"Twenty Years Later" is a segment with a highly unimaginative name which will appear on Empty Netters throughout the 2010-11 season. We will examine the Penguins' 1990-91 season which led to the first Stanley Cup title in franchise history. We will look back on games on a particular date and catch up with former players, coaches, executives and media members who were a part or around that team.
Today, we look at the Penguins blockbuster trade with the Hartford Whalers which brought center defensemen Grant Jennings, Ulf Samuelsson and center Ron Francis to Pittsburgh in exchange for centers John Cullen, Jeff Parker and defenseman Zarley Zalapski, March 4, 1991. The transaction remains the most significant in franchise history.
The following is a reprint of the Post-Gazette's story on the trade from March, 5, 1991.
Penguins send Cullen, Zalapski to Hartford in
blockbuster deal for Francis, Samuelsson, Jennings
By Tom McMillan
Post-Gazette Sports Writer
The Penguins, looking to add size and improve their defensive game on the eave of the NHL trading deadline, pulled off a blockbuster last night.
They sent center John Cullen, defenseman Zarley Zalapski and minor leaguer Jeff Parker to the Hartford Whalers for center Ron Francis and defensemen Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings.
"We felt we put a package together to improve our hockey club - that's the bottom line," General Manager Craig Patrick said.
Francis, 28, is an effective two-way center who has played in three NHL All-Star Games. The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder scored a career-high 34 goals and 101 points last season. He has 21 goals, 55 assists and 76 points in 67 games this year.
Like Cullen, he is playing out his option.
Samuelsson, who will turn 27 this month, is an aggressive defenseman who is particularly efficient in front of his own net. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound native of Sweden has three goals and 21 points with 174 penalty minutes in 62 games this year. And his a plus-13 ona team with many minus players.
Jennings, 25, brings size and toughness, although he has played only one full NHL season. A hulk at 6-4, 220, he has one goal, five points and 82 penalty minutes in 44 games this year. He was bold enough to fight Detroit's Bob Probert twice in one game.
"I was shocked that those players were available," Penguins coach Bob Johnson said from his home late last night, shortly after the trade was announced. "But to get good players, you've got to give up good players. It's very difficult to trade John Cullen and Zarley Zalapski."
Cullen, 26, is the fifth-leading scorer in the NHL this season with 31 goals and 94 points in 65 games. A gutsy player at 5-10, 185, he helped carry the Penguins' offense during Mario Lemieux's absence in the first four months of the season.
Zalapski, 22, was the Penguins' first-round draft choice in 1986 and has shown glimpses of brilliance, although his career here has been speckled with injuries and inconsistency. The 6-1, 210 pounders had 12 goals and 48 points in 66 games this season.
Parker, 26, was signed as a free agent in January and sent to Muskegon for conditioning purposes. The 6-3, 206 pound center had one goal and seven points in eight games with the Lumberjacks.
"John Cullen was a favorite of mine and Zarley is a good defenseman," Johnson said. "We gave up to excellent players. But we got back two All-Stars, and we thing we're going to help our hockey club."
With the Penguins in the midst of a 10-game road winless streak, Johnson went public last week with a plea for "more pieces to the puzzle." He was particularly interested in adding "A big, strong, defenseman." And now he has two.
Samuelsson, in particular, may be the heart of the deal. He has run up at least 159 penalty minutes in each of the last six seasons and is described by one talent evaluator as "A mean [guy] ... someone you hate unless he's on your team."
The Penguins also look at Francs as a splendid No. 2 center behind Lemieux. Last year, when he scored 101 points, the Whalers were pushing him for the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward.
Hartford coach Rick Ley stripped Francis of his captaincy in a controversial move early this season, but Whalers teammates rallies to his defense, and he remained a popular player in the community. He is earning $370,00 in his option year, and the possibility of further contract negotiations was a constant theme in Hartford. He has been the subject of numerous trade rumors.
"I'm looking forward to Pittsburgh, but I'm going to miss this place," Francis told the Hartford Courant." I cam here as a kid. I've got a lot of friends. It's tough from that standpoint."
It is the second major deal between the Penguisn and Whalers this season - and the second time Harford General Manager Eddie Johnston, the former Penguins GM, has acquired one of his ex-players.
Earlier, the Penguins traded high-scoring Rob Brown to the Whalers for Scott Young. Johnson drafted Brown in the fourth round in 1984.
This time, Johnson got Zalapski - whom he drafted in the first round the same year.
"Cullen's skill level is very, very high." Johnston said, "and we needed someone to play the point on the power play. Zarley really runs the point well."
Ley, reacting to the trade, said, "This was a situation where everybody wants us to improve, everybody wants us to get better, and we have not dont hat with people we had."
(Photos: Penguins Hockey Cards)