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Rod Langway Trade Turned Capitals Into Contenders

30 years ago Sunday, then-Capitals GM David Poile made the most significant trade in the brief history of the Washington Capitals.

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There are six pages of transactions listed in the Washington Capitals' media guide dating back to the franchise's first season in 1974.

Although all the trades are listed in the same font size, there is little doubt that one of the two deals listed for the date of September 9, 1982 is the largest in the team's history.

After a turbulent summer that saw the franchise nearly leave town, the Capitals were still looking for the first playoff berth in the team's eight-year history, and new Washington general manager David Poile - who was hired at the end of August to turn around what had been one of the league's perennially struggling franchises - made a big splash.

Poile sent team captain Ryan Walter and defenseman Rick Green to Montreal in exchange for Canadiens defensemen Rod Langway and Brian Engblom - who legendary Montreal Gazette writer Red Fisher said were "generally regarded as the best defensive pair in the National Hockey League" - along with forwards Craig Laughlin and Doug Jarvis.

While the price was steep - Walter was the second-overall pick in the 1978 NHL Draft and Green the top overall pick in 1976 - the return changed the course of Capitals' history, and gave the team a new defensive identity that defined the franchise through the 1980s.

"This trade makes the Capitals competitive," Poile told reporters at the old Capital Centre, per the Washington Post. "We've added four quality players. For the first time in Capitals history, we have a defense."

WNST's Ed Frankovic recalled the trade, and how it shaped the club.

"At the time it didn't seem too bold because the team was bad and they needed a drastic change. In hindsight, to come in and trade two top players to a franchise like Montreal with such a storied history that always seemed to come out on top in trades was very risky. The Caps' early years were littered with bad trades, but clearly Poile was the answer at GM that Washington never had until then, because he knew what he was getting in return."

According to what Langway said at the time, money - and Quebec's high tax rate - was a big factor in the trade.

"They knew they either had to make me happy with more money, or had to trade me," Langway told Fisher. "I was honest with them. I told them I'd walk if they didn't do something with my contract or trade me, and believe me, I would have walked."

Langway went from a team just three seasons removed from its fourth consecutive Stanley Cup to one that had never been part of a 16-team playoff field in a 21-team league. There was no doubt that Washington was going to be a change.

"The pressure won't be as great, and while I know I'm going to a team which hasn't made the playoffs, what I have to do is help the team make it," he told the Gazette.

That he did. The Capitals never missed the playoffs with Langway in the lineup, and didn't miss the postseason again until the 1996-97 season, four years after his last game in Washington.

Ironically, the Montreal Gazette bemoaned the loss of Langway's defensive partner Engblom more than the departure of the future Hall of Famer. Fisher - a Hall of Famer in his own right - acknowledged Langway "had to go" with his salary demands, but also wrote "I can understand Jarvis going in a trade and players like Laughlin, unhappily, are born to be traded - but what was [Canadiens GM] Irving [Grundman] thinking about when he agreed to relinquish Engblom, who had been the best Canadiens defenceman during the last two seasons ... by far?"

As for the outgoing Capitals, Green told the Gazette Walter was "shocked" by the trade, "because he's been a leader here, both on and off the ice. He was really settled."

For his part, Green was more direct. "I'm just glad to be getting out of here and to get with a winner."

With Langway and young defenseman Scott Stevens, the Capitals became one of the league's best defensive clubs. Engblom was traded again 13 months later -- sent to the Los Angeles Kings along with Ken Houston for future Hall of Famer Larry Murphy. Doug Jarvis - one of the NHL's top defensive forwards - won the Selke Trophy in 1983-84 for his work, and was a big part of the early 1980s Caps until his trade to Hartford for Jorgen Pettersson in 1985. And Laughlin played for the Capitals in six seasons before getting dealt to Los Angeles in 1988, although he is now more well-known for being the color commentator on Comcast SportsNet telecasts.

"The Langway trade was huge on so many fronts," Frankovic said. "Rod was a natural leader because of his work ethic, ability to talk the talk and walk the walk, and his knack for including everyone and getting them on the same page. He put the team first and he took on a great responsibility to ensure that this team came together and got better. Langway was in his prime when he came over and there was noone better on defense than him in those days. He was a can do guy and his hard work style was what the team needed. During Rod's tenure as captain there was never a question of leadership on those Capitals teams."

While Green and Walter missed out on Washington's hockey renaissance, they did get to get their name on the Stanley Cup as members of Montreal's 1985-86 title squad.

But after a summer of uncertainty, the bold move 30 years ago Sunday helped change the Capitals from also-rans to Stanley Cup contenders. It also helped the Capitals, who had trouble drawing fans during the team's playoff drought, to near-capacity average attendances by the end of the decade as the team took a deeper hold in Washington's sports culture.

"Best trade in franchise history to this day, no doubt," Frankovic said. "Langway, Engblom, Jarvis, and Laughlin combined with rookie Scott Stevens turned the Capitals from one of the doormats of the league into a winning team instantly. From then on the Capitals were taken seriously and were pretty much always in the Stanley Cup conversation during Langway's career. In the local area, hockey suddenly became a real interest point from that 1982-83 season on and Langway's presence helped to transform the whole organization. If they only had a goalie back in the 80's they might have won a Stanley Cup."