To Russia, with love

Word today that Dan Lacouture has left the Carolina Hurricanes and is attempting to join an unknown team in the KHL. Fan response has been indifferent on the TSN website, ranging from “Dan who?” to “Good luck to Lacouturov.”

Still, it’s occasionally possible to dull the pain of fresh wounds by revisiting old wounds, so let’s take a look back at the ex-Oiler.

Lacouture was a second-round pick of the New York Islanders in 1996, and joined Boston College the season after his draft year. Prior to that, he’d played for the Junior Whalers — now affiliated with the Springfield Falcons. He had one productive season in college and represented the United States at the World Junior Championships, where he won a silver medal.

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Lacouture wanted to turn pro after his first season — a learning disability made college hockey uncomfortable for him. Mike Milbury called Lacouture’s contract demands “unreasonable” and “unrealistic,” which left him looking for a trade partner.

Fortunately for Milbury, the Edmonton Oilers were having a contract squabble of their own. Twenty-five-year old winger Mariusz Czerkawski (the “Polish Prince”) had scored 26 goals in the regular season while earning $300,000; however, his ice-time and productivity plummeted in the playoffs, and he was threatening a return to Europe if his contract demands were not met. On August 25th, 1997, the Oilers traded Czerkawski to the Islanders (who promptly quintupled his contract) in exchange for Dan Lacouture, who they then signed to a professional contract.

Czerkawski sounded relieved following the trade, saying, ”It happened pretty quickly. I thought I would get the call in the next week or two. I feel like I’m starting over again, and it’s a nice feeling.” There were some rough spots (only 25 points in his first year and public criticism from Milbury) but Czerkawski would top the thirty goal mark twice for the Islanders, and score at least 20 in four of his five seasons in New York before being dealt to Montreal.

Lacouture, on the other hand, was underwhelming as a professional, despite much hype early on. In three seasons with the Hamilton Bulldogs, Lacouture delivered physical play but minimal offense (in his best season he managed 40 points). In 2000-01, Lacouture finally managed to land on the Oilers’ NHL roster, scoring six points in 37 NHL games before being shipped off to Pittsburgh for defenceman Sven Butenschon.

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Lacouture managed one 82-game NHL season in Pittsburgh in 2001-02 (recording six goals and 11 assists), but has since bounced between the minors and many and varied NHL fourth lines. This season, he’d managed two goals in 11 games with Carolina, but had also played 12 games with the Albany River Rats of the AHL.

Lacouture is the second Hurricanes player to break his NHL contract to play in Russia; Matt Murley refused to report to Albany out of training camp and signed with Amur Khabarovsk back in October. Canes’ GM Jim Rutherford was quite angry at the time:

“It doesn’t seem right when a guy signs a contract and then a month later decides to leave… If a player goes in the offseason, when he doesn’t have a contract, whether they go that way or they come this way, it seems to be fair… Can you really trust a player, what he’s going to do, when he does that? You lose credibility.”

It’s hard to blame a player stuck in the minors for chasing more money to play in Russia, but at the same time they’re certainly burning bridges behind them -– and for players who at best are fringe NHL’ers, one would imagine that it severely limits their options down the road.