Last week, we looked back on the league’s long history of arbitrators having to sort out messy cases. One of the biggest was the 1991 case that saw Scott Stevens awarded to the Devils as compensation for the signing of Brendan Shanahan. It was part of the league’s old RFA system, under which some players who signed with a new team weren’t subject to a right to match or draft pick compensation, but rather to a forced trade in which each team submitted what they felt was a fair offer and an arbitrator picked one.
It was, to put it bluntly, a fantastic system. Oh, the players hated it, and so did most of the teams. But for fans, it was a great source of entertainment. It was all sorts of fun to debate the teams’ offers, come up with ones of your own, and speculate over which side the arbitrator would ultimately land on. The system lasted until 1995, when Gary Bettman’s first lockout ended with a new CBA that ushered in new RFA rules. This excellent blog post contains a detailed history of the old system; it’s fair to say we’re unlikely to ever see it return in the NHL.
So today, let’s look back on five more cases where RFA signings resulted in an arbitrator forcing a trade as compensation. None were quite as big as the Stevens-for-Shanahan blockbuster, but each had its own impact on hockey history.
The battle of the enforcers
Despite having just two seasons and 69 games under his belt, Troy Crowder was one of the league’s most feared enforcers in 1991. That was almost entirely due to a single fight, one that came on opening night of the 1990-91 season. Crowder’s Devils were hosting the Red Wings, and midway through the game Crowder found himself squaring off with the league’s undisputed heavyweight champion, Bob Probert. The legendary Wings’ tough guy had a nearly spotless record over the years, but Crowder won the fight handily, a shocking result from a virtually unknown contender. When the two split a pair of January rematches, Crowder cemented his status as one of the league’s best.
And so, during the 1991 offseason, the Wings went out and signed him. The logic seemed sound – if this was one of the few guys in the league who could give Probert trouble, the Wings would make sure their big dog wouldn’t have to worry about him. The Wings offered Dave Barr and Randy McKay as compensation. But Lou Lamoriello and the Devils responded with the same strategy they’d used in the Shanahan case: swinging for the fences. They demanded Probert himself as compensation.
This time, the arbitrator wasn’t having it. Just days after they struck gold with the Stevens ruling, the Devils lost the Crowder case, and settled for McKay and Barr. Probert remained in Detroit for four more years, while a back injury limited Crowder to just seven games in Detroit.
Today, Adam Graves is a Rangers legend. He was a key part of the 1994 championship team and once held the franchise record for goals in a season, and in 2009, the team retired his number.
But back in 1991, Graves was still a highly regarded prospect who hadn’t done much in the NHL. At 23 years old, he’d yet to so much as crack the 10-goal mark in four NHL seasons. So it was a mild surprise when the Rangers targeted him during the offseason, signing him away from Edmonton and opening the door to a compensation ruling.
The Oilers asked for Steven Rice and Loui DeBrusk, while the Rangers offered Troy Mallette. None of those were especially big names, and in some corners of the hockey world the Graves case didn’t get much attention. When the arbitrator sided with New York and sent Mallette to Edmonton, most fans shrugged.
But the ruling turned out to be a crucial one. The Oilers had had their eye on Rice and DeBrusk as part of a far bigger deal, one that would send captain Mark Messier to New York. That trade had been rumored for months, but had taken a backseat during the Graves case. But when Messier announced his intention to hold out in an attempt to force a trade, the Oiler had to make a move. And so, on October 4, 1991, they made a deal with the Rangers. In exchange for Messier, they’d get all-star center Bernie Nicholls and the two players they’d targeted in the Graves case, Rice and DeBrusk.
Would the Messier deal have still happened if the Oilers had already landed Rice and DeBrusk? It’s tough to say. In hindsight, it seems impossible to imagine Messier winding up anywhere other than New York. But he could have, if we’d seen a different decision in an arbitration case over a little-known prospect.