NOTE: In the eight days leading up to the 2011 NHL Trade Deadline, NHL.com will look back at the top eight deals that helped teams to win the Stanley Cup in the past 30 years.
No. 2 PITTSBURGH TRADES JOHN CULLEN, ZARLEY ZALAPSKI AND JEFF PARKER TO HARTFORD FOR RON FRANCIS, ULF SAMUELSSON AND GRANT JENNINGS ON MARCH 4, 1991
Ron Francis spent the first nine seasons of his career with the Hartford Whalers and thought he was going to be there for a lot longer.
That ended up not being the case, but a move to Pittsburgh ended up making him a Stanley Cup champion in a swap that remains one of the biggest trades in the history of the NHL.
"I had been in contract talks with Hartford," Francis said. "They said they wanted to sign me and we'll get the deal done after the trade deadline and they said, 'We're not going to trade you.' Right before the deadline they called me and said I was traded to Pittsburgh.
"I had spent my entire career with Hartford and then I get the call at like 9 p.m. on a Sunday night and I was on a flight at 8 o'clock Monday morning to Pittsburgh. It was a little crazy."
The Penguins had built a talented roster around superstar Mario Lemieux but had to yet to achieve playoff success. General manager Craig Patrick made a bold move, sending a guy who would finish the season with 110 points in Cullen and one of his best defensemen in Zalapski to Hartford for Francis and Samuelsson.
It ended up being the last of a series of moves that made Pittsburgh a bona fide Cup contender.
"We were sort of right in the middle of things [in the East], but I remember Ulf Samuelsson and I talking after we'd played 2 or 3 games and we both thought this team had a lot of pieces in place to possibly be a Cup champion if we could stay healthy and get all the breaks you have to have," Francis said.
Francis became Pittsburgh's No. 2 center and would go on to form one of the most potent pivot combos with Lemieux in League history while Samuelsson added some toughness to a defense corps that included future Hall of Fame members Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy.
The Penguins were in fifth place in the Eastern Conference at the time of the trade, but they went 9-3-2 to finish the season and erase a 12-point deficit to capture a division title. They needed to rally past New Jersey in seven games in the opening round, but eventually Pittsburgh claimed the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history.
Francis had 7 goals and 17 points in the postseason, while a controversial hit by Samuelsson on Boston star Cam Neely changed the momentum in a series against the Bruins.
"From a personal side, it was a little bit crazy because we were living in a hotel/apartment-type thing for three months, which is a good thing because it means you're still playing and having success," Francis said. "It was with my wife and we had a newborn at the time, so that was a bit of a challenge.
"The players and their wives were great and the organization went out if its way to make us feel welcome. On the ice I think any time you're having success as a group like we were in the heat of the playoffs -- that is a special time. To go in there and in three months win the Cup and then come back and do it again is just an incredible feeling."
Pittsburgh was able to defend its title the next season, but it was far from a smooth ride. Coach Bob Johnson passed away and was replaced by Scotty Bowman. Patrick made another big trade, sending Mark Recchi to Philadelphia for Rick Tocchet, Kjell Samuelsson and Ken Wregget.
Francis actually had the worst statistical year of his career to that point in 1991-92, but then became one of Pittsburgh's best players in the playoffs. He finished with 8 goals and 27 points to help the Penguins to another championship.
"There were a lot of things going on and when we got to the playoffs we got down to Washington 3-1, but we won Game 5 and Game 7 in their building against a real good team, which doesn't happen a lot," Francis said. "Then we played the Rangers and we lost Joey Mullen with a knee injury and then Mario breaks his hand with the slash. We were dealing with those types of adversity, but that team had a lot of guts and a lot of depth.
"Guys sucked it up and got the job done, and eventually Mario was able to come back and we accomplished what we wanted to do. It was a special group of guys."