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.
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.
From The Courant Archives: July 28, 1995
Shanahan Moves Whalers To Deal. Pronger Goes For Firepower
In the summer of 1995 Whalers GM Jim Rutherford pulled off a blockbuster, acquiring Brendan Shanahan from St. Louis for Chris Pronger. Here's the story by The Courant's Jeff Jacobs.
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