Sixteen years ago today, the Capitals pulled the trigger on a six-player deal with the Boston Bruins that brought Adam Oates to Washington.
“One of the biggest trades – not only in the history of the Capitals – but in the history of the National Hockey League,” said then-Caps general manager David Poile after engineering the deal with Boston. “This is a huge trade. This is a trade that certainly shows the Washington Capitals’ desire to improve our play, to get us into the playoffs and once we’re in, to go a long way in the playoffs.”
The Caps were a struggling team late in the 1996-97 season. Bidding for a 15th straight playoff berth, the team hadn’t had a winning streak of as many as three games in more than three months. A 4-1 home ice loss to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim a day earlier left the Capitals with a miserable 12-22-6 mark in their previous 40 games, the equivalent of nearly half an NHL season. With an average of just 2.51 goals per game, the Caps were last in the league and in desperate need of an injection of offense.
On March 1, 1997, the Caps were in 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings.
Despite their on-ice travails, the Caps were still on the outskirts of the playoff chase in the Eastern Conference; they were just two points out of eighth place. With the NHL’s trade deadline still more than two weeks away, Poile believed he needed to act fast if he was going to make a move to propel his team into the postseason.
Boston was next-to-last in the Eastern Conference at the time, ahead of only the New York Islanders.
Poile’s bait was a trio of young prospects. He gave Boston general manager Harry Sinden a choice of young Washington goaltenders: Olaf Kolzig or Jim Carey. Fortunately for the Caps, Sinden opted for the latter. The Bruins would also get promising young forwards Jason Allison and Anson Carter and a third-round choice in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft.
In return, the Caps got goaltender Bill Ranford and a pair of proven NHL forwards with lengthy track records of offensive prowess: Oates and Rick Tocchet. Washington traded three players in their early twenties for three players aged 30 or older.
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” said Poile after making the trade. “We feel this is a good move for the short term, but that’s not just this season, that’s the next two or three years. That’s a long time in a hockey player’s life and a long time in a general manager’s life.”
Weeks before the deal, Oates sharply criticized Boston management, asking to be traded if the organization wouldn’t ante up to put a better quality team on the ice in Beantown.
“We’re getting worse every year,” Oates told Boston reporters after a Feb. 18 loss to Colorado, reported the late Dave Fay in the March 3, 1997 edition of The Washington Times. “Now we’re doing it with less and less guys and I think it’s upstairs. They’re not doing their job. I don’t know if the owner is telling [Sinden] he can’t spend money or if it’s his decision. But we’ve been getting worse every year since I’ve been here (1992]. You can’t blame anybody except them.”
The Bruins stripped Oates of the alternate captain’s “A” and began exploring trade possibilities.
“He’s one of the absolute best playmaking centers the game has ever had,” said then-Caps coach Jim Schoenfeld of Oates. “He’s a special player. He walks the talk. He does what he says. It really helps a team when your best players are also your most responsible.”
There was one catch in getting Oates. The veteran center had two years remaining on a contract that paid him just over $2 million annually at the time. He was underpaid, largely because of the unwritten rule in Boston – known as “the Ray Bourque salary cap” – that no other Bruin could earn more than Bourque, who was also underpaid at $2.5 million a season in those days.
Earlier in the season, Oates told The Hockey News that if he were to be dealt, he would ask to have his contract renegotiated to a figure that more accurately reflected his abilities.
“I do know this,” Oates told THN. “I want a raise before I’ll play with another team. The deal I signed here was a Boston Bruins deal with the Ray Bourque salary cap. If I get traded, I want that deal ripped up. Otherwise, don’t trade for me. I won’t play a game until I get a new contract.”
Oates was true to his word. When the Caps faced the Islanders the afternoon after the deal was made, Oates wasn’t in the lineup. He told the Caps he wouldn’t report until his contract situation was made right.
Oates was also true to his word in another aspect; he kept a date he had made to appear at a children’s hospital in Boston even though he was no longer a member of the Bruins.
The Caps, also playing without Ranford and Tocchet, lost 2-0 to the Isles. That game marked the third time that season that Isles goalie Tommy Salo pitched a 2-0 shutout against the Capitals. Ranford sat out because he was “too emotional and tired” to play and Tocchet missed the game with a deep ankle bruise.
Oates arrived in Washington a day later. He and agent Brian Cook met with Poile and Caps president Dick Patrick for several hours. Given the assurance of the Washington brass that he’d be amply taken care of in a monetary sense during the upcoming summer, Oates agreed to report for duty.
Oates made his Capitals debut on March 4, 1997 in a game against Calgary at USAir Arena. He scored the game-winning goal in a 2-1 win to help make a winner of Ranford, who was making his first start as a Capital.
Starting with that Calgary game, the Caps went 9-8-2 the rest of the way. It wasn’t until the final three games of the season that Washington finally won three straight games, and it proved to be too little, too late.
Washington missed the playoffs by two points that spring, leaving many to agonize over what might have been if Oates and Ranford had played in the March 2 loss to the Islanders.
In the end, the deal did work out well for Washington. The Caps made it to the Stanley Cup final the following season. That franchise high point came too late to save Poile, though.
In the 16 years since the Oates deal, the Caps have not made a trade that involved more players. The first trade of Poile’s tenure as the Washington GM was also a six-player deal, the one that brought Hockey Hall of Famer Rod Langway to Washington in 1982. The Oates trade was one of the last deals Poile made as Washington’s GM.
It could be argued that those trades that bookended the Poile era are the two biggest swaps in Washington’s franchise history.
“I have the same butterflies I had 15 years ago,” Poile said after the Oates deal, in reference to the Langway swap. “But so many things that have happened this year have shattered our confidence. This is to raise the confidence and belief level of our team.”
Having missed the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in his 15 seasons on the job, Poile was relieved of his duties in Washington just after the 1996-97 season ended. He landed on his feet, becoming the first – and thus far only – GM of the expansion Nashville Predators.
Related: Monumental Memories: Adam Oates