The Whalers Monday night completed the biggest trade in their history when they sent Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings to the Pittsburgh Penguins for John Cullen, Zarley Zalapski and Jeff Parker.
General manager Ed Johnston, who had served five years as GM in Pittsburgh, turned back to the Penguins for his second major deal of the season. Dec. 21, he traded Scott Young for Rob Brown.
With 264 goals, 557 assists and 821 points in 714 games, Francis is the Whalers' NHL career leader in virtually every offensive category. He served as captain from Feb. 1985 until Dec. 7 of this season, when coach Rick Ley stripped him of the "C." Francis Monday night was left disappointed with a franchise he had served so well since he was selected fourth overall in the 1981 entry draft.
"I think it's a great deal for the Hartford Whalers," owner Richard Gordon said. "It gives us tremendous scoring down the middle. It gives us the offensive defenseman we so badly need. You look at the age, and there's an advantage there for us, too."
"But it is a difficult thing. Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson are great people and great players. They've helped this franchise a great deal. But I am convinced this is the best thing for us."
Said Whalers coach Rick Ley: "This was a situation where everybody wants us to improve, everybody wants us to do better and we haven't. We haven't with the people who have been here."
Johnston, who acquired Paul Coffey in a monster trade while running the Pittsburgh Penguins, had long been known as a general manager not afraid to make huge deals.
With the Whalers on a six-game winless streak and dropping back into fourth place in the Adams Division, dissatisfaction among the Civic Center fans has been growing again. Major changes have been rumored concerning Edmonton's Grant Fuhr, Toronto's Gary Leeman and Zalapski. Cullen's name surfaced around the league as potentially going to Hartford.
At 9:15 p.m., it came true.
"I've made a couple of biggies," Johnston said. "Zalapski, well, we need someone to engineer our power play from the point. We think that Cullen and Ronnie are pretty equal at center. On Parker, we got lots of information from [Springfield coach] Jimmy Roberts [who once was a Sabres assistant coach] from his days in Buffalo.
"I know Zalapski well. I drafted him in the first round. He can run the point and one-time a puck like very few guys in the game. Cullen's skill level is very, very high. And he's a feisty bugger."
Francis, who is playing out his option at $370,000, finally talked publically about the trials and tribulations that he has endured this season. In his final 32 games, however, Francis, 28, amassed 48 points on a line with Pat Verbeek and Brown.
"Well, it's done," Francis said. "I'm gone. I'm looking forward to Pittsburgh, but I'm going to miss this place. I came here as a kid. I've met a lot of great people here. A lot of great friends. It's tough from that standpoint. The fans have been super. I'm disappointed, really."
Francis said Johnston contacted his agent, Frank Caputo, a few weeks back in an attempt to reopen negotiations. Francis said he and Caputo took this as a sign the Whalers really wanted to keep him, especially because they said signing after the trade deadline today would be no problem.
"There was a lot of talk and stuff all year. My guard was up," Francis said. "But two weeks ago, when they said they were interested in re-opening talks, they said they were very happy and had no intention of moving me. They said they'd wait until after the deadline. From that standpoint, it's very surprising."
"People here aren't stupid. They read the situations. I'm not bitter, but I'm disappointed that they publically demeaned me. Every second day, there was stories about the contract, the captaincy, the trades. If they wanted to trade me, it's their prerogative. But after 10 years of giving everything I had when I stepped on the ice, I feel they could have done it differently."
When asked about Ley, who at times, voiced disappointment with Francis' play and leadership, Francis said: "Basically, people know the story. There's nothing really to say. Funny, how I went from the best thing since sliced bread last season to totally on the outs over the summer. But I'm pleased I was able to put it out of my mind and play well the last few months."
Francis led the Whalers with 21 goals and 76 points in 67 games this season. Cullen, 26, who is making $130,000 in his option year, is fifth in the NHL in scoring with 31 goals, 63 assists and 94 points in 65 games. Zalapski, 22, has 12 goals and 48 points. He has a plus 15 rating and has five power play goals.
Samuelsson led the Whalers with a plus 13.
Parker, 26, had been part of the Buffalo-Winnipeg trade last summer involving Phil Housley and Dale Hawerchuk. When he was assigned to Moncton of the AHL by the Jets, he quit hockey and went home to Minnesota to sell boats. He signed as a free agent with the Penguins Feb. 4 and was sent to Muskegon of the International League for reconditioning. Cullen and Zalapski are expected to play tonight against St. Louis.
"I think we acquired a feisty, creative center," Ley said. "He can score and make great plays. We acquired the type of defenseman that we didn't have anything like, a quarterback on the power play and someone who certainly can help offensively. The Parker kid is a big, hard-nosed centerman."
Being away from Coffey's immense presence on the other point in Pittsburgh should help Zalapski blossom.
"I think so," Zalapski said. "I want to be put in the situation where I'm the guy they look to. Obviously, I wasn't getting the opportunity to contribute as much in Pittsburgh. I think it will be a good career move."
"Johnston said this deal did not necessarily rule out other potential moves before today's 3 p.m. deadline. Besides talks about Fuhr there have been heavy rumors involving Gary Leeman of Toronto for Kevin Dineen. But because of ownership problems in Toronto it is unclear if the Leafs will make any deals today.
Whalers Trade Francis To Penguins. Samuelsson, Jennings Dealt For Cullen, Zalapski, Parker
The Courant's Jeff Jacobs wrote this story on perhaps the biggest blockbuster trade in the franchise's Connecticut history.
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