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Central Division arms race only intensifying

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It’s the National Hockey League’s version of an arms race, a Cold War of sorts.

The developing and cultivating of assets has been rampant in the Central Division over the past few seasons, if not several more before that. Powerhouses have arisen, some likely — Nashville, for instance, and Winnipeg, too, with their drafting.

Others have forged different paths. The St. Louis Blues tricked the world in January when they sat in last place in the NHL, only to hoist the Stanley Cup in the middle of June in one of sports most remarkable comeback stories.

From Manitoba down through Texas, the Central has become and remained hockey’s toughest division, one where aggressiveness in the trade market, in the scouting department and on the draft floor has paid off in dividends for those who have been patient to allow their teams to blossom. And those who have been able to unload and reload, too, have found success.

Four of the past 10 Cup champs have come from the division, and while the Blackhawks have won three of those, others have come close, including the Predators who reached the Cup final in 2017.

The paths have been many, and it’s resulted in a division full of legitimate playoff contenders, if not Stanley Cup ones as well.

It’s a proper standoff.

Let’s delve a little deeper into the Central Division waters, shall we?

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

On the rise

Dallas Stars: They have grown one of the best defenses in the league, command one of the best goalies in the NHL and added a lethal scoring threat in Joe Pavelski this summer, took a cheap and calculated risk on Corey Perry and took a chance on the oft-injured Andrej Sekera.

If the payoff becomes more goals, a rejuvenated leader in Perry and a stout defenseman that Sekera can be, the Stars, who were a goal away from the Western Conference Final this past season, could be a major player in the division.

Colorado Avalanche: The Avs have made their intentions clear. After an unlikely second-round appearance in this past year’s playoffs, the Avs have added the fourth-overall pick thanks to offloading Matt Duchene a couple seasons ago to the Ottawa Senators, who were horrible last season. They signed Joonas Donskoi in free agency, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, too, and pried Andre Burakovsky away from the Washington Capitals and Nazem Kadri from the Toronto Maple Leafs in an aggressive start to the offseason.

Colorado already has some of the best offensive weapons in the NHL with Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. It remains to be seen if their defense takes a hit with the loss of Tyson Barrie in the Kadri deal. But a young team got a good taste in the postseason this year and the additions made can only make the team better.

Still strong

Nashville Predators: The trade-off for adding Matt Duchene was shipping out P.K. Subban. It’s a steep price to pay, but one mitigated by having one of the best defensive cores in the NHL even without Subban’s services.

Duchene should add much-needed goal-scoring to the club, including on the power play where the Preds were abysmal last year (12.9%, 31st in the NHL). The Predators still ooze talent, and they’re a tough-as-nails team to play against, Subban or not. They’ll challenge once again for a third-successive division crown.

St. Louis Blues: The Stanley Cup champs found a way to make the best of the sum of their parts. It’s not that they didn’t have skill, but they also didn’t have a bona fide superstar, at least during the regular season.

But a rugged team that bands together seems to be a squad that can find success, despite whatever perceived lackings they have (see: Vegas, 2018). Jordan Binnington remains a question mark only because we need to see him play a full season at (or at least near) the level he produced after getting his first NHL start on Jan. 7. Ryan O'Reilly was exactly what the team needed and if Robby Fabbri can stay healthy, they could get a good shot of talent injected into the roster.

The Unknowns

Winnipeg Jets: Losing Jacob Trouba hurts. How much so remains to be seen, but taking a top-pairing defender off any team is going to expose a gap that can be exploited.

The Jets are going to get younger once again this season, especially on the back end where they’ve lost Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot. Those aren’t losses that will hurt the team nearly as much, but its experience not on the roster anymore. The Jets will have competition for those spots and could still make a move on the back end (perhaps Jake Gardiner if they could make it work) that would improve that situation.

Signing Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor comes first, however. Andrew Copp, too, along with Neal Pionk, part of their return for Trouba. The Jets still need to sort out their second-line center issue. Who plays with Laine is a big question with no answer at the moment. The Jets aren’t the Stanley Cup contender they were two years ago, and they won’t be riding the same hype train they rode coming into the past season. They also won’t be terrible. They’re still a playoff team, but the ceiling is unknown at the moment.

Did they improve?

Chicago Blackhawks: They’ve made some moves, giving Alexander Nylander a second chance while acquiring Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta to make their defense stouter. And they have a quality 1-2 punch in goal now with the addition of Robin Lehner, who is some of the best insurance you can have with Crawford’s injury proneness.

Will Dylan Strome continue to flourish as he did last season when he joined the team? Alex DeBrincat is a very good player and they still have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Part of their backend is still fossilizing, however. And can Corey Crawford remain healthy? They signed Robin Lehner, so that could take some uncertainty away.

I’m inclined to think Chicago has gotten better and can compete for a playoff spot. I’m just not sure they’re on the same level as the teams above.

The struggle

Minnesota Wild: One wonders where this team is heading. Signing Mats Zuccarello is a good addition and taking a cheap chance on Ryan Hartman isn’t half bad.

But even with that, where is the goal scoring coming from? They traded away Mikael Granlund and Zuccarello has broken the 20-goal barrier just once in his career. Zach Parise isn’t the player he used to be. Eric Staal isn’t getting any younger. Ryan Suter can only play so many minutes a night and Devan Dubnyk took a step down last season, along with the rest of the team.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

NHL Free agency: Most long-term contracts will end in trade or buyout

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Exactly six years ago Friday, the Toronto Maple Leafs made one of the most infamous free agent signings in the salary cap era when they inked David Clarkson to a seven-year, $36.75 million contract. It was a dubious signing from the very beginning due to Clarkson’s age (he was already 29 years old) and lack of consistent, top-line production in the NHL. Adding to the absurdity was the reception of the contract in Toronto (comparing him to Wendel Clark) and the way then-general manager Dave Nonis defended the signing from any and all criticism by saying, “I’m not worried about six or seven right now. I’m worried about one. And year one, I know we’re going to have a very good player. I believe that he’s got a lot of good years left in him.”

How did that work out?

In year one Clarkson scored five goals in 60 games, was a colossal bust, and was then traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets halfway through year two of the contract for Nathan Horton, another free agent bust from the same offseason whose career would be derailed and ultimately ended by injury. The Maple Leafs knew Horton would never play again and the whole trade was nothing more than a way to shed an albatross contract that looked to be a mistake from the start. It was an obvious — and ultimately legal — circumvention of the league’s salary cap.

Clarkson’s contract is far from the only one that has gotten general managers in trouble for signing a player for too many years in free agency. Almost every time the justification is similar to the one Nonis gave for the Clarkson signing: We’re not worried about four or five years, we just want to win right now.

Most of them never win “right now,” and almost all of them are looking for a way out within two years.

Between the summers of 2009 and 2016 there were 35 unrestricted free agents signed to contracts of five years or longer.

What sort of return did teams get on those investments?

Let’s start with this, showing the result of each signing.

[Related: PHT 2019 Free Agent Signing Tracker]

This only includes players that actually changed teams as UFA’s. It does not include re-signings of players still under contract with their current team (contract extensions), or the re-signing of restricted free agents.

• Fourteen of the 35 players were traded before the end of their contract term. That includes nine players that were traded before completing three full seasons with their new team. Most of these trades were salary dumps or an exchange of undesirable contracts.

• Ten of the contracts ended in a buyout, usually after three or four seasons.

• There are only three players signed during this time period that are still playing out their contracts with their current teams: Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in Minnesota, and Michael Frolik with the Calgary Flames. The latter has been mentioned in trade rumors for more than a year now.

• Only four players played out the entire term with the team that signed them: Paul Martin with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Anton Stralman with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Brian Gionta with the Montreal Canadiens, and Dan Hamhuis with the Vancouver Canucks.

• Three players had their careers ended by injury before the duration of the contract: Marian Hossa with the Chicago Blackhawks, Ryane Clowe with the New Jersey Devils, and Mattias Ohlund with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

• On average, those 35 players played out just 57 percent of their contract term with the team that signed them. Fourteen of them played out only half of the contract or less.

• If you want to go with the “I don’t care what happens in six years as long as we win the Stanley Cup with this player” argument, the only players in the above sampling that actually won a Stanley Cup with the team that signed them during their contract were Hossa in Chicago and Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik in Washington. The only others to even play in the Stanley Cup Final were Anton Stralman, Valtteri Filpulla, and Matt Carle in Tampa Bay, and Brad Richards with the New York Rangers (he was bought out the following summer after three years of a 10-year contract).

What did teams learn from this sampling?

Mostly nothing, because they have kept doing it.

Between the 2016 and 2018 offseasons there were 13 UFA contracts of five years or more signed, and the early returns are already looking disastrous.

In the summer of 2016 the following deals were signed.

  • David Backes to the Boston Bruins for five years at $6 million per year
  • Kyle Okposo to the Buffalo Sabres for seven years at $6 million per year
  • Frans Nielsen to the Detroit Red Wings for six years at $5.25 million per year
  • Milan Lucic to the Edmonton Oilers for seven years at $6 million per year
  • Loui Eriksson to the Vancouver Canucks for six years at $5.5 million per year
  • James Reimer to the Florida Panthers for five years at $3.4 million per year
  • Andrew Ladd to the New York Islanders for seven years at $5.5 million per year

Not sure there is anybody that would look at any of those contracts just three years later and argue that any of those teams are getting what they hoped to get. Reimer has already been traded so the Panthers could give another long-term deal to a different goalie (Sergei Bobrovsky) this offseason, while the rest of the contracts have all quickly become an albatross for every team that signed them.

There were six contracts signed over the 2017 and 2018 offseasons with Alexander Radulov, Karl Alzner, John Tavares, James van Riemsdyk, Jack Johnson, and John Moore all getting contracts of five years or more.

So far the Radulov and Tavares contracts look to be the best investments and have provided the most return.

Alzner spent time in the AHL this past season, while Johnson has been the subject of trade rumors after just one season in Pittsburgh.

This offseason seven teams have decided to bet against history and take their chances on long-term deals.

  • Vancouver signed Tyler Myers to a five-year contract
  • New York signed Artemi Panarin to a seven-year contract
  • Florida signed Bobrovsky to a seven-year contract
  • Pittsburgh signed Brandon Tanev to a six-year contract
  • Nashville signed Matt Duchene to a seven-year contract
  • New York Islanders re-signed Anders Lee to a seven-year contract

History suggests that probably at least five of these players will be playing for a different team within two or three years.

The players that have had the highest chances of playing out most of their contract are the high-end players (first-or second-line forwards; top-pairing defenders) that are still reasonably close to the prime of their careers, so that might be good news for the Rangers and Panarin and maybe — emphasis maybe — Duchene and the Predators.

All of the rest? These look like textbook deals that are destined to end in a salary dump trade or a buyout within a couple of years.

If a player makes it to unrestricted free agency you should know what you are bidding on and adjust your expectations accordingly. It is usually a player that has almost certainly already played their most productive hockey in the NHL, and it is usually a player that their former team didn’t feel was worth the money or term they were going to be able to get on the open market. It is rare that a team allows a player it actually wants to re-sign and values make it to free agency.

Elite players like Tavares and Panarin are the exception.

The end result is a bidding war for a declining player that probably isn’t as good as you think, which then ultimately leads to a team paying a player to NOT play for them (buyout), or trading them for another player another team doesn’t want, or giving up a more valuable asset to entice a team to take your bad contract in a trade.

NHL Free agency: Sometimes the best way to win is to not play.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Wild add Zuccarello, Hartman, as GM seeks more ‘hardness’

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Wild zeroed in on Mats Zuccarello as free agency approached, desiring his competitive drive and playmaking skills for a top-six forward group in need of a new look.

With a five-year, $30 million contract the right wing agreed to Monday when the market opened, Zuccarello has given the Wild another thirtysomething core player on a major deal. Even following their first postseason absence in seven years, though, general manager Paul Fenton was noticeably upbeat about the makeup of his roster.

”You’ve got to have a team that you’re going to field and let these young guys grow with it, so to me it’s just an insulation,” Fenton said, adding: ”He doesn’t have a ton of miles on him if you really look at it. He’s been a healthy player.”

For the fourth line, the Wild also agreed on a two-year, $3.8 million contract with right wing Ryan Hartman, who was not tendered a qualifying offer by Dallas last week. That’ll probably be the extent of the summer maneuvering, Fenton said, with the post-injury recoveries of center Mikko Koivu (knee) and defenseman Matt Dumba (shoulder) now the most important developments leading into training camp.

Zuccarello has 355 points in 511 regular season games, including a combined 12 goals and 28 assists in 48 games for the New York Rangers and the Stars in 2018-19. The 31-year-old has 42 points in 73 career playoff games. The 5-foot-8, 184-pound native of Oslo who is one of only eight players in NHL history born in Norway , according to online database Hockey Reference, played his first eight-plus seasons with the Rangers.

In his first appearance with the Stars, Zuccarello registered a goal, an assist, and a broken right arm suffered while blocking a shot . He needed surgery and missed 17 games. Returning in April, Zuccarello had four goals and seven assists in 13 postseason contests for the Stars, who took eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals.

”The way that this guy competes is going to be contagious for our team,” Fenton said, adding: ”I would like our team to play with a little more hardness and passion and excitement, and I think he’ll not only do it himself, but he’ll bring people along with him.”

With left wing Zach Parise, defenseman Ryan Suter, Zuccarello and Koivu, four of the Wild’s top six salary cap charges this season will be carried by players 31 and older, but Zuccarello categorized himself as an ”in-between” guy on a team grooming an under-23 core of forwards Jordan Greenway, Luke Kunin and Joel Eriksson Ek.

Zuccarello, a self-described ”hockey nerd,” was eager to immerse himself in a hockey-savvy market with a conveniently significant amount of residents with Norwegian heritage. He could also form a uniquely alliterative first line flank with Jason Zucker around veteran center Eric Staal.

The Wild scored just 210 goals last season, the fifth-fewest in the league.

”It’s a really good mixture of players, and I think hopefully with the pieces we got this summer we can be a contender,” Zuccarello said.

Wild sign Mats Zuccarello: five years, $30M

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Things haven’t been going so great for the Minnesota Wild lately, but after a well-received 2019 NHL Draft, GM Paul Fenton added some playmaking and positivity by signing winger Mats Zuccarello.

The term is a little scary, though. Considering Zuccarello’s health history, and the fact that he’s turning 32 on Sept. 1, a five-year, $30 million contract gives some pause.

The Athletic’s Michael Russo reports that, in addition to Zuccarello, the Wild are also expected to come to terms with rambunctious winger Ryan Hartman, possibly at two years with a $3.8 million total.

[PHT’S Free Agent Tracker]

With Zuccarello not re-signing with the Dallas Stars, it ties together the trade with the New York Rangers. If the Stars would have brought back Zuccarello with a new deal, they would have received a 2020 first-round pick from the Stars. Instead, it will be a third-rounder.

Tumultuous season for Zucc

The veteran winger experienced quite the highs and lows in 2018-19.

After dealing with injuries, Zuccarello really started to find some magic with Mika Zibanejad, ultimately generating 37 points in his final 46 games with the Rangers. New York decided to trade Zuccarello around deadline time, however, and moving to Dallas wasn’t the extent of Zuccarello’s drama.

During his first game with the Stars, Zuccarello was injured blocking a shot. He ended up playing only two regular season games with Dallas.

Yet, you can’t call his time with the Stars a bust, as he was brilliant during the Stars’ run that ended in Round 2. Zuccarello generated 11 points in 13 playoff games, really bringing Roope Hintz to a new level, and making Dallas more than just a one-line team. Dallas couldn’t beat St. Louis, but they really pushed the Blues, and Zuccarello made that attack more dynamic.

Now, the Wild are betting on Zuccarello doing the same, and for long enough that the term won’t be too regrettable.

The best-case scenario is that Zuccarello comes in and replaces some of the offense lost in the disastrous Nino Niederreiter trade (and also in losing Mikael Granlund), even though he’s a different winger from those two.

The worst-case scenario is that Zuccarello joins Zach Parise and Ryan Suter as long-term veteran commitments that look increasingly painful for a Wild team that is refusing to truly rebuild, possibly to its own detriment.

However things work out for the Wild, it’s tough not to feel great for Zuccarello, who’s earned every single thing he’s received in the NHL. That includes this $30M deal, although it remains to be seen if this investment will be worthwhile for Minnesota.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

PHT Time Machine: When RFA offer sheets actually happened

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Throughout the offseason we will be taking an occasional look back at some significant moments in NHL history. This is the PHT Time Machine. Today we look back at the history of restricted free agent offer sheets and some of the wild signings and situations that have unfolded because of them.

There is probably no greater time-waster in the NHL offseason than discussing the possibility of a restricted free agent offer sheet. Every year we look at the names that are out there, and every year we discuss the possibility of a young player signing a massive contract and wondering whether it will be matched, and every year nothing ever comes of it.

There are a number of theories as to why it never happens, ranging from the more nefarious ones like GM’s wanting to keep the cost of young players down or having some sort of “unwritten agreement” among them to not poach other team’s players, to a far more reasonable one: It’s really difficult to find a perfect match where such a signing can actually happen.

Not only does a team need to have the salary cap space and the appropriate draft pick assets, but the player in question has to actually WANT to sign with the team offering the contract, and the team owning that player’s rights has to be unwilling (or unable) to match it.

That is tough to find.

We do not know how many offers actually get made, but we do know in the history of restricted free agency there have only been 35 offer sheets actually signed, and only eight in the salary cap era.

Only 13 of those offer sheets were not matched and saw a player actually change teams.

We have not seen an offer sheet signed since the Calgary Flames tried to get Ryan O'Reilly away from the Colorado Avalanche during the 2012-13 season (it was ultimately matched by the Avalanche).

This offseason, of course, is no different when it comes to the speculation, and the player that is getting the most attention is Toronto Maple Leafs winger Mitch Marner due to the team’s salary cap crunch and Marner’s reported contract demands.

Will it actually happen? History says no, but a lot of the circumstances are in place for it to at least be on the table. Speaking of history, let’s take a look back at some of the more noteworthy offer sheets in NHL history.

Hurricanes sign Sergei Fedorov

This might be the wildest offer sheet situation the league has ever seen.

During the 1997-98 season the Carolina Hurricanes were in their first year of existence after relocating from Hartford. They were losing money after the move, they were in last place in their division, and the organization had missed the playoffs in each of its final five seasons as the Whalers.

Fedorov, still fairly close to the height of his powers as an NHL superstar, was involved in an ugly contract dispute with the Detroit Red Wings and by mid-February had still not signed a contract. During the Olympic break that season (the first year NHL players participated in the Olympics) the Hurricanes, led by now Hall of Fame general manager Jim Rutherford, decided to pounce and signed Fedorov to a massive six year, $38 million contract that included a $14 million signing bonus for him to play in the final 25 games of the season, and more than $12 million in bonuses over the next four years.

It would have made him one of the highest paid players in the league.

An excerpt from a Feb. 21, 1998 Associated Press story on the signing.

Rutherford later added in the story, “This is a player in a special situation who rolled the dice, he held out, he’s a world-class player and probably one of the top-five players in the world right now. He deserves to make more money. This is part of the building blocks to being in a new market … and having a franchise player.”

The Red Wings ultimately matched the offer and Fedorov not only ended up making a ton of money to play in only a quarter of the season, he played a massive part in the team winning its second straight Stanley Cup.

But it wasn’t just the fact that a last place team in a new market made the bold move to sign a superstar to a massive offer sheet that made this so intriguing. The underlying storyline here was also the fact the owners of the teams (Peter Karmanos with the Hurricanes and Mike Ilitch with the Red Wings) had a long history of being rivals in pretty much every walk of life.

Karmanos initially tried to move the Whalers to suburban Detroit after purchasing the team in 1994 (they would have played at The Palace Of Auburn Hills) something that obviously did not sit well with the Red Wings, while the two men had extensive business operations in the Detroit area (Ilitch with Little Caesars; Karmonas with a computer software company).

They were also active players in Detroit’s amateur hockey scene that resulted in Ilitch evicting Karmanos’ major junior team out of Joe Louis arena.

So … yeah. These two guys had major beef for a long time, and adding a restricted free agent offer sheet for one of the league’s best players certainly didn’t calm things down.

At least they never tried to fight in a barn, something that nearly happened in our next situation.

The Oilers’ wild summer of 2007

Knowing what we know now about how slow the RFA market typically is, it is completely absurd to look back now and remember that the Edmonton Oilers, under the direction of Kevin Lowe, signed two offer sheets in the same summer.

It all began on July 6, 2007, when he attempted to sign Thomas Vanek to a seven-year, $50 million contract in an effort to pry him away from the Buffalo Sabres. At the time Vanek was one of the league’s best young goal-scorers and was coming off of a 43-goal season. Even though he had played just two years in the league, he had already scored 68 goals and was an emerging star.

The Sabres immediately matched the offer.

So Lowe set his sights elsewhere and three weeks later targeted the reigning Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks, signing Dustin Penner to five-year, $21.5 million offer sheet.

Prior to the signing then-Ducks general manager Brian Burke had said he would match any offer sheet that Penner was signed to, but he probably was not anticipating that sort of offer. Even though Penner was coming off of a 29-goal season for the Ducks, he had still only played 101 games in the NHL and had just 33 total goals (less than half of what Vanek had scored at the same point in their careers).

The offer infuriated Burke and resulted in him publicly blasting Lowe in the media the next day.

Along with calling the contract “gutless,” Burke also added that “Edmonton has offered a mostly inflated salary for a player, and I think it’s an act of desperation for a general manager who is fighting to keep his job.”

The feud between the two executives reached a point to where Burke wanted to rent a barn in Lake Placid so they could physically fight.

The Ducks refused to match the offer and in return received the Oilers’ first, second, and third round draft picks the following year.

From there, a lot of things happened.

  • The first-round pick Anaheim received ended up being the No. 12 pick in the draft. Anaheim then traded that pick for the No. 17 and 28 picks in 2008. They then used the No. 17 pick to select Jake Gardiner, who would eventually be traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs (along with Joffrey Lupul) in exchange for Francois Beauchemin.  The No. 28 pick was traded for two second-round picks.
  • The second-round pick Anaheim received from Edmonton was used to select Justin Schultz, who ended up never signing with the Ducks and once he became a free agent signed with … the Edmonton Oilers.

Penner was mostly okay with the Oilers, but probably wasn’t worth the assets they gave up to get him.

Flyers go all in for Shea Weber

Ah, yes, the Paul Holmgren era Philadelphia Flyers.

If there was a blockbuster to be made this team was going to do it. One year after overhauling his entire roster by trading Mike Richards and Jeff Carter so he could throw a bank vault at Ilya Bryzgalov, Paul Holmgren made what was perhaps his boldest move yet when he signed defenseman Shea Weber to a massive 14-year offer sheet that was worth $110 million.

[Related: Paul Holmgren’s year of crazy Flyers blockbusters]

The Predators were pretty vulnerable at the time because this was the same summer they had lost Ryan Suter in free agency to the Minnesota Wild, which came just a couple of years after losing Dan Hamhuis. The team was built around its defense and two of its three most important players were already gone. Losing Weber at that time would have been absolutely crushing.

The Predators decided to pass at the opportunity to collect four first-round draft picks from the Flyers and matched the offer.

They eventually traded Weber to the Montreal Canadiens for P.K. Subban, and then traded Subban this summer to the Devils for … well … a lot of salary cap space.

Scott Stevens had an extensive — and important — history with offer sheets

One of the first significant offer sheets came when the St. Louis Blues signed Scott Stevens to a four-year, $5.1 million contract to pry him away from the Washington Capitals on July 16, 1990.

The Capitals declined to match the offer and ultimately received five first-round draft picks in return, with two of them turning into Sergei Gonchar and Brendan Witt, two players that would go on to be long-time staples on the Capitals’ blue line.

Stevens would only play one season with the Blues before he was on the move again in the summer of 1991 in one of the more controversial rulings in league history.

It was then that the Blues signed restricted free agent Brendan Shanahan away from the New Jersey Devils. Because the Blues were sending all of their first-round picks to the Capitals for signing Stevens, they had to agree to other compensation to get Shanahan. There was a disagreement on what that compensation should be.

The Blues offered goalie Curtis Joseph, forward Rod Brind’Amour, and two draft picks.

The Devils wanted Stevens.

An arbitrator decided that Stevens was the appropriate compensation and awarded him to the Devils in a decision that infuriated the Blues and other high-profile players around the league, including The Great One.

Blues superstar Brett Hull was not as calm or measured in his statements.

And more…

Wild times.

This was during a CBA fight between the players and league with the players trying to get greater free agent rights. So it is not hard to understand why the Blues (and other players around the league) were so angry about it.

Stevens initially refused to report to Devils camp. He eventually did and would go on to become one of the most important players in franchise history and was the backbone of three Stanley Cup winning teams.

But his RFA saga would not end with this.

In the summer of 1994 the Blues had attempted to re-acquire Stevens, again a restricted free agent, and signed him to a four-year, $17 million offer sheet.

The Devils would ultimately match it, but were convinced the Blues had tampered with Stevens and spoke to him before his Devils contract expired. The league then launched an investigation and NEARLY FIVE YEARS finally reached a settlement that would see the Blues send $1.4 million and a first-round draft pick to the Devils as compensation for tampering.

Then-Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello was not satisfied with that resulted and wanted more.

Via the New York Times:

”I don’t look at something of this nature as a triumph,” Lamoriello said yesterday in a conference call after Commissioner Gary Bettman handed down his decision. ”It’s a detriment to the N.H.L. I don’t think the compensation could be severe enough. My request was five first-round picks, plus damages.”

And…

”In a process of negotiations, when they are ongoing and you are speaking, you can usually sense when there is something else involved,” Lamoriello said. ”I sensed that I was talking to myself. I just felt as though there was something funny in the way things transpired, the way things went. I was the sole person that could be negotiating, but I felt very strongly reading some of the articles that did come out of St. Louis and things I was hearing, that something happened. Where there was some smoke, I wanted to make sure there wasn’t any fire.”

Rangers try for Joe Sakic

In the summer of 1997 the New York Rangers were coming off of a conference Finals loss to the Philadelphia Flyers and had just lost their captain, Mark Messier, in free agency to the Vancouver Canucks.

Their response: To sign Joe Sakic, at the time one of the league’s best players, to a three-year, $21 million contract that had as much as $15 million in signing bonuses up front. The compensation would have been five first-round draft picks.

The Avalanche refused to let their cornerstone player get away and matched the offer. They would go on to remain one of the league’s powers and would win another Stanley Cup with Sakic in 2001. The Rangers, meanwhile, stumbled through a seven-year run of mediocrity where they attempted to acquire every aging superstar in the league. Nothing worked and the team was consistently an expensive flop until finally returning to the playoffs during the 2005-06 season.

For more stories from the PHT Time Machine, click here.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.