Brendan Shanahan: Hall of Fame Career and Lasting NHL Impact

Brendan Shanahan played for five NHL teams in his 21-year NHL career. His career accolades include eight All-Star appearances and three Stanley Cups, and his contributions off the ice have left a lasting impact on the transition of the NHL from the 1990s and early 2000s into the modern era. The Ontario native was one of the premier power forwards of his time and a catalyst for an NHL dynasty. He became a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2013.

Shanahan’s Early NHL Years

The New Jersey Devils selected Shanahan with the second-overall pick in the 1987 NHL Entry Draft at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. The Ontario native had built himself a strong reputation with 154 points in 115 games in two seasons with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). He made the team after his first training camp and wasted no time before making an impression at the NHL level. He recorded four points in his first four games and dropped the gloves in his NHL debut against Moe Mantha of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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Former team president and eventual general manager Lou Lamoriello later summarized a conversation he had with Shanahan about his intense style of play on the fourth line early in his career. He told his top prospect, “Brendan, we didn’t draft you to be a fighter. We drafted you to be a power forward who could score.” Shanahan, standing at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, kept the edge to his game but developed the all-around skill set the Devils were looking for.

He gradually progressed his offensive output in four seasons with New Jersey. In 1991, the St. Louis Blues pursued Shanahan as a restricted free agent (RFA). The process ultimately went through an arbitrator, who controversially awarded top defenseman Scott Stevens to the Devils as compensation.

Tenures with St. Louis Blues, Hartford Whalers

Shanahan continued his steady offensive pace during his first season in St. Louis, but his true breakout season came in 1992-93. He scored 51 goals and added 43 assists for a Blues team that lost in seven games in the Norris Division Final to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The following season, he repeated as a 50-goal scorer and notched the only 100-point season of his career. He was one of ten players during the 1990s to score 30 or more goals and accumulate over 200 penalty minutes in one season. No player has reached both marks in the same season since 2000.

Related: Steve Yzerman, The Captain 

The power forward scored 156 goals in four seasons in St. Louis, but the Blues dealt Shanahan to the Hartford Whalers in exchange for Chris Pronger in 1995. He immediately became the captain for a Whalers team that missed the playoffs in his only full season in Hartford.

3 Stanley Cups with Red Wings

The Detroit Red Wings acquired Shanahan early in the 1996-97 season for Keith Primeau, an aging Paul Coffey, and a first-round draft pick. Trading for the 27-year-old during the prime of his career proved to be one of the most beneficial moves in franchise history and a key acquisition in the foundation of an NHL dynasty.

Prior to the trade, Detroit had suffered through a long list of heartbreaking playoff losses during the 13-year career of franchise centerpiece Steve Yzerman. The addition of a player who could check, fight, and score goals helped blossoming stars Sergei Fedorov and Nicklas Lidström and supplied the Red Wings with the intensity they needed to survive long playoff runs. Years later, Shanahan talked about feeling a “strong sense that there was nothing else left for them (the Red Wings) to do other than to just win the Stanley Cup” when he first came to Detroit.

Detroit Red Wings 1998 Stanley Cup
Detroit Red Wings, 1998 Stanley Cup Champions (Rick Stewart/Allsport)

The Red Wings won two Stanley Cups in Shanahan’s first two seasons after the trade. He complimented the outstanding skill of Yzerman and Fedorov with a physical presence. His streak of consecutive seasons with over 100 PIM reached 14 in 1999-00. The 2001-02 Red Wings boasted one of the best rosters in NHL history with nine current members of the Hockey Hall of Fame and a potential future member in Pavel Datsyuk. They won their third Stanley Cup in six seasons with Shanahan as a key cog on the top line.

During his tenure in Detroit, Shanahan racked up 633 points in 716 regular-season games. The Red Wings reached the postseason in each of his nine seasons during a stretch of an NHL-record 25 consecutive playoff appearances. His teams reached the playoffs 19 times in 21 total seasons. Shanahan solidified his reputation as a winner by helping Team Canada to a Gold Medal at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002.

He played two seasons with the New York Rangers in 2006-07 and 2007-08. His career came full circle when he returned to the Devils for a reunion with Lamoriello for 34 games during his final season in the NHL in 2008-09. 

The Shanahan Summit

The prime years of Shanahan’s career came during an era of the NHL characterized by brutal enforcers dropping the gloves on cue and big defensemen clutching and grabbing to slow down the league’s younger and faster players. Labor disputes and a player lockout wiped out the entire 2004-05 NHL season, but the game transitioned into the modern era with rule changes and adapted to allow its stars to flourish after the canceled season. Shanahan helped usher in the new era when he “singlehandedly brought together some of the sport’s key figures for an improbable summit that rewrote the rule book and revived the game” in December 2004.

Brendan Shanahan #14 of the Detroit Red Wings
Brendan Shanahan, Detroit Red Wings (Tom Pidgeon /NHLI/Getty Images)

The “Shanahan Summit” brought 26 key voices of the NHL community together in Toronto to discuss potential rule changes. The implementation of the shootout, the enhanced enforcement of penalties for the clutch-and-grab defensive style, and the legalization of the two-line pass all helped to unlock the potential of skilled hockey players to become prolific scorers and NHL stars.

NHL Executive and Maple Leafs President

Shanahan became the Vice President of Hockey and Business Development for the NHL just seven months after his playing career ended. He served as the first head of the NHL Department of Player Safety from 2011-14 before moving into a role as President and Alternate Governor of the Toronto Maple Leafs. After joining an organization that had missed the postseason in eight of the previous nine seasons, Shanahan has helped revive hockey’s most scrutinized franchise.

The Maple Leafs have made the playoffs in five consecutive seasons with homegrown talent Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander leading the way. In 2018, he helped lure coveted free agent and Ontario native John Tavares to sign with his hometown team. Toronto is still hoping Shanahan can help them return to NHL glory.

Brendan Shanahan
Toronto Maple Leafs president, Brendan Shanahan (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

Shanahan’s legacy as a player is enormously impressive. He is 14th in NHL history with 656 career goals, and he is the only player ever to record over 600 goals and 2000 PIM. His Hall of Fame playing career, however, does not fully encompass his influence on the sport. The work Shanahan did to help modernize the style of play in the NHL and the approach toward the safety of its players held his greatest impact, and his legacy and recognition can only grow if his future with the Maple Leafs results in a long-awaited Stanley Cup.