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January 28, 2011
Howe and Why
The Esposito Trade

by Robert Vollman

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Early in the 1975-76 NHL season, Boston Bruins GM Harry Sinden dealt superstar Phil Esposito along with gritty veteran blueliner Carol Vadnais to the New York Rangers for aged but gentlemanly scorer Jean Ratelle, puck-moving defenseman Brad Park and throw-in depth defenseman Joe Zanussi.

At the time, Sinden drew a lot of heat from the fans for trading away the legendary Esposito, a five-time Art Ross scoring champion, who was just one year removed from the Hart Trophy. Fans felt they could have received a lot more in exchange than a 35-year-old winger and a defenseman with allegedly bum knees who was outscored by Vadnais 74-57 the season before.

As the season progressed, the dissatisfaction died down, as Boston finished third overall and the Rangers missed the playoffs. The Bruins would then make two straight Stanley Cup appearances, unfortunately falling to a powerhouse Montreal Canadiens club both times, while the Rangers continued to golf early. In fact, despite the loss of Bobby Orr to injury, it would be over five years before Boston would finish any lower than fourth overall, thanks in large part from this brilliant trade. In the end, the Boston Bruins gained almost 130 goals of value in this one deal.

Player       Age   GP  G   A  PTS  +/-  GVT
Phil Esposito 33  422 184 220 404 -116  56.2
Carol Vadnais 30  526  58 197 255  -64  54.8
TOTAL             948 242 417 659 -180 111.0

Player       Age   GP  G   A  PTS  +/-  GVT
Brad Park     27  648 118 400 518 +185 142.7
Jean Ratelle  35  419 155 295 450 +131  95.0
Joe Zanussi   28   79   1  11  12   -3   2.7
TOTAL            1146 274 706 980 +313 240.4
Totals include time with other teams

Hindsight is 20/20

With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear which groups of players you'd rather have, but would you really have expected Jean Ratelle to outscore Phil Esposito? Take a look at each player at the time of the trade and decide which one you'd rather have. It's no contest!

            Phil Esposito          Jean Ratelle
         Age GP  G  A PTS +/-   Age GP  G  A PTS +/-
1975-76   33 12  6 10  16  -1    35 13  5 10  15  +2
1974-75   32 79 61 66 127 +18    34 79 36 55  91  +1
1973-74   31 78 68 77 145 +51    33 68 28 39  67  +5
1972-73   30 78 55 75 130 +16    32 78 41 53  94 +24
1971-72   29 76 66 67 133 +55    31 63 46 63 109 +61
1970-71   28 78 76 76 152 +71    30 78 26 46  72 +28

How much of a disappointment was Esposito in New York? Applying the Snepsts player projection system on his 1974-75 season, we can see what we should have expected from him. The only two reasonable comparables for Phil Esposito are Maurice Richard and Joe Sakic. Normalized to Esposito's era, here's how both players performed starting at age 33:

Player           GP  G   A  PTS  +/-  GVT
Maurice Richard 321 206 200 406  N/A 102.1
Joe Sakic       362 175 281 456  +17  81.4

Esposito didn't produce quite as much as we would have hoped at either end of the ice, given history's two most comparable players. Even if he had, it still wouldn't have been enough to even up the trade, thanks to Ratelle's age-defying performance. Here are Ratelle's eight closest comparables, and how they did in their 35+ twilight seasons:

Player            GP  G   A  PTS  +/-  GVT
Johnny Bucyk     567 258 367 625 +112 121.1
Alex Delvecchio  459 146 328 474  +46  76.8
Steve Yzerman    258  82 155 237  +39  42.6
Stan Mikita      263  75 154 229   +8  34.4
Dino Ciccarelli  217  94  74 168  -14  23.3
Kenny Wharram     76  34  44  78  +18  14.9
Rod Gilbert       96  30  57  87  -17  10.7
Johnny Gottselig  61  10  26  36  N/A   1.3

Long story short, Esposito produced about a third less than what was expected, and Ratelle was hovering near his best-case scenario, over twice what could have been reasonably calculated in advance.

Brad Park

Of course, the other thing the Rangers didn't gamble on was that Brad Park was going to be the second-most valuable defenseman in history in terms of GVT, at the time. Since then, ten blueliners have passed him, but his 142.7 GVT still wouldn't look too out of place among them in total GVT earned at age 27 and beyond.

Defensemen, career GVT after Age 27

Name		GVT
Ray Bourque	310.6
Nick Lidstrom*	257.7
Al MacInnis	257.6
Chris Chelios	238.2
Paul Coffey	197.7
Larry Robinson	190.0
Larry Murphy	185.3
Scott Stevens	165.6
Phil Housley	160.4
Brad Park	142.7
Denis Potvin	126.2
*Active

While an NHL GM might be more careful trading a Brad Park today, until these fine gentlemen came along, there was very little precedent for a 27-year-old defensemen to score 518 points and earn 142.7 goals above replacement value.

Aftermath

Unfortunately for Rangers' GM Emile Francis, the glory days the New York Rangers enjoyed in the early part of the decade were over, including their three straight 100-point seasons. Their team was old, and Esposito's reluctance to get off the ice for a fresh set of legs didn't help matters.

While the one-sided nature of this deal couldn't have been as obvious for them without the benefit of hindsight, Francis was fired a couple months after this trade, and it would be 15 years before they'd win their division, and two more before they'd top 100 points again.

Robert Vollman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Robert by clicking here or click here to see Robert's other articles.

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