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Greg Wyshynski

Shanny returns: Letting a Ranger back into a Devils fan's heart

Greg Wyshynski
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The New Jersey Devils have actually been four different franchises during their nearly 35-year history. Brendan Shanahan, expected to return to the ice tonight at the Nashville Predators (and at the expense of Jay Pandolfo), will now have played with two of those incarnations.

They were the Rockies, Colorado's NHL team before the Nordiques moved there. Before that, they were the Scouts, Kansas City's NHL team before the Islanders move there. In 1982, they became the New Jersey Devils Christmas Tree Edition: a rag-tag group of veterans and rising stars, playing for a Mickey Mouse franchise in a swamp. A team for who respect was something craved for and hard-fought, rather than assumed.

That all changed right around the time when the Devils' colors did, to the familiar red and black they still wear today. Jacques Lemaire and Martin Brodeur arrived, and the culture changed to one of defensive responsibility and ... well, let's just say less emphasis on the kind of offense Shanahan's been known for throughout his career.

That's the Devils team Shanahan joins this season; the irony being that his departure from the red and green Devils was a catalyst for the franchise's Stanley Cup winning defensive philosophy.

If it sounds like worlds are colliding tonight for this Devils fan, that's because they are. And not just because a player I grew up watching is back with the team that drafted him, but because that players is -- let's face it -- a New York Ranger at heart.

Brendan Shanahan was drafted second overall in 1987, behind Pierre Turgeon of the Buffalo Sabres and in front of Glen Wesley of the Boston Bruins. (Some jabrone named Joe Sakic was taken at No. 15; some Smurf named Theoren Fleury went at No. 166.)

There was talk the Devils might trade the pick, since Turgeon was clearly going first overall and Shanahan had some flaws. "[Turgeon] has the uncoachable thing that separates players from more than players, and more than players from superstars," Marshall Johnston, the Devils' director of player personnel, told The Record. "Individually, Shanahan isn't as good."

The Devils selected Shanahan, and he immediately joined the team for the 1987-88 season, scoring 26 points in 65 games. More importantly, the rookie played 12 games in the team's first trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs that season.

Shanahan ended up playing four years in New Jersey, scoring 89 goals and developing into one of the best young power forwards in hockey. Which, of course, was the problem: Free agency was approaching as of 1991, and a sought-after Shanahan had yet to sign an extension

There was no doubt that, after four years with the franchise that had drafted him, Shanahan felt a certain loyalty to New Jersey, his teammates and his fans. So when the 22-year-old forward hit the open market as a Group I restricted free agent the summer of 1991, there was strong sentiment that Shanahan might remain with the Devils. GM Lou Lamoriello thought so, telling the Bergen Record that "Brendan will be a Devil" the following season.

"No. 1, he'd like to stay in New Jersey, I think. No. 2, we're going to make every effort to keep him," said Lamoriello. "The question is: What is the philosophy of some of the teams out there in reference to equalization, and what do they feel is the right thing to do for their team? I really don't know."

So the question was compensation -- whoever signed Shanahan would have to offer a player or package of players and draft picks of equal value to the Devils, who would make their own counter-offer. An arbitrator would pick one of the two offers if the teams couldn't agree on compensation.

The speculation ran rampant. Would the New York Rangers sign Shanahan and use burgeoning star Darren Turcotte as compensation? Would the Detroit Red Wings ante up Jimmy Carson, a former 100-point center, after inking Shanny?

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One team that didn't appear to be in the running was the St. Louis Blues. On July 5, 1990, defenseman Scott Stevens signed a four-year, $5.1 million dollar restricted free-agent contract with the Blues, joining established stars Brett Hull and Adam Oates in St. Louis.

Perhaps General Manager Ron Caron felt that money was no object when it came to chasing the Stanley Cup. Perhaps he thought the Blues were a physical, goal-scoring winger away from the Promised Land. Or perhaps he went temporarily insane.

Whatever the diagnosis, Caron and the Blues blew the Devils' offer of $700,000 a season out of the water with a four-year deal worth an estimated $5 million to Shanahan -- making the winger the eighth-highest paid player in hockey and stunning New Jersey's players, fans and ownership.

Lamoriello was swinging for the bleachers for compensation. Hull was out of reach, but rumors swirled that Adam Oates was the target, as the Devils sought to fill the offensive void Shanahan left with a centerman coming off a 25 goal-,115 point-season. Caron was expected to counter with an offer of several players, and appeared willing to part with young goalie Curtis Joseph in a compensation package.

The NHL took long over a month and a half to finally approve Shanahan's deal with the Blues, and the two teams began their compensation talks. Along with Oates, the Devils appeared to be targeting Stevens as well. The Blues steadfastly refused to discuss sending Oates, Stevens or Hull to the Devils. At a stalemate, the case was sent to NHL arbitrator Judge Edward J. Houston of Ottawa. Each team submitted a proposal. The Blues offered Joseph, two conditional draft picks and, in a surprise move intended to protect the team from losing one of its stars, 27-year-old 21-year-old forward Rod Brind'Amour. The Devils passed on Oates, and asked for Stevens as compensation.

On September 3, 1991, Houston made his decision: Shanahan was a Blue, and Scott Stevens was a Devil. In many ways, the courses for both franchises were forever changed.

Nearly 18 years later, Shanahan rejoins a Devils franchise that's won three Stanley Cups since he left. Of course, Shanahan has three rings of his own with the Detroit Red Wings.

But while the large majority of his career was spent in Detroit, it's difficult for this Devils fan to see him in anything but a Blueshirt.

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He only played two seasons in MSG, the first coming when he was 38 years old. But it's not like when Bobby Holik returned to Jersey after his infamous stint with the Rangers; first, because his time in New York was regrettable, but also because Atlanta was a buffer between the teams. Shanahan helped the Rangers beat the Devils last postseason.

To his credit, he understands this awkwardness, telling Fire & Ice:

"It's no lie," he said. "Whether it was the Rangers or anybody else, I was under the impression that I was part of a team and I wasn't looking to leave team. It wasn't like I was a free agent looking for a new team and my first choice was the Rangers and my second choice was the Devils. I was on a team that up until a couple of months ago, even though the season had started, I referred to them as, 'we.' So, until someone severered that, I still sort of felt a loyalty to that group and I would have felt that way if I was a Nashville Predator or a San Jose Shark. I was under the impression all summer and the early part of training camp and season that I was going to be back."

"I'm not trying to pull the wool over anybody's eyes. When I realized that door was being closed on me, then I felt at that point and only at that point did I start looking at other options." ...

... "I played here and I know exactly how everybody feels about the Rangers, but again, like you earn the respect of your teammates, you earn the respect for your fans. I love the game and still doing it like I did 22 years ago. I still get up every morning and work out the creaks and the cracks and it shows in the way I play and in the way I prepare and I think that's what's in my control. Like I said with the players, you just play hard and things work themselves out.

"I didn't think back when I was a Devil 22 years ago that I would still be playing right now."

Nor did many Devils fans who watched the brash young charismatic player blossom alongside guys like Kirk Muller and John MacLean.

Terms like "full circle" have been tossed around about this reunion, but it's not like that. Shanahan will wear the Red and Black for the first time tonight. The franchise has changed as much as he's changed since 1987 -- hell, they're playing in the middle of a city now instead of a swamp.

The question is whether they're both at a point where a reintroduction is just what the other one needs.

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