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What If? Week: What if the Blues never sign Scott Stevens?

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The RFA signing hampered the team’s drafting for years.

Scott Stevens On The Ice

Bruising NHL defenseman Scott Stevens is probably best known to the casual fan as the player who concussed Paul Kariya en route to the New Jersey Devils’ 2003 Stanley Cup. It was Steven’s third cup in less than a decade with the Devils, and he’s become synonymous with that era of Devils hockey as much as goaltender Martin Brodeur is.

Stevens’ road to New Jersey wasn’t an easy one as it passed through St. Louis. He didn’t want to be dealt to the Devils in 1991; he was yet another player whose plans to retire in St. Louis didn’t work out.

Stevens was brought to St. Louis by GM Ron Caron before the 1990-1991 season. You may remember that season from a post earlier this week looking at the Garth Butcher trade. Stevens was a RFA at the time and wanted out of his contract with the Washington Capitals. The Caps realized this, and also realized how badly Caron wanted Stevens, so the offer sheet terms were exorbitant: the Caps received two first round picks and $100,000 - but those two first round picks would be five first round picks if the Capitals didn’t have a top seven pick in the 1991 or 1992 drafts. Of course, this is exactly what happened, so the Blues went five seasons without a first round draft pick right after decimating their secondary scoring to acquire Butcher. They didn’t draft in the first round until 1996, when they selected Marty Reasoner.

Once Stevens was acquired, the Blues promptly made him captain and watched the benefits pay out. In his retrospective on the deal from the Devils’ point of view, Greg Wyshynski points out that Stevens may’ve been worth ten wins to the team over the previous season. The league’s general managers weren’t thrilled with the Blues success with Stevens, though, because his salary (at the time, he was the highest paid defenseman in the league) caused other players to demand a pay bump.

On top of that, while offer sheets are perfectly allowed, it doesn’t mean that general managers are ok with a poaching of their players. The Blues, emboldened by their successful offer sheet of Stevens, went after forward Brendan Shanahan of the Devils to replace some of the firepower the team dealt to the Canucks. With Shanny being a RFA, though, the Blues had to send compensation. The Devils wanted Adam Oates or Scott Stevens; the Blues offered up Curtis Joseph and Rod Brind’Amour.

Admittedly, losing a man who had 90 assists that season would have been tough for the Blues to swallow. Rod Brind’Amour was considered the Blues best young player. He was their 9th overall pick (1st round) in the 1988 draft and a franchise building block. Curtis Joseph was signed after his freshman season at the University of Wisconsin and was the goalie of the future.

None of this was poor or unfair compensation for Brendan Shanahan by any means. Shanahan had just finished a season in which he scored 29 goals and 37 assists. However, the Devils wanted something more from the Blues than they were offered - they wanted St. Louis’ star defenseman. The Devils submitted a proposal to the arbitrator for a deal of Brendan Shanahan for Scott Stevens.

Judge Edward Houston approved it.

Stevens refused to report to the Devils’ camp after his participation in the Canada Cup, and threatened to sit out the whole season until he was returned to St. Louis. The Blues and their fans, on the other hand, suspected that this was the NHL’s version of punishment regarding their contract with Stevens, even though the offer sheet and the contract itself were both perfectly legitimate. Now the Blues were out multiple first round draft picks and their star defenseman.

It didn’t end badly for the Blues, as Shanahan was an able replacement for the lost scoring depth. It ended very, very well for the Devils, obviously, as Stevens finished his career as their longest tenured captain.

Was Brendan Shanahan a good get for the Blues? Obviously so. His record with St. Louis - 154 goals in just four seasons - was outstanding. Unfortunately, though, a scandal with Mrs. Craig Janney necessitated a solution, and general manager and coach Mike Keenan decided to ship out Shanahan to Hartford for young defenseman Chris Pronger.

Looking at the cycle of Stevens to Shanahan to Pronger, you can see that the Blues might not’ve been the worse for wear. Both Stevens and Pronger were big bodies on the blue line - guys you didn’t mess with and guys who were more than capable of leading teams to championships (as they both did after they left St. Louis, of course). So, why the simmering fury of Blues fans?

The forced trade was seen as the NHL interfering in the business dealings of two teams that were more than capable of figuring this out for themselves. The fact that the league could step in and decide compensation for an offer sheet arbitrarily - at their own pleasure - was a nasty precedence for the league to set. The Blues did something that was perfectly legal by the NHL by-laws, but was still something that the league disapproved of. The NHL had a judge do their dirty work for them and penalize the Blues with a price that the league themselves could not levy.

In 1994 the Blues tried to get Scott Stevens back by sending an offer sheet his way. The Devils matched the offer sheet, but general manager Lou Lamoriello believed that tampering was going on in the situation. Lamoriello demanded an investigation, and in 1999 (an absurd four years after the fact) the NHL rewarded the Devils with a “settlement that awarded the Devils a record cash payment of more than $1.4 million from the Blues and their choice of one of the Blues’ first-round picks in the next five years of the entry draft.”

The Blues lost money and development opportunities over Scott Stevens, all for one year of his deal. But it won the Blues a Stanley Cup... eventually. Looping back to Wednesday’s post about the Chris Pronger trade, none of that happens if the Blues never offer sheet Stevens. No Stevens means no Shanahan. No Shanahan means no Pronger. No Pronger means no Eric Brewer, and no Eric Brewer means no draft pick that turns into Jordan Binnington.

People have said for decades that being a Blues fan is a lesson in patience and deferred rewards. Looking back on some of the bigger what if moments of this franchise drives that point home. Good things come to those who wait, but no one ever said that getting there would be easy.

Deals that happened thirty years ago can have lasting reverberations. No one ever knows what the future holds, or what a long term outcome of a trade is going to be, but tracing the path from point A to point B can offer important lessons - namely, just because a deal or a decision has short term problems or penalties doesn’t mean that it’s the worst thing to happen.

Of course, had the Blues not won the Stanley Cup last summer, I probably wouldn’t’ve just written that.