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From Stevens to Binnington: A trade tree and story of fandom

Scott Stevens was one of my first memories as a St. Louis Blues fan, and Jordan Binnington is responsible for my favorite memory. Turns out, they’re connected through a series of trades.

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St. Louis Blues Scott Stevens
Acquired with Ron Caron magic, Scott Stevens would also be lost because of Ron Caron magic.
Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images

I’ve been around these Blues fandom parts a long time, but since I still have that new writer smell, I guess I should introduce myself.

Hi, my name is...

...Tom Franklin. I grew up in Jeffco in the 90s, which means I remember the Arnold water tower in its true piss green glory. I live in Dogtown now, right down Oakland Avenue on the other side of Hampton from where the Ol’ Barn known as St. Louis Arena/Checkerdome/Could’ve Been An Aquarium But Nooooooo was.

But in between my youthful days of wandering the Pevely Flea Market (RIP) and longing for the return of the Dogtown St. Patrick’s Day Parade, I have thousands of hours and images of watching the Blues live and in-person stuffed deep into my brain.

That includes about a .500 average of begging my dad to buy me a Game Night Revue outside Kiel/Savvis/Scottrade/Enterprise Center. To me, the “fan rag” was FAR more informative than the overpriced program you could buy inside the arena. Where else can you find the latest hockey fight rankings, hockey-related jokes, and Jeffio’s Top 11 Reasons... in one convenient package? I wish I still had some of the old editions, but being a young idiot, I left many a Game Night Revue/St. Louis Game Time edition on the ground in the arena. I wonder how many of the post-game clean-up crew took advantage of a free opportunity to look up the latest NHL referee stats provided by Jeffio and Co.?

Imagine my delight when the opportunity to write for the “fan rag” came to be.

So yes, being a Blues fan is irrevocably interwoven into my DNA, with all the anxiety, depression, hope, and 2019 Laura Branigan-fueled euphoria that comes with it.

Admittedly, the Blues were a big reason that convinced me to steer my broadcasting career back to St. Louis after wandering the Midwest and Mid-South for a decade. I was hired by KMOX to be the Morning News Editor of Total Information A.M. This meant working closely with local sports broadcasting savant Tom Ackerman, who was kind enough to get me a Blues press pass (as long as I got him some post-game interview audio after, of course) starting in that magical 2018-19 season.

I got to go to games, interview players and Craig Berube afterward, and be there for the Stanley Cup viewing parties. During the Stanley Cup Final, I can probably count on just two hands how many hours of sleep I got.

I’d give those hours of sleep back again plus more if it meant I could experience that ride again.

I was repeatedly called early in the morning by WBEZ in Boston to give the St. Louis perspective on the series and finally WBEN in Buffalo to tell Ryan O’Reilly’s Stanley Cup story to the city he scorned. Good times.

OK WE GET IT, CAN WE MOVE ON NOW?!

Ok, ok, ok. Enough about me. Well, mostly.

SIGH...

Growing up in the 90s put me in a very interesting era in Blues history to have my first memories of hockey. Starting with the Hull and Oates Era, Geoff Courtnall’s first Blues stint, an emerging Curtis “CuJo” Joseph in net, and Rod Brind’Amour before he jettisoned to Philadelphia in one of Ron Caron’s biggest “d’oh!” moments in his Blues tenure.

Of course, the setting for my first memories came inside a dingy, dated, and still adored St. Louis Arena. And the first fight that I can remember who the combatants were was Scott Stevens vs. Ron Francis.

Yes, that Ron Francis.

I don’t remember much about the fight, except that Stevens got the decision and Francis had only one more fight in his career before he decided he was too old for this shit at the ripe old age of 27.

How the hell did the Blues get Stevens anyway?

You probably know how Restricted Free Agency (RFA) works in the modern NHL. You sign a player to an offer sheet, everyone gets in an uproar, hockey purists cast shame on your household, and once in a while you actually get the player you want, even if you just offer sheeted the player to spite the other team. The most recent example is the Jesperi Kotkaniemi/Sebastian Aho saga between the Carolina Hurricanes and Montreal Canadiens. Blues fans may remember the David Backes/Steve Bernier War between the Blues and Vancouver Canucks in 2008.

But one reason modern-day hockey executives, fans, and purists alike get in an uproar over RFA offer sheets is that Caron abused this system. Badly.

And that starts with Stevens.

Washington Capitals v Toronto Maple Leafs
Scott Stevens’ legend started growing with the Capitals in the 1980s.
Photo by Graig Abel/Getty Images

Trade* #1: Blues acquire Scott Stevens from the Washington Capitals, July 16, 1990

Price: Two...oh no make that five 1st round draft picks.

It’s fair to say the Blues had a gigantic man-crush on Stevens. A four-year, $5.1 million dollar offer sheet in 1990 (a little bit more than the Washington Post reported at the time) definitely gives off the proper vibes. It was a deal that the Capitals didn’t have a prayer of matching, a deal that made Stevens the highest-paid defenseman in the league, and also a deal that made GMs remove Caron’s address from Christmas cards lists.

Caron was starting to drive up the price of players in the league, as superior defenders at the time like Ray Bourque and Chris Chelios suddenly made less than Stevens. This one move by Caron arguably started the domino effect that led to the 1994-95 NHL lockout a few years later.

The Blues were ordered by an arbitrator (this is how RFA compensation was settled back then...this will become VERY important later) to give up two 1st round picks in 1991 and 1992 to the Capitals. But, if they weren’t in the top-7 those years, that price went up to five 1st rounders.

FIVE.

At the time, it seemed like a price worth paying. Stevens became team captain, an NHL All-Star, and continued to prove his worth as an emerging two-way defenseman, ending up 5th on the team in points in 1990-91. It seemed like the Blues had a potentially iconic pillar of the franchise whose legend would eclipse Barclay and Bob Plager as his name and number shone brightly in the rafters long after he retired.

Instead, Brendan Shanahan happened.

Advantage: Capitals. They were able to draft Sergei Gonchar and Brendan Witt with two of the picks the Blues gave them. Stevens...well, keep reading.

New York Rangers v New Jersey Devils
Brendan Shanahan helped Ron Caron lose his dignity.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Trade* #2: Blues acquire Brendan Shanahan from the New Jersey Devils, July 25, 1991

Price: Scott Stevens, a future 1st rounder, $1.9 million in cold hard cash and Ron Caron’s dignity

First, let’s clear something up before things get really messy. You may notice the asterisk in the previous two headings. While the Stevens and Shanahan acquisitions weren’t “trades” in the historical sense, an exchange of players/picks happened. So for the purposes of this article, I’m calling them trades.

Just over a year after celebrating the 1st anniversary of the Stevens signing, Caron emerges from his mad scientist lair with another wild idea: signing this young, stud forward from New Jersey named Brendan Shanahan to an offer sheet. Because Shanny hadn’t established himself in the league like Stevens, his price was a little cheaper: a three-year contract worth just over $3 million.

As with Stevens, an arbitrator rules that the Blues need to surrender 1st round picks to sign Shanahan.

And that’s where our story gets thrown in a blender and puréed.

Remember, the Capitals were owed at least two 1st round picks in 1991 and 1992. The Blues at least needed the 1992 pick to seal the Shanahan deal. These days, the RFA simply would stay with his original team and we’d go about our lives.

But because this was a relative Wild West of free agency, negotiations begin on how the Devils will be compensated.

The Blues offered CuJo, Brind’Amour, and two draft picks. The Devils countered with Stevens.

Neither team would budge. Oh to be a fly in the room when the “I am rubber and you are glue” jokes started flying between the teams.

Sadly for Caron and the Blues, the arbitrator decided irony was the best solution and awarded Stevens to the Devils. So that’s five 1st round picks for the rights to Shanahan and watching Stevens ride off to glory in New Jersey.

Now, if that was it for the Stevens saga in St. Louis, maybe it’s not such a horrific stain on the franchise. But it gets worse.

In 1994, guess who’s an RFA again? Stevens. And guess who wants to sign Stevens to an offer sheet again? Caron and the Blues.

For reasons I can’t fully comprehend, the Blues actually sign Stevens to less money in 1994 than they did in 1990: a four-year, $17 million deal. The Devils matched, Stevens lifted the Cup three times and became an easy Hall of Famer (despite a trail of bodies from his physical play that stretched so long, you could walk from St. Louis to Newark without touching the ground).

So that’s it for the Blues and Stevens, right? Can we move on now?

NO.

Devils GM Lou Lamoriello smelled a rat with the Blues latest attempt at RFA chicanery. Without evidence, he accused the Blues of tampering, alleging they agreed to terms with Stevens long before free agency started. This was a no-no at the time, and the NHL launched an investigation that lasted four years.

The NHL made the Blues open their books and the evidence was dry on the paper. The Blues had indeed tampered with Stevens, and would be punished with a $1.4 million settlement, a $500,000 fine, and the loss of what ended up being the Blues’ 2002 1st rounder (which was traded to Florida and became Lukas Krajicek).

This whole ordeal is a big reason why RFA is the way it is today. Blame it all on Ron Caron.

Advantage: Devils and the NHL free agency system as a whole.

Hartford Whalers v Montreal Canadiens
Not a kid anymore, not quite an adult, and a long ways from the Hart Trophy.
Photo by Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images

Trade #3: Blues acquire Chris Pronger from the Hartford Whalers, July 27, 1995

Price: Brendan Shanahan and Craig Janney’s wife.

After this trade was made, my father started becoming suspicious of me. I kept asking him to take me to the Eads Bridge. When he finally asked why, I told him “well, I heard on KFNS that’s where Blues fans are jumping off because of the Shanahan trade.”

Of course, I was joking...only because I needed levity after being in mourning over this deal.

Shanny was one of my favorites. He played a physical power forward game that I admired, and he was very friendly when he signed an autograph for me at a charity softball game he’d always host in the summer. An athlete you admire showing kindness to you when you’re young is gigantic. I think I peed a little when Brett Hull signed my autograph that day.

At first, I wasn’t alone in thinking this was just Mike Keenan doing Mike Keenan things and souring on another beloved early 90s Blues star (CuJo would soon bolt for Edmonton and word of cracks forming in his relationship with Hull was starting to leak out).

Turns out, we’d later learn Shanahan had an affair (and later stole) Craig Janney’s wife. And as one can surmise, this didn’t make him popular in the locker room.

It would also turn out that Shanny apparently didn’t like Hartford much and ran screaming after one season to help build the Detroit Red Wings dynasty. Apparently, Hartford fans didn’t like him either. To quote a r/HartfordWhalers poster: “We all didn’t like him..he was an unbearable ass. His ego, his attitude and his behaviour was horrendous.”

Catherine Janney clearly wouldn’t agree with that fan.

As for Pronger, he was still a kid at the time, so no one knew how he’d truly turn out.

He did ok. His number in the Enterprise Center rafters and the Hart Trophy in his cabinet are evidence enough.

Advantage: Blues by a country mile.

St. Louis Blues v Florida Panthers
Ladies and gentleman, the most boring man in late 2000s/early 2010s hockey: Eric Brewer.
Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Trade #4: Blues acquire Eric Brewer, Jeff Woywitka, and Doug Lynch from the Edmonton Oilers, August 2, 2005

Price: Chris Pronger, Bill Laurie’s last shred of goodwill in St. Louis and permanent (and undeserved) damage to Larry Pleau’s reputation

This one hurts.

While the Stevens saga was a prolonged source of pain in the buttocks region, the post-lockout trade of Pronger was a quick shiv in the spleen.

Once upon a time, Bill Laurie had the wild idea of owning the St. Louis Blues plus returning the NBA to St. Louis. In doing this, he’d become a big St. Louis sports baron, he’d make loads of money, and live happily ever after.

But he was rebuffed in his play for the Vancouver (now Memphis) Grizzlies. And after the NHL lockout a few years later, just being a hockey owner didn’t seem that interesting to Laurie and he forced Larry Pleau to find a taker for Pronger or just let him walk as a UFA for nothing as part of slashing costs to make the team sellable (eventually to Dave Checketts’ group).

In fact, Laurie’s thrifty turn forced the Blues to field a team in 2005-06 that featured Mike Sillinger, Petr Cajanek, and Dean McAmmond as the 3-4-5 top scorers respectively the following year (But at least they had Patrik Lalime *snort*).

Yikes.

Like Shanahan, Pronger only lasted one year for his new team as well before requesting a trade. This made him “Public Enemy No. 1” in Edmonton at the time (and for some Oilers fans, that hasn’t changed to this day). This was only made worse by the revelation his wife apparently didn’t enjoy all the attractions and amenities Edmonton had to offer. I guess oil derricks don’t quite “do it” for some people.

Pronger would be ok. He’d go on to win a Stanley Cup in Anaheim and spend three years apiece with the Ducks and Philadelphia Flyers before concussion issues made him call it quits.

Woywitka played 152 forgettable games in the Bluenote and played his last NHL game with the Rangers in 2011-12.

Lynch disappeared like a Spinal Tap drummer, never playing a game for the Blues before vanishing to obscurity in Austria.

And Brewer? Yes, he had the unfortunate responsibility of being the main piece acquired for Chris freaking Pronger. The problem is he used that responsibility to play 332 games of the most vanilla hockey I’ve ever seen. He wasn’t a big point threat (95 points), was a -75 in his Blues career, and had the personality of that pebble that you had to shake out of your shoe the other day.

And because irony likes company, Brewer signed a four-year, $17 million contract with the Blues...the exact same money Stevens would have made had he returned to St. Louis in 1994.

Advantage: Oilers, despite the fact not even Chuck Norris could save Pronger if he stepped foot in Edmonton again.

2011 NHL Entry Draft - Portraits
“Yeah, I’m going to haunt the nightmares of every Bruins fan in 2019. Deal with it.” - Jordan Binnington probably
Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images

Trade #5: Blues acquire Brock Beukeboom and a 2011 3rd round NHL Draft pick from the Tampa Bay Lightning, February 18, 2011

Price: Eric Brewer and the answer to the “How did Jordan Binnington become a Blue” trivia question

This has been a miserable article to write. The Stevens saga wounded me, the Shanahan trade flashbacks drove the knife deeper, and the Pronger trade nearly flatlined me. And then there was Brewer to laugh at me in the end as my world almost faded to black.

But sometimes, all you need is just a tiny spark from a defibrillator to breathe life back into your lungs again. And the Red Wing legend that broke all Blues fans hearts in 1996 with a slap shot that beat Jon Casey would provide the defibrillator: Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman.

YOU. CAN’T. MAKE. THIS. UP.

With the Lightning poised to make another playoff run and the Blues mired in the Davis Payne Era, the Blues dealt Brewer and his expiring contract at the deadline to Tampa Bay. I celebrated Brewer’s departure by getting shit-faced while researching this Beukeboom fellow. I thought his name was familiar and it turns out he is the son of longtime NHL defenseman Jeff Beukeboom...someone I liked growing up because his name was “Beukeboom” and I thought it was amusing in my youth.

Sadly, that was the only thing interesting about Beukeboom The Younger. He never played in the NHL, but is still playing hockey with the Glasgow Clan of the EIHL.

Brewer inked another 4-year deal with Tampa (this time for just $15.4 million) before ending his career with stints in Anaheim and Toronto. Look, I’m sure Brewer is a nice guy and all, but I just can’t figure out how he was able to bilk $32.5 million out of teams in the latter half of his career.

So that ends my first St. Louis Game Time article, I hope you enjoy...

Oh yeah, that 2011 3rd round pick.

The Blues had no 1st rounder that year. It went to Colorado as a result of the Kevin Shattenkirk/Erik Johnson trade. In the second round, the Blues selected Ty Rattie, Dimitrij Jaskin, and Joel Edmundson.

Damn, that’s a whole lot of promise for not a lot of payoff (though Edmundson was a key piece in the Justin Faulk trade, so it’s not all bad).

Then it happened. The moment that would pay off in becoming the key piece in one of the greatest sporting Cinderella stories in history would happen. It’s just no one had any freaking idea this would happen at the time. In fact, it came and went just like a passing breeze.

With the 88th overall pick, in the back end of the 3rd round, the St. Louis Blues selected a goaltender from Owen Sound in the OHL: Jordan Binnington.

(Then in the 4th round, the Blues passed on Johnny Gaudreau two picks before the Flames...ah nevermind, this part will probably be edited out anyway)

According to our venerable long-time editor of this very website HildyMac, the rap on Binnington in 2011 was he had “a lot of development ahead of him,” was “a stringbean in pads” (still is), has “a huge skill set,” and is an Ultimate Fighting aficionado.

In this Game Time article from that same day, it’s noted his OHL campaign with Owen Sound wasn’t the greatest, but that he starred in the Memorial Cup.

This is the scouting report on Binnington at the time from NHL Central Scouting goalie scout and former NHL goalie Al Jensen:

“He’s a good-size goalie with very good net coverage. He has very good strength in his crease. His best asset is his positional play and net coverage. He has very good leg extension in his butterfly, and plays big even when in the butterfly, as he’s able to stop shots with his shoulders and gloves while in the butterfly position. An area that Jordan could improve on is his lateral quickness, but it’s getting better.”

Yeah, it got better. Ask Joakim Nordstrom in June 2019.

Advantage: Blues. Duh.

I’ll never forget where I was that night, sitting in the KMOX Radio booth at Enterprise Center for the Game 7 watch party. Yes, I was by myself the whole time. But who else could say they were in the Blues radio booth the night they won their first Stanley Cup, eh? Sure, Chris Kerber, Joey Vitale and other KMOX colleagues were in the booth in Boston, but don’t let facts get in the way of a good story...

So was it all worth it?

...except when facts literally tell an amazing story that takes 29 years to develop.

Fact: The Blues had Scott Stevens.

Fact: The Blues lost Scott Stevens and a whole lot more.

Fact: Brendan Shanahan stole Craig Janney’s wife (they’re still happily married today).

Fact: This led him to being traded to Hartford for Chris Pronger.

Fact: Chris Pronger is one of only two NHL defenseman to win the Hart Trophy in the last 50 years (the other was Bobby Orr, perhaps you heard of him).

Fact: Bill Laurie ushered in a dark era for the Blues with the Pronger trade.

Fact: Eric Brewer was indeed not Chris Pronger.

Fact: If it weren’t for Ron Caron’s dealings with Scott Stevens, the St. Louis Blues would still not have a Stanley Cup.

For all the elements that went into that magical 2019 Stanley Cup run, the one thing that made all of it possible, above all else, was the ascension of Jordan Binnington. Jake Allen was shaky, Chad Johnson was a bust, Ville Husso was nowhere near ready, and Binnington was literally the only option the Blues had because every other San Antonio goaltender that season got hurt.

Think of all of the pieces that had to fall into place for Binnington to get a chance in 2019. Then add the Scott Stevens Saga, Brendan Shanahan’s infidelity, Chris Pronger’s unfortunate trade, and Eric Brewer’s existence into that equation.

A nearly impossible and unfathomable story unfolds. One that couldn’t possibly be conjured by even the greatest writers that have walked on Earth.

Almost as unfathomable as the Blues winning a Stanley Cup in our lifetimes.

Wow, that was a lot of words. If you think I’d be fun in 280 characters or less, follow me on Twitter @TomFranklinSTL!