won the Calder Cup in 1985.
In 1986, Roy made the Habs and originally split time with incumbent Steve Penney. Penney was injured in January and Roy became the starter. Roy kept the starting job heading into the playoffs. In the 1986 playoffs, Patrick Roy became a star. Roy posted a sparkling 15-5 record, a 1.92 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage. He would lead the Habs to their 23rd Stanly Cup. On top of that, he would win the Conn Smyth Trophy as the playoff MVP.
Roy would become a superstar in the league. He would win the Jennings Trophy in 1987, 1988 and 1989. He also won two Vezina Trophies in 1989 and 1990. The Canadiens would win the Adams division in 1987-88 and 1988-89. They would return to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1989 but would lose to the Calgary Flames. The Habs returned to glory in 1992-93, when Roy again would lead them to the Stanley Cup.
Patrick Roy was the face of the franchise and an unquestioned superstar in the NHL.
What Really Happened
The Canadiens were under a lot of pressure going into the 1995-96 season. They were coming off two disappointing seasons. Montreal had been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in 1994 and unthinkably missed the playoffs in the 1994-95 season.
The Habs got off to a dreadful start in 1995-96. In response, GM Serge Savard and Head Coach Jacques Demers were fired after four games into the season. The Canadiens hired inexperienced Rejean Houle as GM and equally inexperienced Mario Tremblay as head coach. Despite the inexperience, the Habs rebounded and went on a 12-2 tear.
Unfortunately, disaster was on the horizon. On December 2nd, the Detroit Red Wings put on a clinic at the Forum and embarrassed the Canadiens to the tune of 11-1. Even worse was Roy has been left in net for nine of the goals. When Roy was mercifully pulled from the game, he received a glare from Tremblay. Roy turned around and told then Habs president Ronald Corey that this was his last game in Montreal (as long as Tremblay was the coach).
Four days later, he was shipped to the Colorado Avalanche with captain Mike Keane for Jocelyn Thibault, Martin Rucinsky and Andrei Kovalenko. The trade was a complete disaster for Montreal. Meanwhile, in Colorado, the Avalanche would become a perennial Stanley Cup contender. They would win the Stanley Cup in 1996 and 2001. The Canadiens, on the other hand, went into a downward spiral. The Habs would not be a competitive team for a long time.
Tremblay vs Roy
While on the surface the trade kind of came from nowhere, there was severe tension in the Habs locker room. New coach Mario Tremblay and Roy did not have a good relationship. The issues date back to Roy’s rookie season. Roy and Tremblay were roommates that season. Tremblay would incessantly bother Roy about how bad his English was. After Tremblay retired he would go on to have a career in sports radio. During this time, Roy was a constant target of Tremblay’s ire.
Just before Tremblay was hired, the two almost came to blows in a Long Island coffee shop. After the hire, the relationship didn’t improve. There was an incident where Tremblay saw Roy at a hotel bar in Edmonton and ordered him back to his room. Tremblay also told Roy that he could not speak with teammates in the trainer’s room unless he was injured. The two almost came to blows again during a Habs practice. Tremblay, for some reason, fired a puck at Roy’s throat, which angered Roy. The incident against Detroit was the final straw.
It’s a wonder why the Canadiens would hire a coach that had a pre-existing bad relationship with their biggest star. After the trade, the Habs played the Avalanche in Colorado on February 5th. The Av’s won 4-2, with Roy making 37 saves. After the game, Roy collected the game puck and flipped it to Tremblay on his way off the ice.
Patrick Roy’s issues with the Habs didn’t only start with the hire of Mario Tremblay. Prior to the 1992-93 season, Upper Deck made Patrick Roy a spokesman. With Roy in the fold, Upper Deck started a campaign around their upcoming card set with the slogan “Trade Roy”. They put up billboards around Montreal with the slogan. In January of 1993, the Journal de Montreal ran a fan poll that said 57% of fans would support a Roy trade. Then approaching the trade deadline, then GM Serge Savard insisted he would consider a Roy trade. While it just might have been GM speak (I’ll consider everything if it makes the team better), it was still odd for Montreal (media, team, and fans) speaking so openly about trading its superstar goalie.
Still, by 1995, it seemed that Roy’s relationship with the team had begun to sour. The thought of Roy being moved seemed more likely than ever. Serge Savard had a deal in place with Colorado for goalie Stephane Fiset and wingers Owen Nolan and Adam Deadmarsh. Hoping things would smooth over, Savard hesitated to pull the trigger. Savard was fired before he could circle back on the trade. Nolan would eventually be traded to the San Jose Sharks for Sandis Ozolinsh nine games into the season. Roy would end up in Colorado on December 6th.
In this scenario, Roy will be traded from Montreal. The scenario of Roy staying in Montreal was covered in another What if. What if Serge Savard had pulled the trigger on his deal with Colorado for Roy.
On paper, it is a way superior deal than the actual trade Rejean Houle swung. The Habs get three superior players and keep captain Mike Keane. The Habs get a veteran goalie in Fiset with starting experience and two rugged power forwards to add size to an increasingly small roster. It also gives the Habs incredible forward depth. Nolan and Deadmarsh would join Vincent Damphousse, Mark Recchi, Pierre Turgeon, and Saku Koivu in the Habs top-six forwards. The Habs would have two great lines to attack their opponents. This offensive depth means the Habs don’t hastily trade Turgeon early in the 1996-97 season.
In net, Fiset would be as good as Thibault was. While that does not instill a ton of confidence in some, the Habs’ improved offence covers up some of their defensive issues. While the Habs stay competitive their goaltending issues hold them back from achieving more success in the playoffs in 1996 and 1997. In 1998 however, the Habs have a couple of young goalie prospects beginning to break through in Jose Theodore and Tomas Vokoun that push Fiset to a backup role. Also, with Fiset still in the fold the Habs can leave him exposed during the Nashville expansion draft when in reality, Vokoun was selected.
Meanwhile, in Colorado and San Jose
Roy makes the Avs an immediate contender. Still, the Avs don’t have Ozolinsh adding offence from the back end. The Avs are good enough to still win the cup in 1996, especially with Roy. Without Deadmarsh, the Avs also don’t acquire Rob Blake from the Los Angeles Kings. Deadmarsh was the centerpiece of the deal for the Kings in 2001. Without Blake to put the Avs over the top, they don’t win the Stanley Cup in 2001 and Ray Bourque never gets his moment.
Nolan also doesn’t become the face of the Sharks franchise. The Sharks continue to be a playoff bubble team but don’t progress much beyond that. More importantly, Nolan also doesn’t get to call his shot in the 1997 All-Star Game in San Jose.