If Scott Gomez and/or Tomas Kaberle make the New Jersey Devils this season and contribute in a meaningful way, GM Lou Lamoriello will be able to claim another feather for a cap that is already bursting with plumage. The veterans are reclamation projects, looking to revive careers that are ever-so-gently flickering.
Barring the spectacularly unforeseen, however, those potential additions won’t be able to match the magic Lamoriello performed 23 years ago.
In this edition of Throwback Thursday, we remember the incredible summer of 1991, when the Devils acquired Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer via a series of head-scratching events.
The savvy moves/good fortune has its roots in 1989, when Lamoriello traded blueliner Tom Kurvers to Toronto for the Maple Leafs’ first round pick in ’91. Kurvers, a decent offensive defenseman, scored 16 goals the year before the Leafs decided to mortgage part of their future for him. Lamoriello sensed the swap might have huge upside.
“Lamoriello was gambling that the Leafs monumental ineptitude might be enough to carry them to last place in the standings, thus making New Jersey the new workplace of a strapping young lad named Eric Lindros,” wrote columnist Dave Molinari in the Sept 20, 1991 edition of The Hockey News. “Perhaps you’ve heard of him.”
As things turned out, the Leafs finished third last and had traded Kurvers to Vancouver before the ’91 draft even played out. The Devils, having missed out on ‘The Big E’, had to “settle” for Niedermayer third overall. (By the way, they also missed out on Pat Falloon at No. 2, while Scott Lachance was selected fourth).
Three months after stealing one future Hall of Famer, Lamoriello was presented another. On Sept. 3, 1991, an arbitrator awarded Stevens to the Devils as compensation for St. Louis singing young buck forward Brendan Shanahan.
Shanahan, 22, was a restricted free agent and under the terms of the CBA then in place, his signing demanded recompense. The Blues offered Rod Brind’Amour, Curtis Joseph and two draft picks.
“Maybe the NHL should honor arbitrator Edward J. Houston as its Executive of the Year,” Molinari wrote. “There aren’t many guys in the business who could have pulled off that deal.”
The kicker for the Blues was that they’d surrendered five first-round picks for Stevens the previous summer when they’d signed him as a free agent out of Washington.
The ruling angered players across the NHL and helped deepen their mistrust of the league. “The fix was in,” said Blues’ star winger Brett Hull. “I would never like to make Brendan look bad, but he’s not of equal value to Scott.”
Rick Tocchet deemed it a “total joke” and Wayne Gretzky issued a warning shot of his own.
“It’s not fair and they can’t possibly say it is fair,” Gretzky said. “It will make the players dig in that much deeper.”
This was in the pre-labor strife era, during the early days of Bob Goodenow’s reign as NHLPA executive director and about 18 months prior to Gary Bettman’s hiring as commissioner. In the spring of 1992, the players staged a short-lived strike, which was followed by three lockouts in 17 years.
As it turned out, the move wasn’t a huge disaster for St. Louis. Shanahan topped 50 goals twice in his three full seasons in Missouri, then was traded in 1995 for future Hart Trophy winner Chris Pronger.
Lamroiello, by the way, didn’t bat 1.000 that summer. When the Detroit Red Wings signed enforcer Troy Crowder away from New Jersey, Lou asked for Bob Probert as compensation. Judge Houston didn’t take his side in that case; instead he awarded Randy McKay.
Elsewhere in the Sept. 20, 1991 edition:
• Cartoonist Dave Elston provides his satirical take on the state of NHL free agency.
• Mark Messier asks out of Edmonton when contract talks break down. “I’d say I’ve probably played my last game as an Oiler. I don’t think you’ll see me in that uniform again.” ‘The Moose’ was dealt to the Rangers that October.
• brand new Maple Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher vowed to stop the incredible turnover the club had experienced the previous season. “Once camp has ended and the roster finalized, those players will be given every opportunity to gel.” About three months later, Fletcher engineered a history-making 10-player swap with Calgary – the one that netted Doug Gilmour.
• the NHL was without a national TV contract in the United States. There was hope one would be negotiated and in place with ESPN by January that might net the league at $3 million. Not a typo.
• We discovered the unique piece of trivia that Kris Draper scored his first NHL and American League goals before he scored his first major junior goal. A Winnipeg draft pick in 1989, Draper toiled for the Canadian men’s national team in 1989-90, got a look-see with the Jets and AHL Moncton Hawks in the fall of 1990-91 (tallying for both clubs) before being assigned to the Ottawa 67’s. True story.
• Doug Wilson on his enormous relief at being traded from Chicago to San Jose and no longer having to play for coach Mike Keenan: “No team works harder than the Chicago Blackhawks, and no team has less fun.”
• The late Peter Zezel was candid when asked what he liked most about being in the NHL: “The camaraderie, the travel…and the women.”