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22 Years Later, David Poile Faces Scott Stevens Redux

With current Nashville and former Washington general manager David Poile facing the loss of a franchise defenseman, we take a look back at the summer of 1990 and a decision that changed the Capitals forever.

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David Poile has been in this situation before: an outstanding defenseman on his roster gets an offer sheet from another club, and now he has a week to decide between making a franchise-changing move to match the offer or letting the player go for some first-round draft picks.

Twenty-two years ago this month, Poile had to decide whether to keep star defenseman Scott Stevens, or let him join the St. Louis Blues, who had tendered a four-year, $5.1 million offer. Wednesday, the Flyers gave Nashville's restricted free agent Shea Weber a 14-year, $110 million offer sheet, which the Predators have a week to match.

Both amounts were and are records for a defenseman at their respective times. And on the surface, they look like similar situations facing Poile. But the situation wasn't as clear-cut for Poile in 1990 as it appears now.

In his first few seasons with the Capitals, Stevens played a rough-and-tumble game, but not necessarily a smart one. However, as he grew into his prime - Stevens was 26 when he signed the offer sheet, the same as Weber is now - he played a tough, solid game that earned him a pair of All-Star Game appearances and a spot on the First Team NHL All-Star team in 1988.

According to WNST's Ed Frankovic, while Poile pushed hard to keep Stevens and match St. Louis' offer, then-Capitals owner Abe Pollin didn't want to spend the money.

"The Scott Stevens decision to not sign him was all about the money," Frankovic said. "David Poile did not want to let him go. He wanted Abe Pollin to agree to sign him for a million dollars for the four years, and the end of the day, Abe just didn't want to pay a million dollars ... it was all about the money.

"Pollin didn't have the vision to see that the salaries were going up the way they did, as by the end of the deal, that was a heck of a cheap fourth year. David knew what Scott Stevens meant to the team and how good of a player he was.

"He wanted to match ... but it was Abe Pollin and about dollars."

Alan May, who was Stevens' teammate during the 1989-90 season that saw the Capitals win the Patrick Division playoffs and advance to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history, agreed.

"It was just at the time, the numbers were unheard of," the CSN Washington analyst said via phone Thursday. "From what I knew of it, they could have taken care of him earlier and gotten him for a lot less money. It was a dollars and cents thing. ... It was all about money."

The Capitals eventually elected not to match, and ended up receiving five first-round draft picks from the Blues. But according to May, the immediate damage to the club was massive.

"At the time, I thought it was devastating to the team," he said. "He was the leader of the team, the most important player. And I thought he was our best player, and it changed the whole look of the team - and the attitude.

"He was the most professional player in the dressing room and at dinner, and it affected everyone. In the locker room, everything was changed. He wasn't the captain, but you looked at how young he was, how hard he played injured, how good he played, how fierce he was. He was basically the identity of the team, and we lost it. ... In the room, we were pissed, we were pretty upset.

"He was one of the guys we looked to for anything."

Frankovic agreed, noting it took some time and work for the team to eventually overcome the loss.

"The Scott Stevens loss was huge," Frankovic said. "I'm convinced it cost them at least one Stanley Cup. Maybe two. David had to do some things to rebuild the team. ... Stevens then hit the prime of his career and won Cups in 1995, 2000 and 2003."

In the summer of 1990, the Capitals were also dealing with a major public relations issue, one that involved Stevens.

The Capitals had just finished their best run in the Stanley Cup playoffs, knocking off the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers to reach the Prince of Wales Conference Finals, where Washington eventually lost to the Boston Bruins.

The team enjoyed a surge of support during the playoff run, and appeared ready to cash in the following season. But an unfortunate off-ice incident caused the team to go into damage control instead of capitalize on on-ice success.

Brad Nirenberg, the promotions manager for the since-closed Champions bar in Georgetown, invited Capitals defenseman Neil Sheehy to have the team come to the establishment for a post-season party to celebrate the team's run. The bar sent three limos to the old Capital Centre to bring the team from Landover to Georgetown, a perk meant to keep the players from drinking and driving following the party.

However, during the party, Sheehy, forwards Dino Ciccarelli and Geoff Courtnall, and Stevens were involved in an incident that got the police involved - and drew national media attention.

A 17-year-old waitress accused the four players of lewd behavior, claiming that three of them - Ciccarelli, Courtnall and Sheehy - committed rape and sodomy in one of the limousines that evening while Stevens served as a lookout.

Although a Superior Court grand jury elected not to press charges and cleared the players in the eyes of the law, the public relations damage to the franchise was extensive. And the team underwent a significant transformation that saw the four players leave town within two years.

On July 1, 1990 - the day Stevens officially became a free agent - the Capitals issued a statement asking for forgiveness for the players and acknowledging the unfortunate situation.

''We deeply regret this situation, and we do not condone or excuse the conduct of the players involved and their failure to appreciate the responsibility they have to shoulder as role models for young people,'' said the statement, which was signed by Pollin, team president Dick Patrick, and Poile. ''We know they have learned a bitter lesson.''

Local fans often saw later how Pollin dealt with certain athletes who ran afoul of the law - and it appeared there was little tolerance for alleged bad behavior.

While the Capitals had a full week to match after Stevens and the Blues agreed to the offer sheet, Pollin had little interest in doing so. In fact, Washington was reportedly trying to trade Stevens to either the Los Angeles Kings or the Montreal Canadiens before time ran out. It seemed that the two were heading for a split, as some in team management reportedly weren't convinced Stevens even wanted to stay in Washington.

The decision to let Stevens go dramatically altered the face of the Capitals - and the National Hockey League.

Stevens played in the Gateway City for one season. However, the Blues lost the defenseman to the New Jersey Devils when St. Louis signed former then-New Jersey Devil Brendan Shanahan as a free agent prior to the 1991-92 season. Since the Blues owed draft picks to the Capitals as a result of the Stevens signing in 1990, an arbitrator rejected St. Louis' substitute compensation offer and awarded the Devils the man New Jersey wanted: Scott Stevens.

Stevens blossomed in the Garden State, winning three Stanley Cups as team captain, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2007.

Washington wound up with five first-round picks from St. Louis in the deal, and two of them, Brendan Witt and Sergei Gonchar, played significant roles with Washington.

The Capitals also didn't take long to rid themselves of the two other players in the Champions incident. Courtnall was traded to the Blues for Peter Zezel and Mike Lalor just 12 hours after Stevens' offer sheet was made official. Sheehy suffered an injured ankle that caused him to miss most of the 1990-91 season and played just two more games for the Capitals before he signed with the Calgary Flames for the 1991-92 season.

For his part, Ciccarelli wanted to remain in Washington long-term and repair his image, and he helped build his popularity with his effort on and off the ice. But, when the star's contract was up in 1992, the Capitals dealt him to Detroit.

In return the Capitals got Kevin Miller - Kelly's brother - in what turned out to be one of the worst trades in franchise history.

"I did everything they ask of me and always did the best I could," Ciccarelli told the Baltimore Sun at the time. "Maybe if some of the other players had done the same, we might have won the Cup. They've always made a big deal about loyalty around here. I was loyal, then they go and trade me."

While Kelly Miller and Don Beaupre had to haggle with the club for new deals, both had received contracts less than 12 months earlier. Instead of talking with Ciccarelli, the Caps shipped him out of town, raising suspicions that the incident in 1990 had helped punch his ticket out of Washington.

Instead of getting to build on the playoff run, the team saw its average attendance at the Cap Centre actually drop from 17,251 in 1989-90 to 16,608 in 1990-91 - despite recording three more points than the year before. And losing two future Hall-of-Famers in Stevens and Ciccarelli didn't do a lot for the team's on-ice play.

Pollin had other instances of wanting to part ways with athletes who had run into legal problems. In January 1998, Wizards forward Chris Webber was arrested for possession of marijuana and assault on a Prince George's County police officer. Less than four months later, he was traded to Sacramento for Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe.

So, while it seems that Poile is in a similar position today, the decision in 1990 changed the future of the Capitals and the NHL, with Stevens and Ciccarelli going on to brilliant careers. Meanwhile, Washington needed to do a rebuild before finally reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998 - one year after Poile had been dismissed for missing the playoffs in the 1996-97 season.

Now, with a similar decision looming in Nashville, Frankovic and May both say they expect Poile to try and match Philadelphia's 14-year, $110 million offer - if ownership allows.

"Shea Weber, I think he's the best right-handed defenseman in the game, and I look at him, he's so big, he's fast, got a hard shot," May said. "To me, he's the perfect defenseman."

May reasons that if Weber didn't work out in Nashville, the Predators could eventually trade him to another club willing to take on the massive contract coming to him.

"If it doesn't work out, you're going to take the highest offer. He's going to have to play or pay that money back. With the new CBA, I'm not sure how players are going to be able to not show up and play and honor their contract, or void trades to teams. I don't' know what's in that contract, but I'm sure there are things that won't be allowed."

"He's got a player he absolutely wants to keep," Frankovic said of Poile. "The question is if the ownership is committed to outlay the money for the player. It looks outrageous right now, it is up front money, but when you look at the long-term, it's more manageable.

"I think that's what Philadelphia was banking on -- that ownership doesn't have the resolve to do this deal."

Twenty-two years after losing a franchise defenseman, it appears Poile is going to try to convince ownership to make the right move this time around.