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Revisited: 1991 Trade Deadline

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins
On March 4, 1991, Penguins general manager Craig Patrick executed arguably the most impactful trade in the franchise’s history.

Patrick acquired Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings from the Hartford Whalers in exchange for John Cullen, Zarley Zalapski and Jeff Parker. As the legend goes, that trade deadline deal sparked the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup championship less than three months later.

Ron Francis (Getty Images)
But on that fate-changing day, no one dreamed that the deal would result in a championship. On the national level, most people thought the trade would most benefit the Whalers. The next week The Hockey News said that Hartford won the deal because of landing a mid-20s 100-point scorer in Cullen and a top-5 draft pick player in Zalapski.

Even in Pittsburgh the media wasn’t talking Stanley Cup. Before the trade, the Penguins were on a 0-4-1 skid and gave up 28 goals over that span. The team wasn’t even in the playoff picture. So the mood in Pittsburgh was that the deal was made to get the Penguins into the postseason.

“When this deal was made, the focus was on the Penguins making the playoffs,” said Penguins vice president of communications Tom McMillan, who covered the 1991 deadline deal as a beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I don’t think anybody said, ‘Now the Penguins are Stanley Cup contenders.’ You didn’t think that way back then. The team missed the playoffs in seven of the past eight years. With such little success the deal was viewed as just making the playoffs.”

It never hurts when you add a slam dunk Hall of Famer like Francis to your team. Francis and Mario Lemieux formed one of the greatest 1-2 center punches in NHL history, and possibly the best. Samuelsson added a ferocity on the blue line that was made him a fan favorite. And even Jennings added size and depth at defense, while chipping in a goal in the playoffs. 

Ulf Samuelsson
In Penguins’ lore, that deadline move is viewed as the move that won the Penguins a championship. However, that first title was the culmination of a series of moves by Patrick that are now overlooked.

In the previous summer, Patrick hired “Badger” Bob Johnson as head coach and Scotty Bowman in the front office. On draft day, the team selected Jaromir Jagr and traded for Joe Mullen. Shortly after, the Penguins signed Bryan Trottier as a free agent.

During the season, Patrick also picked up Gordie Roberts and traded for Larry Murphy and Peter Taglianetti from Minnesota and Jiri Hrdina from Calgary. All of those moves set up Patrick’s deadline heroics.

“That’s a heavy workload all year,” McMillan said. “The biggest deal of all was the trade deadline deal, and because of the drama that is what’s remembered. That’s what capped off a remarkable year. (Patrick) completely transformed that team. None of it could have happened if those other pieces didn’t happen.”

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