By Ryan Jahnke
Maybe it’s because I’m the senior member of this staff, but I’m really happy to see Steve Sullivan back with the Red and Black. I can’t say I’m surprised that he’s back, after all bringing back ex-players is Page 1 out of the Lou Lamoriello playbook. I call it the “Devil You Know” rule. But, Steve is special.
After a 16-year, 1,000+ game career, Steve Sullivan remains one of the NHL’s great, unknown stories. It was almost 19 years ago, June 29th 1994, that New Jersey Devils used their 9th round pick to select Sullivan, an undersized, righty with good hands and a quick first step.
While he did reach the dream of being drafted into the NHL, his work was far from over. Steve was selected 233rd overall. Nowadays, the draft doesn’t even go that high. A few years later and he would have been an undrafted free agent with no guarantees of even getting a shot in the minors. Strangely, this early timing that gave him a career was what started Steve on his long journey.
He was a low draft pick that had to work his way through the system, not leaving him enough time to get his name on the Cup in 1995. He debuted for the Devils in the middle of the losing ’95-’96 season, registering 9 points in 16 games before being sent back down to Albany. In ’96-’97, New Jersey fans got a brief glimpse of what Sullivan was capable of as he spent 33 games that season with the big club. His numbers started steadily improving, and it soon became clear that his days in the AHL were finally behind him. Sadly for Sullivan, he was one of their more valuable trade pieces during a time when the Devils were trying to build a perennial contender. New Jersey would trade Sullivan away to Toronto in February of 1997.
His time with the Leafs started to reveal why the Devils had so much faith in the 5’9” winger that barely snuck into the back-end of the draft. His numbers steadily improved and he registered a 20 goal, 20 assist season in just his second full year with Toronto in 1999. The next year,the Chicago Blackhawks would grab Sullivan off of waivers from Toronto, and it would be in Chicago where Steve would begin making his mark on the NHL. His first 4 years in Chicago, Steve registered a minimum of 20 goals and 60 points, with his best year coming in 2001. He racked up 34 goals and 41 assists one year after he had to watch the team that drafted him raise their second Stanley Cup without him.
In 2004, the Blackhawks would trade Sullivan to Nashville for two second round picks. After losing a year to the owner lockout of 2004-’05, Sullivan continued his streak of consecutive 20 goal seasons recording 31 and 22 over the next two years. Sadly, the injury-bug would put an end to this streak, as a devastating back injury that occurred in the game against the Canadians would cost him the end of the 2007 season and all of the ’07-’08 year. He wouldn’t make it back onto the ice until January of 2009, nearly two years after suffering the original injury. Poetically, that return would be made against the same Chicago Blackhawk team that helped him make his name in the league. For his comeback, the Professional Hockey Writer’s Association honored Steve with the Bill Masterson trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to the game.
His games were limited during his last 3 years in Nashville, but he was still a substantial contributor as both a goal-scorer and a leader, earning the “A” as one of the team’s alternate captains. In his lone full season with the Predators he put together a 17 goal, 34 assist season.
Steve and the Predators would eventually part ways after another injury-shortened season in 2010-’11. In those 44 games, Steve still showed enough, 10 goals and 12 assists, to earn himself a 1-year deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he would return to form. Reinvigorated, he suited up for 79 games and put together another 17 goal, 31 assist year. And, this is the man that will be suiting up for New Jersey.
Steve is not the player that he was in his youth, but then again, who is? He is 38-years-old, which makes him the oldest Devil on the ice that doesn’t wear goalie pads. He’s not as fast as he once was, but he’s still got a great first step that keeps him in position. He’s not going to dance through the defense anymore, but he’s still got the same great hands that can help the Devils maintain possession in the attacking zone. What’s more, he’s a veteran and a leader that will not be shocked by the new team, or location, or system. He’ll fit right in on Day One and do his best to help this team move forward.
He might not be the superstar that the fans were looking for, but he’s still a solid add for the team. And, for the fans, you couldn’t ask for a better story. A hard-working nobody makes a name for himself in the NHL, and returns to the place where it all started, maybe to get the one thing that has eluded him all these years. I know, it’s a long-shot, but there’s no one that deserves it more.