The Hartford Courant
After weeks of ringing phones around the NHL, Whalers general manager Jim Rutherford finally did it Thursday night. He traded ``The Next Larry Robinson.''
But defenseman Chris Pronger didn't go to Winnipeg for right wing Teemu Selanne. And the trade didn't involve Ottawa defenseman Bryan Berard, the No. 1 overall draft pick this year, or Pittsburgh center Ron Francis, the former Whalers captain.
It was a man-for-man blockbuster: Pronger, 20, went to the St. Louis Blues for left wing Brendan Shanahan, 26, one of the elite power forwards in the game.
The skinny on the deal: Rutherford was convinced if he stood pat the Whalers would be able to slip into the playoffs in 1995-96. But as the summer wore on, he became convinced such a gradual rise wasn't enough.
He wanted a game-breaker to excite the fans, turn on the city and make the Whalers a more immediate force in the NHL.
And Pronger? His play last season was disappointing, but he has the size and skill to develop into a fine defenseman. Does he have the passion to be great like a Robinson or a Ray Bourque or a Chris Chelios? And does he have the singularly great talent to become the best defensive or offensive defensemen in the NHL?
Those are questions that will be answered in St. Louis. Pronger is Mike Keenan's project now.
``Everyone in this organization was unanimous in favor of this trade,'' Rutherford said. ``I don't have the same disappointment in Pronger that maybe some of the fans and media do. I think Chris is right on track and I'm maybe one of his biggest supporters. I believe he's going to be a very, very good player.
``But I also believe that what we needed to do to improve our team was add an impact player. Shanahan is an impact player, a proven star, in exchange for a guy we're still waiting to be a star. He'll certainly change the whole outlook of this team. He's definitely a younger Cam Neely. If he's not the top power forward in the league, he's right there in the top three.''
No trade is made when a general manager deems a player absolutely indispensable. And as high profile as Shanahan is, he spent time in GM/coach Keenan's doghouse.
``Believe me, this was a very tough decision to make,'' Keenan said. ``But you try to do what's best for the team and the individual. . . . Larry Robinson at 20 years old was playing at Nova Scotia. I think if we keep that in mind, it will be fair to [Pronger] and to the franchise.''
This time last year, Shanahan had just signed a five-year, $15.4 million deal with the Blues, retroactive to the 1993-94 season. He was being toasted around the NHL for his extraordinary blend of skill and power.
Shanahan had become the second player in NHL history to score 50 goals and 100 points and pick up 200 penalty minutes in 1993-94. Pittsburgh's Kevin Stevens is the other. In its annual ranking of the top 40 players in the NHL, The Hockey News had Shanahan rated No. 14. In a separate statistical formula used to pick the game's best combination of skill and aggressiveness, The Hockey News had Winnipeg's Keith Tkachuk first by the slimmest of margins over Shanahan.
In short, Shanahan, at 6 feet 3, 218 pounds, is a bigger, better, more souped-up version of Pat Verbeek. He was named the NHL's first-team All-Star left wing after the 1993-94 season.
But what followed was a season that Shanahan ranked as ``the most difficult'' of his career, as emotionally trying as his rookie year with the New Jersey Devils when his father fell victim to and ultimately died of Alzheimer's disease.
Shanahan's season ended when he sustained a fracture just above the right ankle in Game 5 of the playoffs against Vancouver.
``I still like to have a good time,'' Shanahan said recently, ``but I definitely grew a thicker, more resilient skin this year. I had to.''
``I don't understand what happened between Brendan and Mike and I don't really care,'' Rutherford said. ``Whatever happened made a very, very good player available. Their personalities collided.''
Shanahan could not be reached Thursday night.
``He's very set back by it. He loved it in St. Louis,'' Rutherford said. ``He wanted to win a Stanley Cup in St. Louis. We've got to talk to him again, ease the blow.''
Although there are deferments and bonuses to complicate his contract, the Blues are going to pick up about $1 million of Shanahan's contract. The Whalers will pay Shanahan about $3.3 million a year for the remaining three years of his deal.
The Blues will pay all of the $2.825 million due Pronger this season and $925,000 next season.
Said Pronger: ``It feels good they've got me at that same level [as Shanahan]. Obviously, Shanahan was an important thing missing from our team last year. It hurt. A power forward who could score. We lost games 3-2, 2-1. A goal a game makes a difference.''
In previous seasons, Shanahan and Craig Janney played terrific hockey together, similar in many ways to Neely and Adam Oates in Boston. But Keenan didn't like Janney's play and outlook from the start and finally traded the Enfield native to San Jose last season.
Then Keenan turned on Shanahan. He questioned Shanahan's work ethic, too, and for a time it appeared as if he would deal Shanahan -- immensely popular in St. Louis -- before the trade deadline.
Shanahan missed the January preseason minicamp and the first three games of the season with mononucleosis. He scored eight goals and 16 points in the first 23 games. He rebounded for 12 goals and 25 points in his final 22 games.
Although 20 goals and 41 points in 45 games would have led the Whalers in both categories, it was far short of the 1993-94 numbers: 52 goals and 102 points in 81 games. The previous year, Shanahan had 51 goals in 71 games.
``When Brendan was having problems in St. Louis earlier in the year, I made the phone call that I'm sure all the other teams made,'' Rutherford said. ``At that time they said there was no way they would move Brendan. I was approached at the draft in Edmonton by Mike Keenan wondering if I would move Chris Pronger. The answer was no, and that still would be my preference.
``Out of the blue the last couple of days, talks heated up. Mike said he might move Shanahan, but Pronger had to be part of the deal.''
Rutherford said Whalers team physician John Fulkerson reviewed Shanahan's medical reports with Blues doctors. Rutherford said Fulkerson told him he was satisfied Shanahan's leg will be fine.
``When I talked about the kind of player we needed, certainly this is a guy who would be at the top of the list,'' Rutherford said. ``I don't want to build this team just to make the playoffs. I want to build it knowing we can compete in the playoffs.
``Look at New Jersey and Philadelphia. They are big, strong teams. To compete with those teams, you have to have size up front.''
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