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The National Hockey League is different from the National Basketball Association in a lot of ways. You didn’t need me to tell you this, but I’m using this comparison just to show the vast differences in the philosophies surrounding restricted free agency. In the NBA, offer sheets aren’t an uncommon occurrence. It may be more or less expected that a RFA will receive an offer sheet. If D’Angelo Russell receives one, no one will bat an eye.
However, it’s an uncommon occurrence in the NHL. There are many factors for this, yes, but it is uncommon nonetheless. The last time we saw an offer sheet in the NHL was after the 2012-13 season, when the Calgary Flames were unsuccessful in signing Ryan O’Reilly away from the Colorado Avalanche. Offer sheets became a bit of a rarity after the institution of the salary cap. Before the cap, it wasn’t entirely uncommon, and that brings me to the summer of 1991.
The St. Louis Blues were looking to make a big splash after signing defenceman Scott Stevens to an offer sheet in the 1990 offseason. Stevens, one of the league standout blue liners, was the fifth overall selection in the 1982 NHL Draft by the Washington Capitals. He made the team as an 18-year old and finished third in the Calder Trophy voting as the league’s best rookie. He continued to grow with the Capitals, helping them to the playoffs every year he was there. On July 16, 1990, Stevens signed with the Blues as a RFA, which sent five first-round picks to the Washington Capitals.
The Blues set their sights on another RFA in 1991: Brendan Shanahan of the New Jersey Devils. Shanahan was drafted five years after Stevens in 1987, going second overall to the Devils. Shanahan recorded 214 points during his first, four-year stint with the Devils. After becoming a restricted free agent, the younger Shanahan agreed to a deal with St. Louis. However, the Blues still owed Washington their next four first-round picks. Different compensation was needed.
The Blues offered goaltender Curtis Joseph, forward Rod Brind’Amour, and two future second-round picks. The Devils declined and asked for Scott Stevens. Judge Edward Houston of the Ontario Court of Justice was brought in to arbitrate this situation. On September 3, 1991, Judge Houston ruled in favor of the New Jersey Devils, and awarded them Scott Stevens. This sent shockwaves throughout the league. Stevens, who was playing in the Canada Cup at the time of the decision, attempted to get his lawyer involved. The Blues and NHLPA believed this to be payback for the original Stevens signing. Stevens didn’t report to the Devils until September 26th.
The Blues with Shanahan made the playoffs every year during his four years there. Shanahan broke out with the Blues in 1993-94 when he scored 52 goals and 102 points. He was moved to the Hartford Whalers in 1995 in exchange for defenceman Chris Pronger. The Whalers moved him at the beginning of the 1996-97 season to the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for forward Keith Primeau, defenceman Paul Coffey, and a first round pick.
Shanahan won three Stanley Cups with the Red Wings in his nine years there, recording close to 1000 points while in Hockeytown. Shanahan spent two seasons with the New York Rangers before returning to the Devils for the final year of his career. Shanahan finished his career with 656 goals and 1,354 points in 1,524 games.
Stevens, while initially against the move to New Jersey, spent the rest of his career with the Devils. He was named captain before the 1994-95 season, and he won his first Cup that same year when he swept the Red Wings. The Devils won the Cup again in 2000 and 2003, with Stevens winning the Conn Smythe trophy in 2000 as the MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Stevens retired in 2005 having played 1,635 games, recording 712 assists and 908 points throughout his 22-year career.
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