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  • Writer's pictureDerek Ochej

Scott Stevens and the history of NHL free agency

Unlike current day where free agency in the NHL is a highly-anticipated event culminating in hours of coverage on cable sports channels, free agency in the early 1990s was much quieter. For decades NHL players and their union fought for the right for players to have some say in where they would play. In 1972 players were finally granted a form of free agency, but the restrictive rules regarding compensation to be paid by a team signing a player to the player's former team essentially made free agency a non-entity. And this is where a player featured in this week's post, Scott Stevens, features heavily.

Stevens was an eight-year veteran of the Washington Capitals, and a restricted free agent, when he chose to sign a contract with the St. Louis Blues. The Capitals had the option to match the 'offer sheet', but declined, instead receiving five first round picks as compensation. The compensation was originally to be two first round picks, but was eventually increased to five since the Capitals did not have a top seven pick in the 1991 or 1992 drafts.

Fast forward one season, and the Blues were at it again, signing Brendan Shanahan away from New Jersey. Since the Capitals had dibs on five of the Blues' first round picks, it was determined that the Devils would be compensated with players. Rumour had the Blues offering Curtis Joseph, Rod Brind'Amour and two future first round picks. The Devils rejected this and demanded Stevens - the arbitrator agreed, and in effect, Stevens was traded for Shanahan. These transactions had major ramifications for the business side of hockey, coming to a head in the 1994-95 lockout, resulting in the advent of unrestricted free agency. Isn't history fun!

On a visual note, the series of cards featured in this post are examples of the wonderful photography from the 1991-92 set. You have great landscape, action visuals on the reverse side of Peter Bondra and Vincent Damphousse's cards with front of card coverage for Scott Stevens and a sprawling Mats Sundin. If you look carefully, you will notice that Stevens even makes a cameo on the photo on Bondra's reverse side.

Card 131 - Peter Bondra

Right winger Bondra was drafted 156th overall by Washington in 1990. While he would represent Slovakia internationally, Bondra was born in the USSR (present day Ukraine) and played in the Czechoslovakian league for four years prior to coming to the NHL.

He would make his NHL debut in 1990-91, playing in 54 games, scoring 12 goals and 28 points. 1992-93 would be his breakout season, scoring 37 goals and 85 points, the only season he would ever record more assists than goals. In the lockout shortened 1994-95 season he would lead the league in goals (34 in 47 games) and would score 52, 46, and 52 goals the next three seasons, leading the league again in 1997-98. That season would see the Caps make the Cup Finals, with Bondra scoring 7 goals and 12 points in 17 playoff games.

During 14 seasons in Washington, Bondra would score 20+ goals 13 times, and 30+ goals eight times. He led the league in power play goals in 2000-01 and 2001-02 and short-handed goals in 1994-95. A rebuilding Capitals team would trade Bondra to Ottawa in February 2004 for Brooks Laich and a draft pick. He would score 5 goals and 14 points in 23 regular season games and 0 points in the playoffs during his time in Ottawa.

Following the 2004-05 lockout, Bondra would sign in Atlanta for one season (21-18-39) and play 37 games for Chicago in 2006-07 before retiring in October of that season.

In 16 NHL seasons Bondra would play in 1081 games, scoring 503 goals and 892 points. He played in five all-star games (1993, 1996-1999) and was the leading goal-scorer among Slovakian born-NHLers at the time of his retirement (he has since been surpassed by Marian Hossa). Bondra was inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame in 2016 and was the general manager for Slovakia’s international men’s teams from 2007-2011.

YouTube clip: a highlight video including the time he bumped Dominik Hasek resulting in Hasek throwing his blocker at Bondra as he skated away.

Card 132 - Scott Stevens

The defenceman from Kitchener was drafted fifth overall by Washington in 1982. He would make the jump to the NHL as an 18-year-old, scoring 25 points and earning 195 penalty minutes. Stevens would be named to the all-rookie team and finish third in Calder Trophy voting.

In the early stages of his career with the Capitals, Stevens was an offensive threat, scoring 50+ points five times, recording a career-high 21 goals in 1984-85. During his time in Washington he would finish top six in Norris Trophy voting four times, finishing second to Ray Bourque in 1987-88; that season he would be named to the first all-star team.

In the off-season of 1990 Stevens would sign as a free agent with St. Louis, making a rare move at that time for any player, let alone a bona fide star. In his only season as a Blue he would score 5 goals and 49 points. The following season he would be awarded to the New Jersey Devils as compensation for the Blues’ signing of Brendan Shanahan.

As part of a Devils team on the rise, Stevens would experience a career year in 1993-94, scoring 78 points, leading the league in plus/minus (+53), being named a first team all-star and finishing runner up to Bourque for the Norris. Stevens would alter his game later in his career, becoming a fearsome defender/body-checker and taking over a leadership role as captain. He would win three Cups (1995, 2000 and 2003), winning the Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2003.

Stevens would retire at the end of the 2003-04 season after missing the majority of the season due to a concussion. Over 22 seasons he would play in 1635 games, scoring 196 goals, 908 points and 2785 penalty minutes (14th all-time). He would be named to post-season all-star teams five times (three first team, two second team) and play in 13 all-star games. Although being one of the best defenceman of his era, he would never win the Norris Trophy, finishing top six in voting 10 times.

After retirement he would be an assistant coach with the Devils from 2009-2014 and with the Minnesota Wild during the 2016-17 season.

YouTube clip: tribute video from being named one of NHL’s top 100 players.

Card 133 - Kelly Miller

Left winger Miller was drafted 183rd overall by the New York Rangers in 1983. He would win four straight NCAA titles with Michigan State and was a Hobey Baker finalist in 1985.

He would break into the NHL full-time in 1985-86, scoring 13 goals and 33 points. On New Year’s Day 1987 he would be traded to Washington with Bob Crawford for Mike Ridley and Bob Carpenter. With the Caps he would develop into a defensively responsible forward with some offensive chops, scoring a career-high 24 goals in 1990-91. Miller would average 40 points per season for the bulk of his career in Washington, serving as assistant captain from 1990-1997 and finishing third in Selke Trophy voting in 1991-92 behind Sergei Fedorov and Guy Carbonneau. You will notice on the front of the card that Miller is wearing the captain's C. My best guess is that he served as captain during for a time during the 1990-91 season when Rod Langway was out of the lineup.

1998-99 was his final season in the NHL, and he would play 26 games as a player coach with Grand Rapids in the AHL in 1990-2000. Over a career that spanned 13 seasons and 1057 games Miller scored 181 goals and 463 points.

Miller would enter the coaching ranks after retirement, working as an assistant with Anaheim (2000-01) and the New York Islanders (2001-03). He returned to his alma mater Michigan State as an assistant coach from 2011-2017.

Kelly came from a large hockey family, with his brothers Kevin and Kip playing in the NHL during the same era, even playing with his brother in Washington during the 1992-93 season. Kelly is also cousins with former Detroit Red Wings forward Drew Miller and current Anaheim Ducks goalie Ryan Miller.

YouTube clip: scoring a spin-a-rama, short-handed goal against Flyers.

Card 134 - Mats Sundin

The big Swedish centre was drafted first overall by Quebec in 1989, becoming the first European player to be drafted first overall. Sundin would make his NHL debut the following year, scoring 23 goals and 59 points, finishing seventh in Calder Trophy voting. The 1990-91 rookie class was stacked, with Ed Belfour, Sergei Fedorov, Mike Richter, Rob Blake and Jaromir Jagr finishing ahead of Sundin in Calder voting.

Sundin would quickly develop in his four seasons with the Nordiques, recording a career-high 47 goals and 114 points in 1992-93. In the summer of 1994 he would be traded to Toronto alongside Garth Butcher, Todd Warriner and first round pick for Leaf legend Wendel Clark, Sylvain Lefebvre, Landon Wilson and a first round pick.

Mats would be the key cog to a Leafs team that would transition from the Clark/Gilmour era to the Sundin era, scoring 30+ goals 11 times and 70 points of more each of his 12 seasons with the Leafs. He would also take over as captain after Gilmour’s trade. Sundin would lead the Leafs to the Eastern Conference finals in 1998-99, scoring 8 goals and 16 points in 17 games, although that would be the farthest the Leafs would ever make the playoffs in his tenure.

In the mid-2000s the Leafs would begin to miss the playoffs with regularity and Sundin left the rebuilding team as a free agent, signing with Vancouver in December 2008. The Canucks would win their division but lose in the conference semi-finals, with Sundin retiring shortly thereafter.

In 18 NHL seasons Sundin would play 1346 games, scoring 564 goals (23rd all-time) and 1349 points. He is the all-time leader among Swedish born NHLers in goals and points. Sundin would win the Mark Messier Leadership award in 2008, be named a second team all-star twice (2002, 2004), play in eight straight all-star games (1996-2004). In 2012 he was elected to both the Hockey Hall of Fame and the IIHF Hall of Fame.

Since retirement he has kept a low profile, acting as a team consultant for Sweden in a few international tournaments, most recently the 2016 World Cup.

YouTube clip: his highlight video from the NHL's 100 greatest player tribute.

Card 135 - Mick Vukota

An undrafted right winger, Vukota signed with the New York Islanders in March 1987 after previously attending Washington’s training camp. During his first two pro seasons he shuttled between the minors and the NHL, playing 65 games with Isles scoring 5 points and racking up 319 penalty minutes.

1989-90 was a career-year for Vukota, scoring 4 goals and 12 points, and recording 290 penalty minutes, which he would only eclipse by 3 minutes in the 1992-93 season. 1989-90 was also the season he recorded a natural hat trick in a game on October 20 against Washington. Vukota scored three of his four goals that season in a 5 minute span. Those three goals would also account for 17 per cent of his career NHL goal total.

Vukota would play 10 seasons as an enforcer with the Isles before being claimed in the 1997 Waiver Draft by Tampa Bay. He would play 42 games for the Lightning before being traded in January 1998 to Montreal with Patrick Poulin and Igor Ulanov for Stephane Richer, Darcy Tucker and David Wilkie. He would play 22 games for the Habs, his final ones in the NHL.

Vukota would play two seasons with the Utah Grizzlies in the IHL before retiring after the 1999-2000 season. In 11 NHL seasons he would play in 573 games, scoring 17 goals and 46 points while earning 2071 penalty minutes (48th all-time and still the Islanders’ franchise record).

YouTube clip: of course it's the goals from aforementioned the natural hat trick game.

Card 136 - Vincent Damphousse

The forward was drafted sixth overall by Toronto in 1986, having scored 155 points in his draft season with Laval in the QMJHL. He would make his NHL debut as an 18-year-old, scoring 21 goals and 46 points.

Damphousse would play five seasons with the Leafs, scoring 91 points in the 1990-91 season, finishing third in all-star team voting for left winger. Prior to the start of the 1991-92 season he would be shipped to Edmonton in a seven player deal that would see Toronto land Grant Fuhr and Glenn Anderson. In his one season with the Oilers he would score 38 goals and 89 points, playing in the mid-season all-star game that year.

In the 1992 off-season Damphousse would be traded to his home town of Montreal in exchange for Shayne Corson, Brent Gilchrist and Vladimir Vujtek. He would score a career high 97 points that season and play in his second straight all-star game. In the postseason Damphousse would lead the Habs in playoff scoring (11 goals and 23 points) as they would win the Stanley Cup.

Over the next five seasons Damphousse would score at a point-per-game pace, recording a career-high 40 goals in 1993-94. He would finish fourth in Selke Trophy voting in 1996 and would captain the team from 1996 to 1999.

In March 1999 he would be traded to San Jose for three draft picks and immediately became an assistant captain. In six seasons with the Sharks he would score 20+ goals three times and play in the 2002 all-star game.

After retiring at the end of the 2003-04 season, Damphousse played 18 seasons and 1378 games, scoring 432 goals and 12095 points. He is currently an analyst with the RDS television station.

YouTube clip: scoring four goals in the 1991 All-Star, which is a record for most goals in a single all-star game, shared with Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Mike Gartner, Dany Heatley and John Tavares.

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