- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2000

What if?

What if David Poile, then general manager of the Washington Capitals, had decided in the summer of 1990 to match the offer sheet St. Louis extended to defenseman Scott Stevens? Would it be the Caps right now in Philadelphia battling the Flyers for the right to advance to the Stanley Cup finals, led by a defenseman who never seems to age?

Or did Poile, suffering from the usual severe budgetary restrictions, make the right decision, accepting the five first-round draft picks as compensation?

"When I was first drafted, I thought I'd be a Capital forever," Stevens, now 36, said Sunday night after leading his New Jersey Devils to a 4-1 win over Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference finals. Game 2 in the best-of-7 series is tonight in Philadelphia.

Instead, Stevens became the lightning rod that ignited the free agent marketplace in the NHL. He tested the market and won big; then his new team tested it again and Stevens became a sacrificial lamb, shuffled from the Blues to New Jersey by league edict as payment for the gluttony of the St. Louis owners who illegally went after Brendan Shanahan.

Funny how those things work. New Jersey won a Cup with Stevens and may compete for another; the Blues haven't even made it to the finals since they lost the player.

Today Stevens is considered one of the top two or three all-around defensemen in the NHL, the unquestioned New Jersey leader, one of the people the team has been built around (the other being goalie Martin Brodeur). And he is on the short list of Conn Smythe Trophy candidates already being drawn up.

He is playing for the Devils because he wants to, because he believes in the organization's defense-first philosophy and the way it is headed. He is halfway through a four-year deal that paid him $4.15 million this season, a figure he might have tacked a few million extra on had he decided to explore unrestricted free agency, which he was eligible for five seasons ago.

"Do I think about 'What if?' Yeah, I do," Stevens said. "You always have feelings for the place where you were drafted, where you first started. I spent eight years in Washington and the organization was good to me. But those things [like free agency] happen and you stop and think back to them once in awhile. Obviously, things didn't work out between the Caps and myself but since then I've won a Stanley Cup [in 1995] and now I have a good chance of getting to the finals again."

In 1990, one season after he finished second in the Norris Trophy balloting to Ray Bourque, Stevens was making just $300,000 (Rod Langway was making only $400,000). Nobody of consequence had tried to take advantage of restricted free agency since Marcel Dionne in 1975. Stevens listened to a St. Louis offer of $1.1 million and signed the offer sheet. Poile could have matched but accepted the compensation (it turned out to be Trevor Halverson, Sergei Gonchar, Brendan Witt, a trade with Toronto that produced Nolan Baumgartner, and Miika Elomo).

What the Blues got was one of the brightest up and coming stars in the sport, a player who turned down a football scholarship to Michigan State, a proven leader (he became the team captain in his first St. Louis season) whose dedication to hockey was beyond question, a player whose only apparent drawback was a very quick and at times uncontrollable temper (New York Islanders coach Al Arbour had Duane Sutter goad Stevens into fights in the defenseman's first two playoff games, resulting in two ejections and two Islanders wins).

And the Devils got the same thing in return as payment for Shanahan only general manager Lou Lamoriello was smart enough to hire somebody to polish the edges two-time Norris winner Larry Robinson after his retirement from Montreal.

Robinson, now the Devils coach after Robbie Ftorek was fired with eight games to go in the season, paused for a long time the other day when asked who might have been the top defenseman for the Canadiens had both he and Stevens been there at the same time.

"He's playing very, very well right now, extremely well," Robinson said, diplomatically dancing around the question. "The thing that I like, the thing that I see that I really, really like is that he's focused. He doesn't let anything bother him. He's a tower of strength out there, playing a solid game on both sides of the puck, and that's what we needed right now."

"Larry has given us a lot of confidence, he's got us back to playing disciplined, defensive hockey and that's what we needed, that and the forwards helping out the defense to make life easier for everybody," Stevens said, without pointing fingers that the personnel on the club wasn't suited for the run-and-gun style Ftorek seemed to want.

"Everything's calm on the bench now, Larry's really cool and gives us a lot of good input," Stevens said, paying tribute to the man who taught him how to control a nasty temper and perfect his game.

He's come a long way since the days when he was tossed twice for fighting a guy with the nickname "Mad Dog."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide