The 1999-2000 season was not a very successful one for the Montreal Canadiens. The team was led in points by Martin Rucinsky with just 49, the Trevor Linden experiment was going nowhere, and skilled youngster Saku Koivu was injured for most of the season.
Also injured for most of the year was once-promising defenceman Vladimir Malakhov. The Russian defender played just seven games with the team before the trade deadline on March 1st. He hadn’t scored a point and was a pending unrestricted free agent looking to cash in on a few successful campaigns in Montreal.
Malakhov had all the tools, he could skate well, had twice scored over 50 points as a young NHLer, reached the 40 point plateau once again with the Habs in 1997-98, and was an imposing presence due to his 6’4” and 230 pound frame.
However, Malakhov always seemed to leave fans wanting more, as, much like Alex Kovalev years later, he showed flashes of brilliance, but was not as consistent as fans would have liked. He displayed all the tools of a great top pairing defenceman, but just somehow failed to live up to that billing.
So, with the 2000 trade deadline approaching, and Malakhov probably leaving Montreal for nothing in a few short months, and the Canadiens struggling to stay alive in the chase for a playoff berth, the decision was made to move the often injured and underachieving defenceman.
Malakhov was dealt to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for Sheldon Souray, Josh DeWolf and a 2nd round selection in the 2001 NHL draft that was just over a year away.
DeWolf played a year and a half with the Canadiens top affiliate in the American Hockey League before moving on to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks organization, but never reached the NHL.
The deal was basically Malakhov for an young, unproven Souray.
Souray was a 24 year old defender who had already played 182 career games in the NHL, all of them with the Devils. He had scored just three goals and 26 points in those 182 games, but was about the same size as Malakhov at 6’4” and 235 pounds, and played a much more physical game.
Remember, this trade was made in the heart of the “dead puck era” where goal scoring was at a premium and huge defencemen were able to get away with hooking, holding, and any other tactic to slow down their opponents.
Souray was not a great skater, but over the next three seasons made a name for himself as a tough as nails defender, who played a very physical game. He even developed his offensive game to the point where he scored 15 goals and 35 points in the 2003-04 season.
This would only a small offensive outburst for Souray and an omen for things to come, even though only Guy Lapointe, Serge Savard, Mathieu Schneider, Chris Chelios and Larry Robinson had scored 15 goals as a defenceman in the modern history of the Montreal Canadiens.
This put Souray’s offensive game in some very special company, but he was only getting started. When the lockout that canceled the 2004-05 lockout lifted, he scored 12 more goals and set a career high with 39 points. He also helped the Canadiens reach the playoffs for the third consecutive season, where he scored five points in a six game series loss in the opening round.
The 2006-07 season was truly one for the ages for Souray. He scored an incredible 26 goals that year, and blew away his past career high with 64 points. The only Canadiens defenceman to score more than 26 times in one season was Hall of Famer Guy Lapointe in 1974-75. Only Robinson, Lapointe and Chelios have scored more than 64 points in a season as a Habs defenseman.
I for one, recall watching Habs games that season with the same excitement as a young child on Christmas Eve. Instead of waiting impatiently for Santa Clause to show up, I was eagerly anticipating a Canadiens power play so that I could see Souray unleash his unbelievable slap shot that led to so many goals that year.
Just watching this video with clips from that season, you can almost sense the fear goaltenders, especially Andrew Raycroft, were feeling that season when Souray would wind up.
It was not the greatest scoring season of all time by a defenceman, but probably only Al MacInnis terrorized opponents the way Souray did that year as a defenceman. His shot is legendary, there is no other way to describe it. Souray didn’t score 53 goals in a three year span by accident.
Souray left the Habs through free agency after his torrid scoring pace set his contract demands to heights that the Canadiens could not afford under the salary cap.
The timing of the trade was what made it so great for the Canadiens. By the time Souray scored his incredible 26 goals, Malakhov was out of the NHL altogether. He was actually traded at the beginning of that season by the Devils, along with a first round pick just to get rid of his cap hit.
Malakhov’s injury woes followed him everywhere he went, and with a new salary cap in place following the 2005 lockout, the Devils could not afford to pay him anymore. They sent him to the San Jose Sharks, and gave up a first round pick that turned out to be David Perron as a thank you to the Sharks for taking on the contract.
It was not all doom and gloom for Malakhov after leaving Montreal, as he helped the Devils win a Stanley Cup in the half season he played for them in 2000. He then signed a lucrative four year deal at 3.5 million per season with the New York Rangers, but never really fit in well in New York.
The Rangers failed to make a postseason appearance in the four years Malakhov was a member of the team, and his personal best point total with the team was 28. He was dealt to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2004 as a pending UFA once again, and helped the team make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. Malakhov then signed with the Devils following the 2005 lockout, but played just 29 games with the team in his second stint in New Jersey.
Unfortunately for Souray, his defensive game did not measure up well in the “new” NHL coming out of the lockout. Though his offensive game exploded, the inability to clutch and grab negated his physical presence and led to him being victimized by highly skilled forwards.
The Malakhov for Souray trade was a very typical NHL trade deadline move. A contender, the Devils in this instance, scour the league for pending UFA’s on teams that are unlikely to make the playoffs. When they find a target, in this case Malakhov, they offer up a prospect or two and a pick for the player they think will put them over the top.
It worked out very well for the Devils, as they won the Stnaley Cup that season, with Malakhov helping out on the blue line. It also worked out very well for the Canadiens, who instead of losing a good player for nothing in free agency, added a prospect who turned out to be much more than they could have expected at the time.