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Notable Returns in Devils History: The Very Long Absence of Brendan Shanahan

Today in this week long look at players who left the New Jersey Devils and later returned, we have Brendan Shanahan. Picked #2 overall in 1987, he would spend over 17 years away from the team before coming back as a 40 year old.

New York Rangers v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Brendan Shanahan, when most think of him initially, might not think of the New Jersey Devils. The team that might come to mind is the Detroit Red Wings, where he spent nine seasons and won three Stanley Cups. However, he both began and ended his career in New Jersey, making him fit to discuss in this week’s theme of players who had multiple stints with the Devils. So, let’s dive into Shanahan’s story.

First Stint in NJ

Shanahan was drafted by New Jersey with the 2nd overall pick of the first round in 1987, after Buffalo took Pierre Turgeon first overall. He would play in New Jersey immediately that year, not wasting anymore time in the OHL. His rookie year was not terrible as an 18 year old, if not fabulous either, with 26 points in 65 games. He also had 3 points in the team’s 12 playoff games that year, which again is not great, but as a rookie in the league, was not nothing either.

The following three years, however, would show Shanahan growing into the all-star that the Devils expected to get when they drafted him #2 overall. He had 50 points in 68 games in year two, 72 points in 73 games in year three, and 66 points in 75 games in year four. At that point, he was 22 years old and had already proven he could play at a point per game pace, and that he could produce 30 goals a season, which he did in 1989-90 (he had 29 goals the following year too).

Those last two years specifically, he also proved that he was not just a regular season star, but could also produce in crunch time in the playoffs. In ‘89-’90, he had 6 points in 6 playoff games, and in ‘90-’91, he had 8 points in 7 playoff games. Those are excellent numbers. Heading into the ‘91 offseason, it was clear that at the young age of 22, he was going to be a top line superstar for many years to come.

The 1991 Offseason

After the 1990-91 season, Shanahan became a restricted free agent after finishing up his rookie contract. There was ample sentiment on both sides that Shanahan would remain in New Jersey, and the interest from both sides was there to get a deal done. Lou Lamoriello was offering somewhere in the range of $700k per season, which was a solid offer at the time, and was something workable. St. Louis, however, would come out of nowhere and offer a four year deal totaling somewhere around $5 million, making Shanahan one of the top ten highest paid players in the league. Lou and the Devils were stunned, but of course, he took the deal.

Because he was a restricted free agent, however, the Devils were due just compensation. How the CBA worked at the time was that the teams needed to work out a deal as to what was fair. If not, both teams would provide an offer to an NHL arbitrator who would decide. The Blues were steadfast against sending any of their top 3 players: Adam Oates, Brett Hull, and Scott Stevens. Lou, however, had other plans. St. Louis offered Curtis Joseph, two conditional picks, and Rod Brind’Amour, 21 years old at the time and considered a rising star. Lou, however, asked for Stevens. And as we know, the arbitrator would side with the Devils, and thanks to Shanahan leaving, Scott Stevens would become a Devil.

Was it a good trade off for New Jersey? Obviously. The team got its captain and defensive stalwart for the next 13 years, helping the team to win 3 Cups. Was Shanahan a tough loss? Absolutely. But was Stevens worth it, in hindsight? 1000%. Lou had made the perfect move.

Shanahan in the Interim

Shanahan would go on to play four season in St. Louis, performing very well, taking his game to the next level. He had 94 points in ‘92-’93, and 102 points in ‘93-’94. He and Brett Hull were a dominant offensive force for the Blues. However, the team could never reach the promised land. They made the playoffs in all four years he was there, but only made it out of the first round in one of those four years, and never made it to the Conference Finals.

That poor playoff record would create some changes for the team heading into the 1995-96 season, and Shanahan was dealt to the Hartford Whalers that year for Chris Pronger. He would basically only spend one year in Hartford, however, producing over a point per game still, but for a team that would miss the playoffs. After playing two games for the team in ‘96-’97, he would be traded to Detroit along with Brian Glynn for the haul of Paul Coffey, Keith Primeau, and a first round pick.

Shanahan would then go on to play the next nine seasons in Detroit, winning three Stanley Cups. He was an exceptional player for the Wings, producing 633 points in 716 games for them. He played over double the amount of games with Detroit than he did for any other organization, and it is where most people think of him playing. In comparison, he would only play 315 games for New Jersey in his career.

Finally, before coming back to the Garden State, he made a quick stop in Manhattan, playing two seasons for New York as a 38 and 39 year old. Despite being that age, he was still productive, producing 108 points in 140 regular season games with the team. However, that was much more his first season there, where he was still near a point per game player, with 62 points in 67 games. In his second season there, the drop off started, and he ended with 46 points in 73 games, his lowest output total since his rookie season in NJ. However, as you know, the team would not win the Stanley Cup in either of those years, having not done so since 1994.

Return to NJ

Shanahan would sit out the first half of the ‘08-’09 season as a 40 year old, looking to come to terms with New York. That never materialized, however, and he ended up finding a home back in New Jersey, where Lou would sign him to a 1 year, $800k prorated deal. Shanahan was coming back to the team after being gone for over 17 years, a length of time longer than most players’ careers, even those that are all stars. Lou was signing him despite the precipitous drop in points Shanahan had the year prior, hoping to see a rebound back to how he had been for most of his career.

Sadly, it was not to be. Shanahan would play in 34 games that year for the Devils, producing 14 points, nothing spectacular, and just showing that father time was finally at his doorstep. However, he did also have 3 points in the team’s 7 playoff games in 2009, so he was a decent contributor that year in the team’s playoff run.

In that offseason, he did sign one more deal with the Devils to play one more season as a 41 year old, for $1 million. However, after playing in the pre-season, he and the team decided to part ways mutually. He felt that there was not a suitable fit on the team that year for him to properly compete, and so he stepped aside. He would then retire a month later, in November of 2009.

All in all, it was not a successful return. He played in 41 games with the team, playoffs included, and had 17 points. However, as a 40 year old on a small, prorated deal, it was not terrible for the team. Lou invested minimally in his return, and there was the chance he still had more left in the tank, so it was not a bad signing. However, it was not to be for him or the team in that second, very short stint.

Overall Impact

Overall, Shanahan’s impact for the Devils came early on, not with his return later. The return was nice, it had some nostalgic appeal for older fans, and it gave younger fans a chance to see him in the red and black in person, but it did not have a major impact, and it was very short lived.

His first stint with the Devils, however, was way more impactful. His on-ice performance for those four seasons, especially the three after his rookie year, were very helpful to those teams in the late 80s and early 90s, and boosted those teams into the playoffs after many years of incompetence. It springboarded the organization into relevance, which was the first step it needed to eventually get to a Stanley Cup.

Then, even more important than his on ice play, was him deciding to sign with St. Louis in the 1991 offseason. That ultimately led to Scott Stevens coming to New Jersey, something that would not have happened otherwise. And without Stevens as captain and backbone of this team, it is unlikely that the Devils win any of those Stanley Cups. So while Shanahan was not on those teams and was not a part of that main dynasty at all, he came before and after, his decision to leave the organization gave the team exactly what it needed to reach new heights and find the ultimate glory. For that, he should always be looked on positively in New Jersey.