(Ed. Note: It’s the NHL Alternate History project! We’ve asked fans and bloggers from 31 teams to pick one turning point in their franchise’s history and ask ‘what if things had gone differently?’ Trades, hirings, firings, wins, losses, injuries … all of it. How would one different outcome change the course of history for an NHL team? Today, it’s a plucky up and coming writer named Greg Wyshynski on the New Jersey Devils. Enjoy!)
By Greg Wyshynski
In Summer 1991, the St. Louis Blues signed New Jersey Devils free agent forward Brendan Shanahan to a four-year free-agent deal worth $5 million.
(In total. Yeah, it was a different time in the NHL. There was even a president instead of a commissioner!)
Shanahan was considered one of the best young offensive players in the League, and the Blues snagging the 22 year old was their second straight summertime coup: They had signed Washington Capitals star defenseman Scott Stevens in 1990 to a four-year, $5.1 million restricted free-agent contract, and surrendered five first-round draft picks to the Capitals to do so.
As a Group I restricted free agent, the Devils were due compensation from the Blues for losing Shanahan. And here’s where the fun begins.
The NHL took long over a month and a half to finally approve Shanahan’s deal with the Blues, and the two teams began their compensation talks. New Jersey anticipated that without first-round picks to ante up, the Blues might not offer a fair package for having signed away a player like Shanahan. So they aimed high in the hopes of winning the arbitration.
The Devils were rumored to consider asking for center Adam Oates, coming off a 115-point season, as compensation. There was talk they might aim even higher to ask for all-world sniper Brett Hull. Also in the mix: Stevens, having played just one season in St. Louis.
The Blues steadfastly refused to discuss sending Oates, Stevens or Hull to the Devils. At a stalemate, the case was sent to NHL arbitrator Judge Edward J. Houston of Ottawa. Each team submitted a proposal. The Blues felt theirs was a solid one: 23-year-old goalie Curtis Joseph, who had 45 NHL games under his belt with (thus far) middling results; 21-year-old forward Rod Brind’Amour, with 43 goals in his first two seasons; and a couple of compensatory draft picks.
The addition of Brind’Amour in the deal was seen as the aggressive ante, with the anticipation that the Devils would ask for a more established star.
And they did. They asked for Scott Stevens.
On September 3, 1991, Houston made his decision: The Blues lost, the Devils won. Which would be the case for the duration of Stevens’s NHL career, spent with the Devils, with whom he won three Stanley Cups, including a Conn Smythe Trophy win in 2000.
So this being an NHL Alternate History project, we suppose it’s time to get to the Earth 2 timeline that is …
What If The St. Louis Blues Won The Brendan Shanahan Arbitration, And The Devils Never Had Been Given Scott Stevens?
Let’s get the Blues out of the way first.
Please recall they went after Brendan Shanahan after one of the most inexplicable and terrible trades in franchise history: The March 1991 deal that saw them add Garth Butcher and Dan Quinn from the Vancouver Canucks for forwards Geoff Courtnall, Cliff Ronning, Sergio Momesso and defenseman Robert Dirk. All four of those players were on the Canucks’ 1994 Stanley Cup finalist. Quinn played 14 games for the Blues before being moved in another bad trade. Butcher would go on to play around four seasons in St. Louis.
Which is to say that even if they keep Stevens after signing Shanahan, the Blues were a toxic cocktail of specious management and cheap ownership at the time. Does Adam Oates still get traded to Boston because of a salary dispute with Blues ownership? If anything, having both Shanahan and Stevens on the books for the next few seasons makes that even more probable.
Stevens undoubtedly makes the Blues better on the back end, but in front of what? Curtis Joseph was the heir between the pipes, and played there for the next five years. Without him, do they turn to Guy Hebert, who was selected in the expansion draft by the Mighty Ducks? Or do they go outside the organization for a netminder (keeping in mind they couldn’t use the five first-round picks they had given the Capitals for Stevens)?
If the Blues have a 30-year-old Stevens on the blue line, does Mike Keenan still trade Shanahan for Chris Pronger in 1995? Does Stevens even coexist with Keenan?
So yeah, no promises there for the Blues if they won the arbitration.
Now, what if the Devils ended up with Joseph and Brind’Amour?
Let’s start with Rod The Bod.
The Devils had a constant need at center in the early 1990s, and into their first Cup run. The centers on the 1991-92 team: Kevin Todd, a 35-year-old Peter Stastny, Laurie Boschman and a collection of Dave Barr, Alexander Semak and the great Jarrod Skalde. They would later trade for players like Bernie Nicholls and Neal Broten as veteran solutions at center, and eventually go all-in for Doug Gilmour.
By 1993-95, Brind’Amour had hit his offensive stride, notching 86 and then 97 points with the Philadelphia Flyers, while playing the kind of defense then would eventually get him Selke Trophy recognition. It’s not difficult to see him fitting with the Devils’ changing system, and having a long run with the club at forward, especially since he was a versatile one.
The 1995 Devils could have had Brind’Amour, Brian Rolston, Bobby Carptenter and Bobby Holik at center; or those three minus Rolston, who shifts to wing, with the Sergei Brylin and Jim Dowd platoon as the other center. Do they even make the Broten trade then?
There are, of course, many reasons that Devils team won the Stanley Cup, including a soul-sucking defensive system that ruined hockey as we knew it. But two of the primary ones might not have been on that team if the Blues won the arbitration:
Scott Stevens and Martin Brodeur.
Without Stevens, the Devils still had a solid collection of defensemen on which to build their defensive system. (Assuming they still play the trap without two of the players who made it work so effectively.) Scott Niedermayer wouldn’t have had Stevens as a mentor, but would have taken on his role as the defense’s top dog. Ken Daneyko and Bruce Driver were still in their primes. Viacheslav Fetisov wasn’t, but was still kicking around. Tommy Albelin was a steady presence as well.
What the team doesn’t have if the Blues kept Stevens is his ferocious competitive fire and undeniable leadership on the ice. When he wasn’t thumping opponents with totally legal hits, he was the thumping heart of these Devils teams. Expecting them to replicate their quasi-dynasty without Stevens on defense is nearly impossible to conceive. Whatever level of success they achieved, it was Stevens who enabled them to get to the next one. That’s indisputable.
Now, as for Brodeur … now we’re talking about a hockey history-altering moment.
Joseph was 24 years old in 1991, with two years under his belt. He was a burgeoning star between the pipes, as this Buffalo News take on him in 1993 reminds us:
Say all you want about Felix Potvin (and everyone did last season), this kid may someday be the best. Led the league in save percentage (.911) last season despite a slow start. Joseph has the style for the game today: quick, with an emphasis on side-to-side movement and the instinctive ability to follow a puck through traffic. Has excellent concentration, competitive instincts and maybe the best stick in the game. What separates Joseph from the others is he’s a workhorse (68 games last season) and is superb under pressure.
Brodeur was drafted by the Devils at No. 20 overall in 1990, and would have been 19 years old when Joseph was in his first season in New Jersey, with Chris Terreri as his backup. So a few basic questions that need to be addressed in this “what if?”
- Does Brodeur remain with the Devils if they land Curtis Joseph?
That’s the ‘three Stanley Cup championships, four Vezina trophies and a Hall of Famer career’ question.
If the Devils’ goalie duo is CuJo and Terreri, where does Brodeur get his shot to take over the crease? Well, the path is probably to overtake Terreri as the backup and then wait for Joseph to falter as the starter. But with a proven, young workhorse goalie like CuJo there, does Brodeur ever get a chance to do this? Does he become the classic “understudy goalie who gets traded to someone in need of a starter,” with Joseph as the Devils goalie in the trap years? Or does he outplay CuJo and force the Devils to deal him instead?
- Does CuJo thrive in the trap?
Of course. He had all the tools to play well in that system, although obviously not Brodeur’s unparalleled ability to act as a third defenseman back there. Joseph was a Vezina-caliber goalie; putting him behind the Devils’ defense and into that system, there’s no telling how his career is transformed if he gets the crease over Brodeur.
- Does Brodeur still become Brodeur elsewhere?
Of course not.
He’s a special goalie, and an all-world talent. But the symbiotic relationship between Brodeur, the talent in front of him and the system the Devils played was the perfect storm to create a Hall of Fame career. (And let’s not get into the chicken-or-the-egg argument about who made who, because they made each other.)
This isn’t to say that Brodeur becomes, say, Curtis Joseph if he’s forced to play somewhere other than New Jersey, although that’s entirely plausible if his teams aren’t championship caliber. Frankly, without Stevens on the team, perhaps he never challenges Patrick Roy’s records, or stakes the claim as G.O.A.T. of goalies either, if he remains in New Jersey.
But again, he’s an all-timer because of his incredible talent that isn’t simply a product of that system, no matter how many Roy fans claim otherwise. He would have been outstanding playing anywhere, but maybe not a Hall of Famer.
- Do the Devils win Stanley Cup(s) with CuJo and Brind’Amour, and without Stevens and Brodeur?
Yes. At least one, I’d imagine.
Lamoriello was savvy and aggressive enough to take what was still a potent core and surround it with the types of players he acquired to create these Devils championship teams. Yes, Stevens and Brodeur were the foundation, but this franchise produced Patrik Elias, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez, and acquired players like Claude Lemieux, Jason Arnott, Alex Mogilny, Brian Rafalski and Joe Nieuwendyk along the way.
Joseph would have been 32 in 2000, when the Devils won their second Cup and when he was a Vezina finalist with the Maple Leafs in our timeline. (And not for nothing, but CuJo’s career playoff save percentage was.917; Brodeur’s was .919.)
So, in summary, if the Blues had won the arbitration hearing:
– Not so good for Scott Stevens.
– Really good for Eric Lindros.
– Pretty good for the Blues, provided they figure out their goaltending and aren’t a bunch of cheap-wads.
– Really great for Curtis Joseph.
– Maybe not the best for Martin Brodeur, but not a death-knell for his career greatness either.
– Not the best for the Devils, who probably don’t have the perfect goalie for their system and lose out on the perfect defenseman to elevate their franchise.
– Horrible for the trapezoid.
– Probably par for the course for Rob Brind’Amour, who never fulfills his offensive promise, becomes a defensive whiz and doesn’t get truly appreciated until he wins a Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Now, about those conditional draft picks the Devils got in the arbitration rul … you know what, let’s just leave those for the next alternate history project.
Greg Wyshynski is an occasional guest on movie podcasts.
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