Let’s look back on five cases where RFA signings resulted in an arbitrator forcing a trade as compensation and its impact on hockey history.
Last week, we looked back on the league’s long history of arbitrators having to sort out messy cases. One of the biggest was the 1991 case that saw Scott Stevens awarded to the Devils as compensation for the signing of Brendan Shanahan. It was part of the league’s old RFA system, under which some players who signed with a new team weren’t subject to a right to match or draft pick compensation, but rather to a forced trade in which each team submitted what they felt was a fair offer and an arbitrator picked one.
It was, to put it bluntly, a fantastic system. Oh, the players hated it, and so did most of the teams. But for fans, it was a great source of entertainment. It was all sorts of fun to debate the teams’ offers, come up with ones of your own, and speculate over which side the arbitrator would ultimately land on. The system lasted until 1995, when Gary Bettman’s first lockout ended with a new CBA that ushered in new RFA rules. This excellent blog post contains a detailed history of the old system; it’s fair to say we’re unlikely to ever see it return in the NHL.
So today, let’s look back on five more cases where RFA signings resulted in an arbitrator forcing a trade as compensation. None were quite as big as the Stevens-for-Shanahan blockbuster, but each had its own impact on hockey history.
The battle of the enforcers
Despite having just two seasons and 69 games under his belt, Troy Crowder was one of the league’s most feared enforcers in 1991. That was almost entirely due to a single fight, one that came on opening night of the 1990-91 season. Crowder’s Devils were hosting the Red Wings, and midway through the game Crowder found himself squaring off with the league’s undisputed heavyweight champion, Bob Probert. The legendary Wings’ tough guy had a nearly spotless record over the years, but Crowder won the fight handily, a shocking result from a virtually unknown contender. When the two split a pair of January rematches, Crowder cemented his status as one of the league’s best.
And so, during the 1991 offseason, the Wings went out and signed him. The logic seemed sound – if this was one of the few guys in the league who could give Probert trouble, the Wings would make sure their big dog wouldn’t have to worry about him. The Wings offered Dave Barr and Randy McKay as compensation. But Lou Lamoriello and the Devils responded with the same strategy they’d used in the Shanahan case: swinging for the fences. They demanded Probert himself as compensation.
This time, the arbitrator wasn’t having it. Just days after they struck gold with the Stevens ruling, the Devils lost the Crowder case, and settled for McKay and Barr. Probert remained in Detroit for four more years, while a back injury limited Crowder to just seven games in Detroit.
Today, Adam Graves is a Rangers legend. He was a key part of the 1994 championship team and once held the franchise record for goals in a season, and in 2009, the team retired his number.
But back in 1991, Graves was still a highly regarded prospect who hadn’t done much in the NHL. At 23 years old, he’d yet to so much as crack the 10-goal mark in four NHL seasons. So it was a mild surprise when the Rangers targeted him during the offseason, signing him away from Edmonton and opening the door to a compensation ruling.
The Oilers asked for Steven Rice and Loui DeBrusk, while the Rangers offered Troy Mallette. None of those were especially big names, and in some corners of the hockey world the Graves case didn’t get much attention. When the arbitrator sided with New York and sent Mallette to Edmonton, most fans shrugged.
But the ruling turned out to be a crucial one. The Oilers had had their eye on Rice and DeBrusk as part of a far bigger deal, one that would send captain Mark Messier to New York. That trade had been rumored for months, but had taken a backseat during the Graves case. But when Messier announced his intention to hold out in an attempt to force a trade, the Oiler had to make a move. And so, on October 4, 1991, they made a deal with the Rangers. In exchange for Messier, they’d get all-star center Bernie Nicholls and the two players they’d targeted in the Graves case, Rice and DeBrusk.
Would the Messier deal have still happened if the Oilers had already landed Rice and DeBrusk? It’s tough to say. In hindsight, it seems impossible to imagine Messier winding up anywhere other than New York. But he could have, if we’d seen a different decision in an arbitration case over a little-known prospect.
Aiming at Eddie O
One of the first major RFA signing cases came back in 1986, when the Blackhawks lured defenseman Gary Nylund away from the Maple Leafs. Nylund was four years removed from being the third overall pick in the 1982 draft, and had spent those four years struggling with a Leafs’ organization that wasn’t exactly known for patiently developing its prospects.
When Nylund signed with Chicago, the Hawks offered a package of Ken Yaremchuk, Jerome Dupont and a fourth-round pick. For their side, the Leafs decided to get aggressive, asking for 20-year-old center Ed Olczyk. He was coming off of a 79-point season as a teenager, so needless to say the Leafs were aiming high.
It didn’t work. The arbitrator sided with Chicago, sending Yaremchuk and Dupont to the Maple Leafs, where they were welcomed by news that owner Harold Ballard didn’t want them in the NHL. As for Olczyk, he’d end up in Toronto a year later as part of a blockbuster deal that sent Rick Vaive and Steve Thomas to Chicago.
Oh my gosh, they kept Kenny
Eight years after the Olcyzk case, the Leafs were on the other side of a signing. And it’s one that offers up another case for the “what if?” files.
Back in 1994, the Maple Leafs were coming off consecutive conference finals appearances. But the roster was an aging one, and GM Cliff Fletcher felt that they needed to add some youth. And so just weeks after pulling off the Wendel Clark/Mats Sundin blockbuster trade, he continued the makeover by signing 23-year-old RFA Mike Craig away from the Dallas Stars.
The Leafs offered fan favorite Peter Zezel as compensation, along with prospect Grant Marshall. The arbitrator sided with them, but in hindsight it was hard to view the swap as much of a win. The defensive-minded Zezel left a hole in the lineup that was never really filled, and Marshall ended up having a more productive career than Craig did.
But the “what if” comes in with the Stars’ side of the case. As compensation for Craig, Dallas asked for one of the Leafs’ best prospects, defenseman Kenny Jonsson. By winning the case, the Leafs held onto Jonsson’s rights, and he made his NHL debut that season. But his stint in Toronto would be short-lived, as Fletcher made him part of the controversial 1996 trade that returned Clark to Toronto while sending Jonsson and a first-round pick to the Islanders.
While it was popular at the time, that deal is often listed as one of the worst in Maple Leafs’ history thanks to the pick ending up becoming the fourth overall choice used on Roberto Luongo. Does the deal still happen if an arbitrator sends Jonsson to Dallas back in 1994? We’ll never know, but Maple Leaf fans dreaming of Luongo in blue and white will always wonder.
Janney or Shanny?
We started all of this with the Stevens/Shanahan case, so it seems right to end with one that takes that story full circle. In one of the last major cases before the new CBA, the Blues signed Petr Nedved away from the Canucks in 1994.
It was an unusual move, for a few reasons. For one, the Blues had been burned badly on the Stevens case, and it was mildly surprising to see them dive back into the market. But to make the case even more complicated, this signing didn’t come in the offseason. Instead, the deal went down in March, with the season almost over. Nedved had been holding out – this was the year he made that weird Olympics appearance with Team Canada – and had looked like he might miss the whole year when the Blues swooped in.
As compensation, St. Louis offered Craig Janney and a second-round pick. But the Canucks had apparently been paying attention to Lamoriello’s playbook from the Stevens case, and they went for the Blues’ throat. Their demand: Shanahan himself, who by that point was well-established as a 50-goal scorer.
It’s fun to imagine the meltdown that would have happened in St. Louis if the Canucks had won the case. Alas, no such luck. This time, the arbitrator sided with the Blues, and sent Janney’s rights to Vancouver. But the fun was only just getting started, as Janney refused to report to Vancouver. So ten days later, the Canucks traded him back to the Blues for Jeff Brown, Bret Hedican and Nathan LaFayette.
Janney’s awkward return ended a strange few weeks that had divided the Blues. The whole situation also forced the NHL to rewrite their rulebook to cover midseason signings to close a ridiculous loophole; Nedved had actually been allowed to play for St. Louis while the arbitrator considered his decision, meaning the Blues briefly had Nedved, Shanahan and Janney all in the lineup at the same time.
The Canucks went on to make a run to the 1994 final. Brown, Hedican and LaFayette helped get them there, although it’s impossible not to imagine what that run would have looked like with Shanahan in the lineup instead.
As for St. Louis, they got just 23 games from Nedved for all of their trouble. After being swept in the first round, the Blues were forced to send Nedved to the Rangers as part of whole Mike Keenan mess.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.