Deemed a highly skilled player with tremendous upside, Naslund seemed a perfect fit for the reigning Stanley Cup champions. The Penguins weren’t the only team courting the Swedish phenom though. Pat Quinn and his Vancouver Canucks had also taken note of Naslund.
“He was a figure that was desirable in the draft in his draft year," said Pat Quinn, former Canucks head coach and general manager. "He was a desirable commodity because of his high skill level."
With the Penguins Stanley Cup champion roster mostly intact to start the 1991-92 season, there was little room to introduce the budding star Naslund. Instead, the winger continued his development in the Swedish Elite League where he led Modo in team scoring. After another season with Modo, Naslund finally ventured into foreign territory, joining the Penguins in the NHL.
Naslund’s first two years in North America garnered mediocre numbers and saw him split time with the Penguins and their affiliate, the Cleveland Lumberjacks, of the now defunct IHL.
Naslund showed only flashes of brilliant play and couldn’t establish himself on the star-laden Penguins roster. Despite a breakout campaign in 1995-96, Naslund found himself eighth in team scoring behind the likes of Mario Lemieux, who finished the season with 161 points (69-92-161) and Jaromir Jagr, who completed his campaign with 149 points (62-87-149).
By the mid-point of the season, the Penguins and Naslund looked to part ways.
Enter the Canucks.
“Our scouts were interested in him [from draft onward] because of his high skill level," said Quinn. "We continued watching him because some teams get impatient with first rounders in their development. That’s how this trade was set up because we had two first rounders who weren’t felt to be developing at the desired pace."
In an effort to add some key pieces to build a Stanley Cup contender, Quinn pulled the trigger on a trade that would bring Naslund to Vancouver in exchange for his struggling first rounder, Alek Stojanov.
“I’m not even sure who made the first call, whether it was Pittsburgh calling us or just a part of regular calls as I would call all the general managers regularly,” recalled Quinn. “I’m pretty sure they were not happy with the way Markus was playing in Pittsburgh at the time.”
In Vancouver, Stojanov faced his own struggles. The lumbering forward had been selected by Vancouver nine spots ahead of Naslund, seventh overall in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft. He was brought in to ideally play a role similar to that of former Canucks draft selection, Cam Neely.
“We selected Alek Stojanov because after Cam Neely had such success, we were looking to add that power forward type forward. Alek’s junior career indicated he may be that kind of player as he went forward as a pro,” recalled Quinn.
After registering just one assist in 62 contests with Vancouver, Stojanov was sent to Pittsburgh for a fresh start on March 20th, 1996.
In Vancouver, Naslund’s fresh start lined him up wearing number 22 alongside the likes of Alex Mogilny, Trevor Linden, Cliff Ronning, Russ Courtnall, Martin Gelinas and Esa Tikkanen, among others.
“We liked the skill level of Markus... We were trying to play a possession type game. In the early and mid 90s, we were one of the better teams at that. He was the type of player, with his skill level, who could fit in,” said Quinn.
Akin to his experience in Pittsburgh though, Naslund struggled to string together any level of consistent success in the early goings. He collected his first of a franchise leading 10 hat tricks, April 13, 1996, but wouldn’t record another single point in his 10 games with Vancouver that season.
His play improved in the playoffs where he would add three points (1-2-3) in six playoff games, but he failed to establish himself as a consistent scoring threat.
“We were going through transition when he arrived. We had new ownership coming in...I had stepped down as a coach and I think we had Tom Renney as a coach at the time. We were going through a real transition. So I don’t think he had an impact at first because of the environment and all the changes. He showed his talent in one game but it wasn’t consistent. It took some stability with [Brian] Burke and [Marc] Crawford coming in; to the point that Markus could feel comfortable and display the kind of talent that he had".
Once that consistency came in the organization, success followed. Naslund would establish himself as a premier forward in the league and set a number of franchise records for scoring, including becoming the all-time leading scorer with 756 points (346-410-756) scored in his 884 games with the Canucks.
In addition to his offensive prowess, which earned him a Lester B. Pearson Trophy as the League’s MVP (as voted by his peers) in 2003, Naslund also became the face of leadership for the Canucks.
“He had all of the things that good leaders have—empathy for his teammates, a good skill level, a competitive edge that was terrific and a work ethic that was a good example to others."
Naslund only further added to his legacy with his many involvements in the community. Unfortunately for Stojanov, his career didn’t follow the same path as his counterpart in the now infamous 1996 trade.
Stojanov recorded one goal in 10 regular season contests with Pittsburgh and collected 19 penalty minutes but no points in nine playoff games played out of Pittsburgh’s 18 games that postseason.
The 6’4”, 204 lbs. forward would play his last NHL game in 1996-97 with the Penguins. Despite a career high five points (1-4-5) in 35 games, Stojanov couldn’t stick to the Pittsburgh roster.
The projected power forward phased out his professional hockey career with stints in the AHL, IHL, WPHL and finally the CHL (Central Hockey League), where he played his last professional game with the New Mexico Scorpions.
It’s clear Naslund and Stojanov took very different paths to their retirement from professional hockey. The pair, differing in origin, style of play and stature, however, will forever be aligned by a trade deadline deal that made all the difference.