Let’s look back at five Hall of Fame stars who chose to return to their former team via free agency, and how those deals worked out for both sides.
Most of the dust has settled on the first few days of free agency, and a handful of themes have emerged. Fiscal sanity is one, as teams mostly stayed away from the sort of long-term mega-deals that almost always turn out to be mistakes. As always, much of the focus was on veteran defensemen. And the UFAs were largely overshadowed by the extensions being signed by players like Carey Price, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and (any minute now) Connor McDavid.
And then there was the heartwarming storyline that emerged on day one: homecomings. Not only did players like Joe Thornton and T.J. Oshie stay with their current teams, but plenty of guys returned to franchise they’d previously starred with. That list included names like Justin Williams, Mike Cammalleri, Scott Hartnell and Patrick Sharp.
Reunite! Saad, Sharp (CHI); Hartnell, Lindback (NSH); Dadonov (FLA); Pominville, Johnson (BUF); Cammalleri (LA); Moore (TOR); Williams (CAR)
— luke fox (@lukefoxjukebox) July 1, 2017
Bringing back a familiar face makes for a nice storyline, and it’s almost always an easy sell for fans. But the NHL has a long history of players using free agency to return to a former team, and results have been mixed. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s a reminder that breakups happen for a reason.
So today, let’s look back at five Hall of Fame stars who chose to return to their former team via free agency, and how those deals worked out for both sides.
Mark Messier, Rangers
The exit: After winning the Stanley Cup with the Rangers in 1994, you’d think that Messier would have been able to write his own ticket in New York. But his relationship with the Rangers’ front office was always contentious, including a post-Cup holdout in 1994 that reportedly had the team thinking about trading him.
He ended up sticking around, but when free agency arrived in 1997, Messier kept his options open. Despite being widely expected to return to New York, he eventually bolted for the Canucks.
The return: It’s fair to say that the Messier era did not go well in Vancouver; the whole thing was a PR disaster form Day 1, with the Rangers’ great seeming to do everything short of tear the “C” off Trevor Linden’s jersey and shove him onto an ice floe. By the time Messier had been bought out after three disappointing seasons, he stood as one of the most hated Canucks ever.
Meanwhile, the Rangers hadn’t made the playoffs since Messier’s exit. There wasn’t much suspense over where he’d wind up, and he eventually signed a two-year deal, at which point he was immediately handed back the captaincy.
The result: Mixed. Messier had an impressive 67 points in his return to New York despite turning 40 during the season, and he managed to play three more seasons after that. But he never got the Rangers back to the postseason, meaning one of the greatest winners in the sport’s history went his last seven seasons without appearing in a single playoff game.
You have to wonder how things might have turned out differently if Messier had just stayed in New York to close out his career alongside Wayne Gretzky. (As for Linden, he’d make a return of his own when he rejoined the Canucks in 2001, although that one came via trade.)
Teemu Selanne, Ducks
The exit: By 2001, Selanne was in his sixth season in Anaheim following the 1996 trade that brought him over from Winnipeg. He’d been fantastic over that time, topping 100 points on three occasions and leading the league in goals twice.
But none of that had translated to much playoff success, with the Ducks winning just one round over Selanne’s tenure. With the team struggling through a miserable season, they pulled the trigger on a 2001 deadline deal to send him to San Jose.
The return: That deal seemed to spell the end of Selanne’s days as an elite NHL player. He failed to crack the 30-goal mark in two full seasons in San Jose, then reunited with Paul Kariya for one disastrous season in Colorado. By the time the 2004-05 lockout ended and the Ducks offered to bring him back as a free agent, Selanne was 35, coming off a career-worst season, and all but done. Or so we thought.
The result: I’d say it turned out OK. Selanne scored 40 goals in his first year back in Anaheim, and followed that with 48 goals while helping the team to its only Stanley Cup in 2007. He stuck around until 2014, cementing his legacy as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, not to mention one of the most beloved players in the game.
Brendan Shanahan, Devils
The exit: Despite being the second overall pick in the 1987 draft, Shanahan only lasted four years in New Jersey before joining the Blues as a free agent in 1991. (Yes, back then young stars actually did occasionally change teams via restricted free agency. It was fun. Ask your grandparents next time you see them.)
That signing actually worked out pretty well for the Devils, who were able to make off with Scott Stevens as compensation. Meanwhile, Shanahan had further stops in Hartford, Detroit and New York before entering the 2008 offseason as a 39-year-old free agent.
The return: Shanahan reportedly turned down an offer to return to the Devils two years earlier, choosing the Rangers instead. This time, with the Rangers hinting that they’d like to move on, he closed the circle by returning to the team that drafted him.
The result: Shanahan’s return wasn’t all that impressive, as he battled age and injury while playing just 34 games. He and the Devils parted ways the following year at training camp, and he announced his retirement shortly after.
While the homecoming didn’t produce much success on the ice, it did allow Shanahan to end his career on good terms with Lou Lamoriello, just in case they ever crossed paths again down the road.
Luc Robitaille, Kings
The exit: Robitaille actually had three stints playing in Los Angeles. The first lasted from 1986 through 1994, and was followed by brief stops in Pittsburgh and New York before he returned to L.A. via a trade in 1997. But he left again in 2001, bolting in free agency to chase a championship with a comically stacked Detroit Red Wings squad.
The return: Robitaille did get that title in Detroit, as the Wings took home the Cup in 2002. But their 2003 run ended with a stunning first round exit, after which Robitaille and his Cup ring returned to Los Angeles on a one-year deal.
The result: Robitaille still had something in the tank, managing 22 goals in 2003-04 and even coming back for one more year after the lockout. But the Kings didn’t make the playoffs either year. Robitaille retired in 2006, at which point the Kings brought back another returning star in Rob Blake. Today, those two run the front office.
Ron Francis, Whalers/Hurricanes
The exit: The 1991 deadline deal that saw the Hartford Whalers
give trade their franchise player to the Penguins is considered one of the most lopsided moves in NHL history, and with good reason. It paved the way for the Penguins to win two straight Stanley Cups, and may have sealed the Whalers’ doom in Hartford. To this day, it’s hard to watch this clip of befuddled Whaler fans reacting to the news.
The return: Clearly, this one needs a bit of an asterisk, since Francis never actually returned to Hartford. By the time he was done winning Cups and racking up points in Pittsburgh, the Whalers had moved to Carolina. Still, there was something symbolic about seeing the franchise try to right its past wrongs by bringing Francis back into the fold as a free agent in 1998.
The result: Francis never put up Penguin-like numbers in Carolina, but he played well for six more seasons there. He helped the team make it back to the playoffs, and eventually the Cup final in 2002. He wasn’t around for the team’s eventual championship in 2006, but he helped set the stage for it to happen, and today he’s the team’s GM.
All in all, it was the perfect spot for him to close out his legendary playing career. (So, uh, let’s just go ahead and pretend that’s what he did).
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008; you may know him from Twitter as @downgoesbrown. His e-book, The 100 Greatest Players in NHL History, is available now. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.