Not everyone can make the postseason. Every season sees teams end their season with their final regular season game. Some teams miss it more than others and for some long periods of time. The New Jersey Devils, for example, have missed the playoffs for four straight seasons now. Some of the People Who Matter claim that this is necessary. The result of a rebuild; a price to pay now for setting up a team for future prizes. Is that really true though? And how does this current drought for the Devils compare with other NHL teams? What can we learn from other droughts in NHL history? To answer these questions and more, let us take a deeper dive into playoff droughts among the NHL franchise.
This is a multi-part series covering the active franchises in the NHL and their significant runs of futility except for the recent teams in Las Vegas and Seattle. In Part 1, I covered the scope of this project, acknowledgments about the differences in NHL league structures and eras, and the first set of teams: the New Jersey Devils, Anaheim, Arizona, Boston, and Buffalo. Please review Part 1 if you have any questions with how I am approaching this issue. Part 2 covered the C-teams: Calgary, Carolina, Chicago, Colorado, and Columbus. Part 3 went over Dallas, Detroit, Edmonton, Florida, and Los Angeles. This part will go over the Minnesota Wild, the Montreal Canadiens, the Nashville Predators, the New York Islanders, and Our Hated Rivals - the New York Rangers. Yes, this part will feature Rangers hating and Mike Milbury. The goal remains: to learn from what they suffered from and how they got out of it. Here is a chart of the five teams in this post of their total frequency of droughts with the Devils’ own history of playoff droughts included for reference purposes (it is a Devils site, after all).
As ever, I want to thank Hockey Reference, HockeyDB, Elite Prospects, NHL Trade Tracker, and other sources as needed for information.
The Playoff Drought Chart - Part 4
The Minnesota Wild
Playoff Misses and Proportion: 10 misses out of 21 total seasons; 47.6% missed.
Current Situation: After getting dumped by Vancouver in the Qualifying Round in 2020 (ensuring a two-season drought; Minnesota just does not have droughts for just one season), the Wild came back with a strong 2021 season to get back in the playoffs, and an even stronger 2021-22 season where they set a franchise record for 113 points. Alas, they were beaten by St. Louis in the first round.
A Summary of a Notable Drought: Remember the Columbus Blue Jackets in Part 2? How they differed from the Wild, who had a set direction in mind with Doug Risebrough and Jacques Lemaire? Well, the Wild made the playoffs in their third season of existence, cracked 100 points in 2006-07 with a 104-point season, and nearly did it again in 2007-08 with a 98-point campaign. However, the Wild’s longest playoff drought of four seasons began when it was decided that the organization needed to move on from Risebrough and Lemaire. It did not help that the Wild were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round in 2007 and 2008 either.
The 2007-08 Wild had good goaltending and just enough offense to be dangerous. Niklas Backstrom was the starter and a very good one with a total save percentage of 92% and a young backup in Josh Harding being perfectly fine. Up front, Marian Gaborik led the offense with 42 goals and 83 points, Pierre-Marc Bouchard put up 50 assists and 63 points, and got plenty of contributions from Brent Burns, Mikko Koivu, Pavol Demitra, who put up 14 goals and 54 points, and Brian Rolston, who put up 31 goals and 59 points. The 2008 offseason featured Rolston and Demitra going to New Jersey and Vancouver, respectively. The Wild instead dipped into free agency and signed Antti Miettinen, Owen Nolan, and Andrew Brunette. Veterans replacing veterans. They also traded a third rounder in 2009 to Anaheim for Marc-Andre Bergeron; and moved Ryan Jones and a second rounder in 2009 to Marek Zidlicky. The 2008 NHL Draft would not yield much for Minnesota - they traded up a spot with New Jersey to take Tyler Cuma who played all of 1 NHL game - but they did pick Marco Scandella in the second round.
The 2008-09 season featured a Wild team that just did not allow a lot of goals. Backstrom and Harding were sensational with total save percentages 92.3% and 92.9%, respectively. Backstrom was so good, he finished third for the Vezina. Their penalty kill was great in both not needing it as much as other teams and success rate. However, their defense was OK in the run of play and their offense struggled to create in 5-on-5. It absolutely did not help that Gaborik suffered a hip injury that required surgery. He was only able to play in 23 games in 2008-09. The veteran signings of Brunette, Nolan, and Miettinen were not bad: Brunette put up 22 goals and 50 points, Nolan put up 25 goals and 45 points, and Miettinen put up 44 points. Zidlicky and Bergeron scored double-digit goals and led the defense in points. Koivu and Bouchard certainly were not bad either. In general, though, the offense was not enough with only 214 goals scored. A strong start was undercut by a poor December and a not-so-successful February and March. While the Wild won four of their last five games, they ended up with an 89-point record (40-33-9) and missed the playoffs by three points. Not a bad season; perhaps a healthy Gaborik and a better second half was all that they needed.
What the Wild got was a complete change in leadership. The Risebrough-Lemaire era ended in 2008-09. Lemaire resigned after the season. Risebrough was let go. Chuck Fletcher was given the job to be the GM of Minnesota. He was in the front office of Pittsburgh, Florida, and Anaheim. He would also provide further changes. He named Todd Richards to replace Lemaire. And more would come in the offseason. Fletcher’s first major move was to get three picks from the Islanders to move down four spots and take Nick Leddy. (They also drafted Erik Haula and Darcy Kuemper this year.) Ahead of free agency, he turned two late picks into Kyle Brodziak. In free agency, Gaborik signed a fat deal with the Rangers (five seasons, $37.5 million) while Bergeron signed a smaller one with Montreal. Fletcher splashed the cash on Martin Havlat (six seasons, $30 million), Greg Zanon (three seasons, $5.8 million), and Petr Sykora (one season, $1.6 million) among others. Extensions were given to Cal Clutterbuck, Harding, and Zidlicky. Koivu was named the captain for the whole season - the Wild previously changed captains per month - and a new era began in 2009-10.
The new era began with a poor October to start, and a realization that Backstrom-Harding were not going to repeat their stellar 2008-09 seasons. They did not. Backstrom posted a 90.3% total save percentage and Harding posted a 90.5%; a drop of 2% by both. Despite a new coach, the Wild were still a team that was OK defensively and lackluster offensively. As a result, the team gave up nearly 40 more goals than last season while not scoring many more for themselves. Koivu, Brunette, Zidlicky and Miettinen were still productive. Havlat’s first season yielded 18 goals and 54 points, which is good but not exactly great. Fletcher did flip Benoit Pouliot for Guillaume Latendresse in the Wild, who put up 25 goals and 36 points with the Wild. But Nolan dropped to 16 goals and 33 points, Brodziak put up only the 32 points, Zanon only 15 (he’s not much of a scorer, anyhow), and Belanger put up 13 goals and 35 points before being traded to Washington in March. The bigger deal may have been sending Kim Johnsson and Nick Leddy to Chicago for Cam Barker - who provided all of 7 points in 19 games for the Wild. The Wild were certainly not a bad team, but the 38-36-8 record for 84 points put them 11 points behind the final playoff spot in the West. For a new era, the team took a step back.
The 2010-11 Wild took a little step forward but not much more. Fletcher did trade up into the second round to take Jason Zucker amid a 2010 draft class of Mikael Granlund, Johan Larsson, and Johan Gustafsson. However, free agency was more about re-signing players - namely Mikko Koivu to a seven season, $47.25 million contract extension. Fletcher did bring in Matt Cllen, Eric Nystrom, and John Madden. Not much was lost beyond Owen Nolan. However, an injury to Josh Harding early in the season necessitated the signing of Jose Theodore. Fortunately for the Wild, Backstrom rebounded and Theodore was quite good with both posting a 91.6% total save percentage. However, the team got wrecked again in the run of play in 5-on-5 which led to an even less productive offense than the last season. Ten different players, including Cullen and Madden, put up at least ten goals - and no one but Havlat scored more than 20 that season. While future short king on defense Jared Spurgeon broke into the lineup and Burns had a huge 17-goal, 46 point season, the Wild really were not much better off than they were last season. They looked good up until the beginning of March and descended fast with a 6-11-2 run to end the season at 39-35-8 for 86 points. Head coach Todd Richards was fired. Surely, Fletcher was beginning to feel some pressure. This led to another whirlwind of changes in Minnesota.
First, a new coach. With Richards out, Fletcher decided to promote their AHL head coach from Houston: Mike Yeo. Yes, this was his first HC job in the NHL. Fletcher had a sense that Burns was not going to stay in Minnesota. So he made a big trade in sending him and a second rounder in 2012 to San Jose for Devin Setoguchi, Charlie Coyle, and San Jose’s first rounder in 2011. At the 2011 NHL Draft, Minnesota took Jonas Brodin with their pick and Zack Phillips with that extra first rounder. The free agency period saw Theodore, Brunette, Barker, Miettinen, and Madden sign elsewhere. In response, Fletcher signed no UFA of consequence. But he did trade Havlat straight up to San Jose for Dany Heatley. Prior to the season, Fletcher traded a third time with San Jose: James Sheppard to the sharks for a third rounder in 2013. Eric Nystrom was sent to Dallas for future considerations. Plenty of names from before this drought and acquired in the first two years were gone. How would a different looking 2011-12 fare?
If you guessed about the same, then you’re right. Backstrom and a now-healthy Harding performed a little bit better than last season in the net. However, the team was still bleeding out attempts and shots against in 5-on-5; so their good save percentages still yielded a median-level output of goals allowed. The team’s offense was as punchless as ever with a whopping 166 goals scored. Heatley did lead the team in scoring: with 24 goals and 53 points. While Brodziak surprised with 22 goals and Setoguchi scored 19, only three other players scored 10 or more goals. Bouchard missed most of the season with an injury. Latendresse only got into 16 games and scored five goals for nine points. The team sputtered into the 2012 portion of the season, causing Fletcher to do some selling for a change. Zidlicky was sent to New Jersey for Kurtis Foster, Stephane Veilleux, Nick Palmieri, and two picks that became not much of consequence. Nick Schultz was sent to Edmonton for Tom Gilbert. One of Fletcher’s first signings, Zanon, was sent to Boston for Steven Kampfer. The team ended the season on a 7-10-2 run for a 35-36-11 record and 81 points. This was hardly the season fans were expecting under a new coach. Certainly not an even worse offense than the past few seasons.
Prior to the lockout, Fletcher decided to go big to address the offense and get some talent to reward Koivu, Bouchard, Backstrom, Harding and others for putting in good seasons for no results for four straight. Fortunately for Chuck Fletcher, two massive free agents were available in 2012, they were friends, and they were willing to return to the State of Hockey. Fletcher signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to 13-season, $98 million contracts. You know how those deals ended (huge buyouts), but for its time, it was a bold move that made sense for Minnesota at the time.
When the lockout-shortened 2013 season began, those two were dominant for Minnesota right away. Parise would average over 20 minutes per game and lead the Wild in scoring with 18 goals and 38 points. Suter would average a stunning 27 minutes per game, leading a blueline with a burgeoning Spurgeon and Brodin. Yeo sorted out their 5-on-5 play to not be one-way against them most of the time. This was a welcome development as Backstrom and Harding were not at all having a good season. Backstrom played in 42 games and put up a 90.9% save percentage and Harding got into 5 games for an 86.3% save percentage (Kuemper appeared for 6 games and a 91.6%). While the offense finished below the league median, they were better than last place due to Parise, Koivu, Setoguchi, Heatley, Bouchard, Suter, and Cullen. The team got hot in March with an 11-4-0 run. Fletcher made another big deal to bring in Jason Pominville. Specifically, Pominville and a fourth in 2014 from Buffalo for Matt Hackett, Johan Larsson, a first in 2013, and a second in 2014. Pominville did put up nine points in ten games. However, the Wild hit a slump of sorts and finished April with a 5-8-1 record. It was dramatic, but Minnesota was able to edge Columbus for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference with an advantage in regulation and overtime wins (22 to 19). The four-season drought was over.
The 2013 Wild did get eliminated from the playoffs in the first round. I would like to believe the season helped secure Fletcher’s job in Minnesota. Fletcher can then say he got the Wild back to the postseason with the help of Suter and Parise. What is more is that it was not a blip in the team’s history. The Wild would make the playoffs for the next four seasons up until Fletcher’s contract was not renewed in 2018. They would also not go any further than the second round, something the team has only done once way, way back in 2003. However, that is now Bill Guerin’s problem (Paul Fenton certainly did not have the answers).
Any Other Thoughts: The four-season drought for the Wild showed a team that really was not that bad when they missed the playoffs. They never earned fewer than 80 points, although the 2011-12 team was real close to that drop. The team was consistently short on offense and the moves made by Fletcher failed to really boost it, wasting some excellent seasons from Backstrom, Harding, and Theodore. Even the offensive production was not so hot after Parise and Suter was signed when the drought would end. But Yeo fixing their past 5-on-5 issues helped and enough punch was there to get the results to stay in the mix in 2013. I am finding that plenty of these droughts and franchise-slumps include teams having poor offenses in addition or in place of poor goaltending. Something to keep in mind. As a final thought, Minnesota remains the better of the two expansion teams from 2000. While they had their fair share of misses, they have never crashed and burned as often or as long as Columbus.
The Montreal Canadiens
Playoff Misses and Proportion: 19 misses out of 104 total seasons; 18.3% missed.
Current Situation: When Montreal barely made the 2021 playoffs and going on a Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Finals, it was a sign of things going just right for GM Marc Bergevin and interim head coach Dominique Ducharme. In the 2021-22 season, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Ducharme was dumped after the team went 8-30-7, Bergevin was fired, former player agent Kent Hughes was hired as GM, and Martin St. Louis became interim head coach. The team finished with the league’s worst record at 22-49-11. Montreal made St. Louis permanent, got the first overall pick, and look to build from there. We shall see how long Hughes and St. Louis will last.
A Summary of a Notable Drought: The Montreal Canadiens are the NHL’s most storied franchise with the most Stanley Cup wins among all franchises. Like a lot of Original Six teams, they had the benefit of an easier time to make the playoffs between a smaller league and . Unlike the other five Original Six teams, Montreal has never had a long drought. Ever. They missed the playoffs three straight times in from 1919-20 to 1921-22 - and then nothing that long until a period in the early 2000s. We may be seeing history right before our eyes now with Montreal seemingly entering a rebuild. However, Montreal’s history shows that long rebuilds are just not a thing the Canadiens do. Their eras of dominance in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s are long past, but they have been in the mix well more often than not. They are a perfect answer to those who believe or want you to believe that success is cyclical and teams have to be bad after being good for a while. The Canadiens do not accept that belief.
So what should we look at for Montreal? It would be interesting to look at that first drought from 1919 to 1922 would be. However, I do not think there is much to learn from 1920s hockey. It would be telling as it would be to look at their most recent drought - which would be three-seasons plus if they did not end up barely getting into the Return to Play and upsetting Pittsburgh, as they have yet to actually build anything from it. Therefore, I do not think there is much there to learn either. Let us pick that second three season drought from 1999-2000 to 2001-02.
In 1997-98, the Canadiens finished with a not-so-amazing record of 37-32-13 for 87 points. They did make the playoffs as it was easier to make the playoffs with middling records back then. It also helped that the Rangers, Panthers, and especially Tampa Bay sucked for a lot of free points. They beat Pittsburgh in the first round before being swept out by Buffalo. Alain Vigneault was the head coach. Rejean Houle was the GM. Mark Recchi was the leading scorer and the offensive core included Vincent Damphousse, Saku Koivu, Shayne Corson, Martin Rucinsky, and Brian Savage. The defense was led by Patrice Brisebois, Vladimir Malakhov, and Dave Manson (yes, he did more than just rack up PIMs). The goaltending tandem was a decent outing from Jocelyn Thibault and aging Andy Moog with Jose Theodore in the system. The team was a top-ten team in the league in scoring and league median in giving up goals. Not a bad team.
However, the 1998-99 season saw that offense fall apart in a big way. No Canadien player scored more than the 17 goals Rucinsky scored. Corson, Savage, Recchi, Damphousse, Koivu and even Rucinsky all dropped in production. This led to a team that finished fifth in goals for in 97-98 go to 26th out of 27 teams in 98-99. The goaltending surprisingly held up despite Houle trading Thibault, Manson, and Brad Brown to Chicago for Jeff Hackett, Alain Nasreddine, Eric Weinrich, and a fourth. Hackett was good as a starter with a 91.4% save percentage; Theodore and Frederic Chabot backed him up. As the team struggled to start the season and struggled down the end, Houle went to sell. Recchi was traded to Philadelphia for a second rounder in 1999, a sixth rounder in 2000, and Dainius Zubrus - who joined the roster. The team’s captain, Vincent Damphousse, was traded as well. All for picks too: a fifth rounder in 1999, a 2000 first rounder, and a 2000 or 2001 second rounder as decided by San Jose. Spoiler: The best of those picks acquired for Recchi and Damphousse would be a toss up between Matt Carkner (the only player of the 1999 draft class that actually played in the NHL) and Marcel Hossa. (Aside: Damphousse being traded led to Koivu being named captain in 1999-2000, the first European captain in Montreal’s history.) The moves did not inspire confidence.
Neither did the news from ownership that they lost money. Molson Breweries bought the team in 1978. This development would eventually lead to the Canadiens being put up for sale during the 1999-2000 season and George Gillett buying the franchise in 2001. This may explain some of the trades made as well as some of the lack of talent being brought in at this time. Another reason may be Houle himself, as he sent 10th overall to Trevor Linden. At least the 1998 draft class had some long-serving talent in it in the wings: Mike Ribeiro, Francois Beauchemin, Andrei Markov, and Michael Ryder.
Still, a pair of free agents - Sergei Zholtok and Oleg Petrov - did try to add to the lineup. Zholtok did score 26 goals but only 38 points. Petrov got into 44 games and put up 24 assists and 26 points. Rucinsky led the team in scoring with 49 points; Zubrus put up 42 points. Linden put up 30 points in 50. If this seems underwhelming to you, then you are right. It was! The Canadiens scored a whopping 196 goals. Despite awesome seasons from Hackett and Theodore and a strong defense that led to only 194 goals allowed, the team struggled to get results. Especially at the start of the season, where they won just five games in their first twenty games. Once again, Montreal was on pace to miss the playoffs and they did with 83 points. They were close as they missed it by 2 points.
But this did not stop Houle from some more selling. Malakhov was sent to the Devils for Josh DeWolf, Sheldon Souray, and a second rounder in 2001. Nasreddine and Igor Ulanov was sent to Edmonton for Christian Laflamme and Matthieu Descoteaux. Those are players, I assure you. So the defense took a bit of a hit and the offense was not addressed. Progress? No.
So the 2000-01 Canadiens were a bit more of the same. The 2000 NHL Draft did have Montreal draft Ron Hainsey and Marcel Hossa - and none of the other picks worked out. Houle also traded their second round picks to Anaheim for three later ones - which ended up being Ilya Bryzgalov. No one of real significance joined the team. This was not to say there were no major developments. Theodore eventually took over as the team’s top goaltender, which worked out well as his 90.9% save percentage in 59 games was better than Hackett (88.7% in 19 games), call up Mathieu Garon (89.7% in 11 games), and waiver wire pickup Eric Fichaud (87.5% in 2 games). A 5-13-2-0 start for the Canadiens led to Alain Vigneault and Rejean Houle getting fired. Even in the wake of an ownership change - which did come in January 2001 - the Canadiens’ performance was seen as unacceptable and new leadership was needed. Former Ottawa scout, director of scouting, and assistant coach Andre Savard (current New Jersey scout, by the way) became the GM as Michel Therrien, of their AHL affiliate Quebec Citadelles, was promoted to head coach. The struggles initially continued into the 2001 portion of the season. The result was a team was led in scoring by Saku Koivu’s 47 points in 54 games, Savage leading in goals with 21 in 62 games, and a total of 206 goals scored. Improvement over last season, but still nowhere near good enough to compete. The 2000-01 Canadiens finished with a record of 28-40-8-6 for 70 points. The 42.7% points percentage would be the lowest in Montreal history since 1932-33 and 1947-48 teams. (“Fun” fact: Last season’s Montreal team earned the third worst points percentage in their history)
As the struggles went on, Savard went to work to change the roster. Zholtok struggled with a goal and 11 points in 32 games. He was traded to Edmonton for Chad Kilger, who at least put up 9 goals and 25 points in 43 games. Eric Weinrich was sent to Boston for Patrick Traverse. Trevor Linden, Dainius Zubrus, and a second rounder in 2001 were sent to Washington for Jan Bulis, Richard Zednik, and a first rounder in 2001. Late picks were sent to get Stephane Quintal and Andreas Dackell. Future considerations were given to the Coyotes for Joe Juneau’s rights - whom Savard would sign. In free agency, Savard also signed Yanic Perreault. The 2001 draft would be important for Montreal’s future due to Mike Komisarek and Tomas Plekanec, but they would not be there to pull the Canadiens out of their drought.
Montreal would be dealt a massive blow. Saku Koivu was diagnosed in September 2001 with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Koivu would beat it and return to the Canadiens for their final few games of the season. In the interim, Savard signed Doug Gilmour to fill in at center.
As it turned out, Savard’s moves provided value. Perreault led the team in scoring with 27 goals and 56 points. Zednik put up 22 goals and 44 points. The 38-year old Gilmour contributed 10 goals and 41 points. Juneau put up 36 points in 70 games. Dackell provided 15 goals and 33 points. Bulis made the team and put up 9 goals and 19 points. Quintal averaged nearly 19 minutes per game on the blueline. The 1998 class was starting to break through with Markov getting 24 points in 56 games and Ribeiro putting up 18 points in 43 games. Petrov had a fine season of 24 goals and 41 points. And some more moves were made by Savard. During the season, Martin Rucinsky and Benoit Brunet was traded to Dallas for Donald Audette and Shaun Van Allen. Audette was getting going with 6 points in 13 games before an injury cut short his season; he would return by March 30, 2002. Brian Savage, he of goal scoring past, was sent with a third rounder (ended up being for 2002) to Arizona for Sergei Berezin. Berezin put up 10 points in 29 games, not much of a boost. Still, the Montreal offense ended up being a bit below league median for a change at 207 goals scored. But that obscures the real big story of the 2001-02 Canadiens.
That story: Jose Theodore had the best season of his career. Theodore was not just good. He was not just great. He was on fire at multiple points of the season to ensure Montreal would be in games they would not have been in the prior three seasons. Theodore posted up a 93.1% save percentage over 67 games, earning the team 30 wins and 10 post-regulation losses or ties. Theodore kept Montreal in the mix and in a playoff position all the way to the end of the season. His performances were so well regarded, he won the Vezina and the Hart Trophy, beating Jarome Iginla on a tiebreaker of more first place votes. Montreal needed Theodore to play out of his mind for months at a time to get into the playoff picture. And with Koivu returning by season’s end, you better believe the team pushed their way in. They went 36-31-12-3 for 87 points, finishing just ahead of Washington and Buffalo to take the final playoff spot in the East.
What’s more is that the drought did not end with a brief appearance in the playoffs. Montreal beat their hated rival and first-seeded Boston in a six game series to go the second round. There, they would lose in six games to Carolina. Koivu, Audette, and Gilmour each put up 10 points to show they still had it.
Unfortunately, Montreal would not have it for long. The team took a step back in 2002-03; Therrien was fired; Theodore did not (and would not) repeat his amazing 2001-02 campaign; and Claude Julien, in his first tenure with the team, could not get the team back on track so they missed the playoffs. This did not lead to a sustained drought as the team made the playoffs in 2003-04 and made it every season until 2010-11 except for a super-narrow miss in 2006-07.
Any Other Thoughts: Good goaltending can help elevate a team. Great goaltending usually does. While some of these playoff droughts covered did include some outstanding goaltending work being ultimately wasted, Theodore’s 2001-02 was one for the ages. As controversial as the 2002 Hart voting was - some people didn’t even vote at all for Iginla! - I think Theodore dragging a Montreal squad to the playoffs carries more value than Iginla elevating Calgary from being possibly the worst team in the NHL to the seventh worst team in the NHL. Still, it took Theodore playing outstanding hockey to give a team that was still a bit lacking offense, lacking on defense at times, and still pending the emergence of their prospects. There are parallels to make between this and the 2021 team that also barely made the playoffs, although that team made way more noise than the 2002 squad. Obviously not in the net, but in how both teams needed a lot to go their way from acquisitions, trades, and past players obtained to contribute something to ultimately get in by a bare margin.
One other note: Montreal will let coaches and GMs have a chance, but not a particularly long one. Houle did not make it to five full seasons; Vigneault did not make it to four full seasons; and Therrien’s tenure ultimately did not make it to three. Even with the ownership change to Gillett, the idea that Montreal does not settle for lesser hockey definitely did not change. Something to keep in mind for teams currently out of the playoffs - especially for Hughes and St. Louis.
The Nashville Predators
Playoff Misses and Proportion: 9 misses out of 23 total seasons; 39.1% missed.
Current Situation: The Predators have made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. They were upset by Arizona in the 2020 qualifying round, which was the end of a five-season run of playoff appearances that peaked in 2017 with a Stanley Cup Final visit. The Predators went 45-30-7 to earn 97 points, make the playoffs, and get swept by Colorado due in part to Pekka Rinne getting injured before the series.
A Summary of a Notable Drought: This is another expansion story. Unlike Minnesota, it would take more than a few seasons to get into the postseason. Unlike Columbus, leadership was rock solid as David Poile is still the current GM and Barry Trotz was the team’s head coach from the beginning up until the 2014-15 season. This drought covers those first five seasons from 1998-99 to 2002-03.
When the Predators came to form, it was clear that Poile and Trotz wanted to build from the net out and form a team that would work hard and defend. This explained why they drafted five goalies in the expansion draft, hoping to hit on a few. While Mike Richter would not play for them, they did find Mike Dunham and Tomas Vokoun. Dunham and Vokoun were the primary goalies in their inaugural season, each putting up a 90.8% total save percentage as they split the net. On the ice, it was slim pickings, as you would expect from an expansion draft. Current Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald would be named team captain and put up 13-goals and 32 points, nearing his career high of 34 points from his Panthers days in 1995-96. The team’s leading scorer would be Cliff Ronning with 18 goals and 53 points, followed shortly by Greg Johnson (50 points in 68 games) and Sergei Krivokrasov (25 goals and 48 points, acquired for future considerations from Chicago) The team did include Kimmo Timonen (also acquired for future considerations from Los Angeles), Karlis Skrastins, and a brief appearance of their first draft pick, David Legwand, as signs for the future. The team did win 28 games and earned 63 points in their first season. Still a bad record (28-47-7) and nowhere near close to the playoffs with a well-below league median in goals for and against. Still, not as bad as other expansion teams in the 1990s like San Jose, Tampa Bay, and especially Ottawa.
Since the previous two droughts looked at in this part and several others have highlighted a lack of offensive punch, let me go in a different direction and highlight the Nashville Predators’ draft classes in this five-season drought. Clearly, Nashville had a scoring problem. Would it improve through their system? As the Predators were a new organization, drafting well would be more important as to establish their depth and pipeline. Per HockeyDB, here are the picks that made it to the NHL for at least 100 games from each season in this timeframe:
- 1998 Draft: David Legwand, Karlis Skrastins, Denis Arkhipov (3 out of 8 picks)
- 1999 Draft: Martin Erat, Adam Hall, Andrew Hutchinson (3 out of 15 picks, 6 did play fewer than 100 games, including sixth overall pick, goalie Brian Finley)
- 2000 Draft: Scott Hartnell, Matt Hendricks (2 out of 12 picks, 3 did play fewer than 100 games)
- 2001 Draft: Dan Hamhuis, Jordin Tootoo (2 out of 9 picks, 2 did play fewer than 100 games)
- 2002 Draft: Scottie Upshall, Brandon Segal (2 out of 8 picks, 1 did play fewer than 100 games)
Outside of Erat and Legwand (and maybe Arkhipov), none of these players were particularly offensive minded or productive at the NHL level. Hall, Hartnell, Hendricks, Tootoo, and Upshall were solid hands for the middle or bottom of a forward group. So, no, the offense was not going to come through developing prospects alone. This meant that Nashville needed to get scoring talent -even on defense - through other means. At least their first round picks were nearly all successful. Taking Finley at sixth overall in 1999 was a mistake, especially a season after taking five goalies in the expansion draft and using four of them.
Anyway, the story of the 1999-2000 Predators was a little like the first season. Patric Kjellberg was signed as a free agent out of Djurgardens and ended up finishing behind Ronning in points with 23 goals and 23 assists. Ronning kept putting up numbers with 26 goals and 62 points to lead the team. Timonen and Drake Berehowsky led the defense in points and minutes (joining Bill Houlder for ice time). Legwand played a full season for 13 goals and 28 points. The rest of the team, nothing much of note outside of Krivokrasov being traded to Calgary for Cale Hulse and a 2001 third rounder who is not in that bulleted list above. Dunham and Vokoun were good. Still, the team let up a lot of shots, they did not take very many, and so the team finished with 199 goals scored and 240 against. The team finished at 28-40-7-7 for a seven-point improvement, but still well out of the playoffs.
It was a little more of the same for the 2000-01 Predators. The defense did get better with Timonen now emerging as the team’s leader on the blueline. Berehowsky was up there with him only he was traded by the deadline for a second round pick in 2001 that, again, did not make the bulleted list above. Dunham had a great season with a 92.3% total save percentage as the 1A goalie and Vokoun was solid with a 91% total save percentage as a the 1B goalie. The Predators were a top ten team in the league in goals allowed with just 200 getting past them. The problem: Offense as they scored just 186 goals. Scott Walker had a notable season of 25 goals. No other Predator would score more than 20. Legwand put up 13 goals but improved to 41 points. Kjellberg dropped a bit. Greg Johnson started chipping in more. Cliff Ronning was still bringing the goods for 62 points. Hartnell, Erat, and Arkhipov would join the roster. The team was making strides; improving by ten points to an 80-point season at 34-36-9-3. It was still outside of the playoffs by ten, though.
The team would take a step back in 2001-02. Poile signed Vladimir Orszagh to the roster to help the offense. He kind of did with 15 goals and 35 points. He also traded a 2002 third rounder for Andy Delmore, who is a defenseman that does not play much defense at least. Arkhipov broke out for a 20-goal, 42 point season - to lead the team in goals. Delmore put up 16 goals and 38 assists, which is impressive for a defenseman. As was Timonen’s 42 points. Hartnell grew to 41 points too. But injuries and other struggles led to roster changes. Kjellberg was traded to Anaheim for Petr Tenkrat, who put up only eight goals and 24 points. Ronning led the team in scoring with 49 points - and was traded to Los Angeles by the deadline for Jere Karalahti and a conditional pick in 2003. Team captain Tom Fitzgerald was also moved for a fourth rounder to Chicago, leaving the captaincy vacant. The story was still the same on offense: Not a whole lot of it as they scored only 196 goals. The story on defense, well, the defense was not so bad. Dunham and Vokoun were not as good as each posted up save percentages around the 90% range. That led to more goals allowed and a record of 28-41-13-0 for a not-nice 69 points. That is a drop of 11 points. Would the team slip back further?
No, but they would not take much of a step forward in 2002-03. Greg Johnson was given the ‘C’ and missed a good chunk of the season with injuries. Vokoun took over in net as the definitive starter for the first of what would be several seasons. He played in 69 games and posted up a good 91.8% save percentage. This led to Mike Dunham, who struggled with an 89.2% in 15 games for Nashville, being traded to the Rangers for Tomas Kloucek, Rem Murray, and the rights to Marek Zidlicky. What did not struggle was the defense, still led by Timonen but not joined by Skrastins and Jason York in terms of minutes. The offense, well, Legwand led it with 17 goals and 48 points, free agent signing Andreas Johansson put up 20 goals and 37 points, and the remainder featured Adam Hall chipping in 16 goals and 28 points; Walker and Orszagh sticking in their 15-goal, 30 point range; and Delmore and Hartnell chippig in too. A healthy Johnson would have helped. Erat too, as he only got into 27 games. More offensive talent would as well, as the Preds finished the season with 183 goals, the third fewest in the NHL. The Predators finished with a record of 27-35-13-7 for 74 points. An improvement over last season but still far from where they would want to be.
Needless to say, that was the fifth season of the Predator’s existence and I already pointed out the drought was five seasons long. Next season would be a glow-up for Nashville. At first, that did not seem to be the case as Poile moved on from Delmore and Skrastins on defense. Delmore was sent to Buffalo for a third rounder in 2004 and Skrastins was sent to Colorado for future considerations. Cale Hulse was let go, Vitali Yachmenev signed in Russia, and Oleg Petrov (who was acquired last season for a fourth rounder - and put up 4 points in 17 games) was bought out. Where would the improvement come from?
Well, the roster putting up a much stronger scoring-by-committee case helped the offense not struggle for a change. Walker scored 25 goals again and put up 67 points to lead the offense. Erat played a whole season and put up 16 goals and 49 points. Legwand and Hartnell each had 18 goals, Orszagh had 16 goals, Johnson played a whole season and scored 14, Hall and Johansson scored 13 and 12 respectively. Getting Zidlicky’s rights was huge as Poile and his staff were able to bring him over. He scored 14 goals and 53 points in his first NHL season at age 26 to finish with the second most points on the team. Timonen put up another double-digit goal total (12) and 40+ points (44). Dan Hamhuis joined the roster, played 80 games, and provided 26 points too. Steve Sullivan provided a boost when Nashville sent a pair of second round picks to Chicago for his services; he add nine goals and 30 points in 24 games. Additional depth was acquired in Brad Bombardir and Sergei Zholtok being acquired from Minnesota for Buffalo’s third rounder in 2004 and Nashville’s fourth rounder in 2004. Believe it or not, the 2003-04 Predators scored 216 goals. They were above the league median for goals for the first time ever in their franchise history. This was quite helpful as Vokoun was not as solid as last season with a 90.9% save percentage in 73 games. Chris Mason’s 92.6% in 17 appearances was helpful as a back up. Still, the Preds allowed 217 goals to be below the median. Nonetheless, the team roared through January, were OK in February, slid a bit in March, but finished the season at 38-29-11-4 for 91 points. This was enough to beat out Edmonton for the final playoff spot in the West, finish in a tie in points with 7th place St. Louis (they had one more win), and reach the playoffs for the first time.
Nashville’s time in the playoffs in 2004 was short. They were eliminated by Detroit in six games. But it was the start of a new time for Nashville. They would make the playoffs in the first three seasons of the cap era, miss out by a few points in 2008-09, and get to the post season for three more seasons. If there were any concerns about the direction of Trotz and Poile, they were calmed with this season and the near future to come. Drafting Ryan Suter and Shea Weber in 2003; and Alexander Radulov and Pekka Rinne in 2004 would help too.
Any Other Thoughts: At first glance, Nashville is another case where patience was eventually rewarded. However, even a summary of five seasons like this, it reveals that the process could have been sped up had the team sought after offensive improvements. Part of that is the function of an expansion team trying to make the most of it. But it was also the function of not drafting the kind of talent to really elevate an attack, Trotz not being as aggressive with his tactics, and Poile not making the deals or signings to. To their credit, Trotz and Poile did come to Nashville with a set plan - likely influenced by the Devils of the mid-1990s winning a lot with defensive, team-oriented hockey - and it led to a competitive team after a rough first season. Still, one wonders how much more of an early impact they could have made if they found a Gaborik or a Nash or a Yashin in the draft or picked up a veterans more in Cliff Ronning’s vein. No matter. Trotz and Poile still has their place in the franchise’s history and, I would like to think it is, a good one. Architects of the franchise, with one still in business today. The next team, well, their notable playoff drought is far more infamous.
The New York Islanders
Playoff Misses and Proportion: 22 misses out of 49 total seasons; 44.9% missed.
Current Situation: After two straight trips to the Conference Finals, the Islanders missed the playoffs by 16 points. Their 37-35-10 record was representative of a team that could compete but did not have enough. It did not help that their first 13 games of the season were on the road as UBS Arena was set to open. It did not help that they lost their first seven games at home until they played the Devils (sigh). The Islanders did not make a lot of moves this offseason, so expectations may not be so high for a return to the playoffs. But for those wondering at Lou Lamoriello’s inaction, I suggest that it can be far, far worse.
A Summary of a Notable Drought: Want to make an Islanders fan sigh? Mention the name Mike Milbury. Mad Mike oversaw the worst and most laughable period of Islander hockey. This will cover the team’s seven-season drought from 1995 to 2000-01. For those of you who do not know of Milbury, then I hope you can appreciate how things got under his reign. You will also get an appreciation of the concept of opportunity cost too.
I must set the background for the Islanders before getting into what Milbury did. First, the organization was built up by their original GM, Bill Torrey. He was forced to resign after the 1991-92 season where he broke up the squad in an attempt to rebuild. A big driver of this was a result of Pat LaFontaine wanting a new contract, negotiations falling apart when team owner John Pickett would not pay up, and LaFontaine demanded to be traded and held out (a common tactic back then). Pickett put the team up for sale and after a few months of little interest, he sold minority stakes to four local businessmen in Long Island: Ralph Palleschi, Bob Rosenthal, Stephen Walsh, and Paul Greenwood. What’s more is that Pickett gave them control over the team. They were not as patient with Torrey as Pickett was so Torrey was forced to step down after the 1991-92 season.
Ownership problems plagued the Islanders. Pickett found a seller in Charles Dolan, but the deal fell through and Pickett still remained in majority control. The four local owners selected Don Maloney, Torrey’s assistant GM, to take over. Maloney was the assistant GM for just one season, his first after being a player. Now he was the GM for the 1992-93 season. These issues led to the Islanders not able to spend a whole lot as well as with the four minority (and impatient) stakeholders to be in charge as Pickett wanted to move on.
To Maloney’s credit, the team did well as they went to the Prince of Wales Conference Finals. The 1993-94 team also made the playoffs, but were swept by Our Hated Rivals. Legendary head coach Al Arbour retired. Maloney tabbed his assistant Lorne Henning to take over as head coach. With a core of Pierre Turgeon, Vladimir Malakhov, Steve Thomas, Derek King, and Ray Ferraro, things on paper seemed to be fine. They even had a set of prospects to look forward to. Look at the drafts. The 1991 draft class included Scott Lachance (already on the team), Ziggy Palffy, and Andreas Johansson. The 1992 draft class had Darius Kasparaitis (also on the team) and Derek Armstrong. The 1993 draft class had Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan McCabe, Tommy Salo, and Darren Van Impe. In 1994, the Isles drafted Brett Lindros (he would retire after 95-96 due to a series of concussions), Jason Strudwick, Brad Lukowich, and Dick Tarnstrom. These names all played for a while in the NHL, some more notable and impactful than others.
The lockout-shortened season was all but fine for the Isles. The team went on an epic slump after winning four of their first seven games, winning just 11 for the season. Henning’s first and only season as head coach ended with a 15-28-6 record for 35 points - second worst only to an especially awful Ottawa Senators squad. As a result of the slump and perhaps also due to internal budgets, Maloney decided to revamp the squad. Turgeon and Malakhov were traded to Montreal for Kirk Muller, Mathieu Schneider, and Craig Darby. Benoit Houge was traded with a pair of late picks to Toronto for Eric Fichaud. Before the lockout, the Isles traded Ron Hextall for Tommy Soderstrom - which did not go well as Soderstrom posted a 90.2% save percentage and Jamie McLennan (the 1B goalie) posted an 87.6% save percentage. While Muller and Schneider did well in their short stints in the season and Palffy debuted with 10 goals and 17 assists, the team just struggled. King and Marty McInnis saw their production drop. Ray Ferraro was still the main man but it was a big drop from his 43 points to Turgeon’s and veteran Pat Flatley’s 27 points. The team stunk, Henning was out, and Maloney was suddenly on thin-ice.
The 1995 draft would work out well for Maloney as the team picked Wade Redden at second overall, Jan Hlavac at 28th overall, and Vladimir Orszagh at 106th overall. These three would become NHLers, with Redden having an incredibly long career. Maloney made some waves before and early in the season in trading a fifth rounder to Tampa Bay for Alexander Semak and, more importantly, getting in a three-team trade with Colorado and the Devils. Colorado got Claude Lemieux, the Devils got Steve Thomas, and the Isles ended up with Wendel Clark - all satisfying three then unhappy players. The biggest move: Henning’s replacement. Maloney found that former Boston head coach Mike Milbury was available. He was supposed to become Boston College’s head coach for 1994-95. However, he had “issues” with the school’s athletic department so he resigned without even getting a team to practice. He would be replaced by Jerry York - a very good move. Maloney did not know it, but he hired his replacement. The first of two infamous moves for the Isles. The second was the minority stakeholders approving and releasing a new look for the team: with the Fisherman Logo. This was hated by, well, everyone who did not hate the Isles. They laughed at the Crest toothpaste stripes along with the Gorton’s Fisherman logo.
The Isles hit the ice in October and just about faceplanted immediately under Milbury’s reign behind the bench. They won five games in the first two months. While they got a win on December 2, 1995 against New Jersey (sigh), Maloney lost. He was fired and blamed for the state of the team. The minority stakeholders decided to make Milbury the GM in addition to the coach. Milbury would soon get to work on this roster.
His first major trade? A three team trade between Toronto, Ottawa, and the Islanders. Kirk Muller did not want to be part of a rebuild, first overall pick Berard was not happy about being sent back to juniors by Ottawa, and so the following happened. The Isles swapped Muller and Don Beaupre to Toronto for Ken Belanger and Damien Rhodes. Rhodes was packaged with Wade Redden to Ottawa for Berard and Martin Straka. Rhodes was not very good but he could have possibly helped an Islanders goaltending situation where Soderstrom posted an 87.8% in 51 games, Fichaud posted an 89.7%, McLennan posted an 88.6%, and Salo posted an 86%. Milbury was not done with Toronto, as he traded Wendel Clark, Schneider, and D.J. Smith to the Maple Leafs for Kenny Jonsson, Darby Hendrickson, Sean Haggerty, and Toronto’s first rounder in 1997. That first rounder would be huge. At the trade deadline, Bob Sweeney was sent to Calgary for Pat Conacher and late pick. Clark was having a good season with the Isles, but moving on was needed. Schneider and his 47 points in 65 games, well, maybe moving him was a mistake? (Oh, you have no idea.) The team was becoming much younger, much quicker. Palffy, as a 23-year old, exploded for an 43-goal, 87-point season. Travis Green broke out for a 25-goal, 70 point season. Bertuzzi debuted with an 18-goal, 39 point season. McCabe posted 23 points in 82 games. Straka joined up for 12 points in 22 games as did Hendrickson and Jonsson. Kasparaitis was able to play in more games too. Still, the team was getting lit up, due in large part by hideous goaltending with over 300 goals allowed. The 1995-96 season ended with a 22-50-10 record for 54 points, the worst record since their expansion season. The stakeholders were unhappy. Milbury remained in charge behind the bench - for now.
The 1996 Draft for the Isles would prove fateful with their first three picks: Jean-Pierre Dumont at third overall, Dan LaCouture in the second round, and Zdeno Chara in the third round. Milbury kept dealing. He sent Brad Lukowich to Dallas for a third rounder in 1997 and Hendrickson (from the Clark trade) back to Toronto for a conditional pick in 1998. Pat Flatley left in free agency and so the captaincy remained vacant. The original logo came back although the legend of the fishsticks would not go away so easily (especially in Manhattan). And more moves were yet to come.
The 1996-97 season featured Tommy Salo and Eric Fichaud taking over the net, which provided some marginal gains over the 1995-96 debacle. The team was at least at a 90.2% team save percentage. Whether it was early struggles or an opportunity to make a move, Kasparaitis and Johansson were traded to Pittsburgh in November for Bryan Smolinski. While it was another young player sent away, Smolinski did perform well that season for the Isles with 28 goals and 56 points. He added to an offense led by Palffy (48 goals! 90 points!), Green, and rookie Berard. Berard put up 48 points and the defenseman won the Calder that season. Derek King had a resurgence with 23 goals and 53 points; and Marty McInnis was doing well too with 20 goals and 42 points. And, yet, Milbury moved them both by the trade deadline. King was sent to Hartford for fifth rounder in 1997 and Mcinnis was packaged with Tyrone Garner and a sixth rounder in 1997 for Robert Reichel. Perhaps the biggest move was at coach. Milbury started the season with the Isles and they started at a rough 13-23-9 record. Milbury knew well enough that he was not good enough. So he resigned as head coach (not GM!) and named associate coach Rick Bowness as the head coach. Things improved! The Isles took to Bowness even as Milbury was trading good, productive players away. The team went 16-18-3 under Bowness, a sign of hope. The Isles finished with a decent amount of goals scored and goals allowed, but finished 29-41-12. The 70 points did represent a big improvement and they missed the playoffs by seven points. However, it was hard to feel that progress was being made in Long Island.
This is because ownership issues cropped up again. Pickett found a new owner: John Spano. Those who watch the excellent 30 for 30, Big Shot, knows that name too well. Pickett wanted out from the Islanders for good, so he put the team back up for sale in 1996. This attracted Spano, who fraudulently claimed he had the cash and assets to buy the team. He technically did during this season; however, he missed initial payments on the contract. Gary Bettman ordered that Spano give control back to Pickett until the payments were sorted out. This led to the investigation that revealed Spano to be a fraud and eventually led to bank and wire fraud charges and conviction. Pickett’s time as an owner would finally come to an end in September 1997 when he found a group of owners led by Howard Milstein and co-owner of the Coyotes, Steven Gluckstern. Pickett was finally out, and it seemed like the Isles would be safe at Nassau. Stable ownership and funds at last.
WRONG. Milstein and Gluckstern ran the Isles like it was a business intended to make money. This meant a tighter budget for Milbury and his staff to work under. This led to some moves that made Milbury more unpopular than he already was as the team was going to go from bad to worse.
The 1997 NHL Draft would be memorable for the Islanders drafted goaltender Roberto Luongo at fourth overall and Eric Brewer at fifth overall. The remainder of the draft class did not turn out, but those two, well, you know those two. Milbury also made a shrewd deal in sending prospect Dan LaCouture to Edmonton for Mariusz Czerkawski. The offseason yielded Sergei Nemchinov and Wade Flaherty in free agency as well as Tom Chorske in the waiver draft. The team even named Bryan McCabe as captain ahead of the 1997-98 season. Then the season began and it went pretty well until a 10-game losing streak from Christmas into the new year all but sank the Isles’ chances. More change was to come.
February two massive trades that Isles fans would not forget - and not in a good way. First, the Isles traded Travis Green, who was struggling with a 14-goal, 26-point season compared to the past, Doug Houda, and Tony Tuzzolino to Anaheim for Jean-Jacques Daigneault, Joe Sacco, and Mark Janssens. The next day, the Isles acquired Trevor Linden from Vancouver for Todd Bertuzzi (who was also struggling at age 22 with 7 goals and 18 points), McCabe (the captain! Also with 12 points in 56 games), and a third round pick. In March, Milbury fired Bowness when the team was 22-32-9 and got back behind the bench himself. The team went 8-9-2 under him to confirm another season outside of the playoffs. Not the worst in the East, but still 12 points out. Flaherty did well in spot duty with a 92.6% save percentage; Salo and Fichaud were in the 90.5-90.6% range. The offense was once again led by Palffy, followed by Reichel, Berard, Smolinski, and Johnsson. Chorske and Nemchinov chipped in, as did Czerkawski with 12 goals and 25 points. Linden, who became captain upon joining the team did put up 10 goals and 17 points in 25 games, which is quite good. Some futures would get some looks like Chara But the offense and defense was just not enough to overcome the changes and get the Isles closer to the playoffs.
Of course, the offseason drama would return. Not with ownership, but a good, old fashion contract dispute. Palffy put up 87, 90, and 87 points in these last three seasons. He wanted to get paid. Given the restrictions by Milstein and Gluckstern combined with Milbury’s bluntness, this led to a contract dispute that spilled into the 1999-2000 season. Milbury made a crack about his agent depriving a village of an idiot while playing hardball. Between the team’s fortune and Palffy’s performances, my read is that most fans just wanted Palffy to get paid. Not so easy.
The fans were finding it even harder to support the Isles at this point. In May, Milbury sent Jean-Pierre Dumont, yes the team’s top pick in 1996, and a fifth round pick to Chicago for Dmitri Nabokov, who barely played for the Isles. At the 1998 NHL Draft, the story I remember that a tip from Bobby Orr convinced Isles management to take a chance on Mike Rupp at ninth overall. He would be the best pick out of that bunch - and never play for the Isles as you may know. What about the coaching position? Milbury would stay on for this.
Palffy would eventually sign with the Isles for a short-term deal and begin play in December. He put up 50 points in 50 games. It would also be too late, he joined as the team was a bit past one losing streak and about to head into another post-holiday streak of ‘L’s that led Milbury to once again remove himself from the bench. This time, former AHL coach Bill Stewart took over. This bad streak also led to Berard being moved out of Long Island; he was traded to the Maple Leafs for Felix Potvin (and a swap of sixth rounders). Potvin could conceivably help a goaltending situation where Salo was not quite OK with a 90.4% save percentage and Flaherty was just plain bad with an 89.2%. Potvin did not help with an 89.3% in 11 appearances. Certainly not the price of a former rookie of the year defenseman that may need a new contract soon. Oh, and Salo would not last either; Milbury traded him to Edmonton for Mats Lindgren and an eighth rounder. With Palffy out for most of the season, the offense took a hit as Reichel ended up being the team’s leading scorer with 56 points. Which garnered him a trade to Arizona near the deadline; Reichel, a third, and a fourth for Brad Isbister and a third. Reichel was likely up for a new deal soon too. Linden put up 47 points, Smolinski dropped to 40 points, Czerkawski rose to 38 points, and there was not a whole lot to write home about. Low scoring season, plenty of goals allowed, and a 24-48-10 record for 58 points. Stewart would be let go after this season.
What did not get let go was Milbury. The moves kept coming from Mad Mike. Remember how much he moved to get Linden? Linden was traded in May for Montreal’s first round pick. (Who took his ‘C?’ Kenny Jonsson.) Close to the draft and knowing Palffy was not going to be easy or cheap to re-sign, Milbury moved him. And more. Palffy, Bryan Smolinski (one of their top scorers!), Marcel Cousineau, and a fourth were sent to Los Angeles for Olli Jokinen, Mathieu Biron, Josh Greene, and a first rounder. Milbury loaded up at the 1999 NHL Draft and with their three first rounders took Tim Connolly, Taylor Pyatt (LA’s pick), and Branislav Mezei (Montreal’s pick). While Connolly and Pyatt would play for a while, they would not exactly be what some hoped for. The long-time fans did get at least get something to cheer for: Butchie. Milbury hired Butch Goring, who was a successful IHL coach in the 1990s, to take over as head coach of the Isles. Maybe the 1999-2000 season would be different.
Nope. The good news is that Marisuz Czerkawski had a breakout season of 35 goals and 70 points. Brad Isbister was also good for about a month plus and finished with 22 goals and 42 points. The bad news is that the offensive production dropped like a stone, the defense gave up a ton of shots, and the goalies could not handle it. Flaherty was kept to just four games; Potvin appeared in 22 games and posted an 89.2%, and Luongo was brought up to tend the net for 24 games at a not-so-Luongo like 90.4% save percentage. The #1 guy for the season would be a return in a trade in December, where Milbury sent Potvin and two picks to Vancouver for Kevin Weekes, Dave Scatchard, and Bill Muckalt. Weeksie played in 36 games and posted a 90.2%. What no goalie really got was support from the skaters. While Jonsson and Chara at up minutes, they were still honing their games to a degree. While Tim Connolly, Olli Jokinen, and Biron all joined the team, they struggled to contribute a lot immediately. Milbury was less crazy with the deals in 1999-2000; I do not think anyone would roll their eyes at a Gino Odjick-Mikael Andersson swap with Philly.
The best part of the 1999-2000 season happened after the season. Milstein and Gluckstern sold the team to Charles Wang and Sanjay Kumar. While Kumar had his own issues with securities fraud issue that would come up later in the 2000s, Wang was solid. He had a lot of money. He wanted a new arena. He wanted the Islanders to stay in Long Island. He wanted to let Milbury spend. He would become the majority owner in 2001, too. If nothing else, there was a reason to look forward to the future. Assuming Milbury didn’t trade that too.
Then the 2000 NHL Draft happened. You think this is too long? I’m dealing with Mad Mike here, I cannot simply summarize this part. Get ready:
The 2000 NHL Draft class had plenty of tantalizing names thought to be available for first overall. Dany Heatley of Wisconsin. Marian Gaborik of Trencin Dukla. Rostislav Klesla of Brampton was thought to be the top defender. But Milbury and his staff fell in love with Rick DiPietro. The Boston University goaltender who dazzled in the net and outside the crease. He was touted as the next Martin Brodeur. Or at least the next Martin Brodeur when it came to playing the puck. The Isles wanted him. And, oh, they made room for Rick DiPietro. On draft day, too.
First, Milbury traded Olli Jokinen and Roberto Luongo to Florida for Oleg Kvasha and Mark Parrish. After all, who wants a developing forward and goaltender drafted fourth overall if you’re going to draft a goaltender at first overall? Kvasha and Parrish each finished their second NHL seasons in Florida. Somehow, the Isles traded two young guys for slightly less younger guys.
Second, Milbury decided to get a veteran for the blueline. Out went Eric Brewer, Josh Green, and a second rounder to Edmonton for Roman Hamrlik. Yep. That was the deal.
Third, why have Weekes if DiPietro is going to take the net? Surely, DiPietro is a can’t-miss player. Milbury sent Weekes, a 2001 second rounder, and the rights to Kristian Kudroc to Tampa Bay for Tampa Bay’s first round pick, fourth round pick, and seventh round pick. That Tampa Bay first rounder was Raffi Torres, who would play for a while although not to the level one would expect from a fifth overall pick.
Fourth, oh, you know, Rick DiPietro may need a veteran goalie to support them. Weekes was dealt yesterday, so how about moving a fourth rounder in 2001 for John Vanbiesbrouck? The main tandem in Long Island went from Weekes-Loungo to DiPietro-Vanbiesbrouck in a matter of months. Would this bold decision to essentially go all in on DiPietro pay off? Why did that mean Brewer, Jokinen, and Weekes had to go? I cannot answer the second question.
To the first question, absolutely not! The goaltending group was awful. DiPietro was forced into the NHL way too early, picked up a groin injury (first of many injuries as a pro) in training camp, and made his debut in January - long after the season was lost. He played in 20 games and posted a horrible 87.8% save percentage. With DiPietro unavailable, 37-year old Vanbiesbrouck had to play 44 games. He posted an 89.8%, which was better than Flaherty’s 88.1% in 20 games. When DiPietro returned, Milbury sent Flaherty to Tampa Bay for future considerations and later sent Vanbiesbrouck to New Jersey for Chris Terreri and a pick. Terreri and his non-descript helmet provided the best goaltending for the Isles that season. The Isles gave up 268 goals, one of the highest amounts in the 2000-01 season.
Up front was not any better. Once again, Czerkawksi led the team with 30 goals and 62 points. Scatchard did put up 21 goals, Isbister put up 18, Parrish put up 17, and Connolly did crack 40 points. But it was a deep drop off from Czerkawski to Hamrlik to Scatchard to Connolly and the rest in terms of points. Kvasha did not produce a lot. Neither did 19-year old Taylor Pyatt. Milbury did make minor moves during the season, moving late picks that brought in Jason Blake and Craig Berube. The goalie moves were the most major of the in-season trades. Once again, the team stunk on ice, they won 17 games under Goring for a 17-40-5-3 record. Milbury fired him and thankfully did not go behind the bench himself. Instead, he brought back Lorne Henning, who saw the team out to a 4-11-2 finish for a 52 point season. The Isles would be drafting high yet again. Then the 2021 NHL Draft happened and more Milbury madness ensued.
The top picks for the 2021 NHL Draft was between Ilya Kovalchuk and Jason Spezza. One was a stud winger who can score tons. One was a center that could lead a team for a decade plus. You could not lose with either. Somehow, the Islanders ended up with none of them. Before the draft, Milbury warmed up with sending Biron and a second round pick in 2002 to Tampa Bay for Adrain Aucoin and Alexander Kharitonov. This would work out, actually. Now the draft came. Atlanta took Kovalchuk. But the Islanders, seriously, traded the pick instead of taking Jason Spezza. Worse, the trade was the first round pick that would become Spezza, Zdeno Chara, and Bill Muckalt to Ottawa for Alexei Yashin. Yes, you read that right. Ottawa’s top center and defenseman for most of the 2000s was acquired just like that. Yashin was a good scorer, but moving what would have been a badly needed Spezza and a developing defender in Chara aged badly. Remember that with Wang, Milbury was free to spend? Milbury signed Yashin to a ten season contract worth $87.5 million. A deal that was bought out in 2007. And not by Milbury.
Was Milbury done? No, there were two more young Islanders that he drafted to trade. Right after passing on Spezza with the Yashin deal, Tim Connolly and Taylor Pyatt - the first two picks of the Islanders in 1999 - were sent to Buffalo for the rights to Michael Peca. He too got a deal to stick around. What about the actual picks in the draft? The 52-point team ended up with no picks in the first three rounds and none of the selections from 101st overall onward stuck in the NHL - only Andy Chiodo had a brief eight game spell with Pittsburgh.
The Islanders fans were surely reeling at this point. The team gets a new set of owners with money and Milbury added Chara, Connolly, and Pyatt to the pile of tantalizing players Milbury dumped in deals such as Palffy, Jokinen, Luongo, Brewer, Berard, Dumont, Bertuzzi, Kasparaitis, McCabe, Lukowich, and Straka. Not to mention veterans who were doing well like Reichel, Green, King, . Imagine if Milbury held onto them a little longer. Or, especially with the younger ones, at all! Yes, different moves would have been made, but maybe the team would not be so awful.
Funnily enough, that 2000-01 season would be the end of the drought. Surprising to even me, the Isles improved by 44 points in 2001-02.
It started behind the bench. The new full time head coach would be Peter Laviolette. This was his first head coaching job. It did not take long to show he had the goods for being a bench boss. The Isles defense was tightened up and the offense was able to attack more. Special teams were above league average. The addition of Aucoin led to a new leader on defense, where he, Johnsson, and Hamrlik really at up the minutes. The addition to Radek Martinek, a 1999 drafted prospect, helped solidify the defense. On offense, Yashin was a breath of fresh air to the offense with 32 goals and 75 points. Peca was named captain and provided excellent two-way play plus 25 goals and 60 points. Parrish broke out with a 30 goal and 60 point season. Shawn Bates came out of nowhere for a 52 point season. Czerkawski provided 51 points of his own. Isbister, Kvasha, and Scatchard provided depth scoring instead of being looked at to provide most of it. This all yielded 239 goals, the sixth most in the league.
Believe it or not, DiPietro was kept in Bridgeport for the 2001-02 season. It was acknowledged he was not ready for the NHL. While he was having a fine season in the AHL, the Isles looked to a free agent signing and a waiver draft pick up: Garth Snow and Chris Osgood. The two vets did well behind a revamped defense. Osgood took on the starting position and posted a 91% save percentage over 66 games. Snow played in 25 games and posted a 90%. A big improvement over last season’s debacle in the crease and it led to the Isles not being near the bottom in goals allowed. A positive goal differential, a hot start to the season (11 wins in their first 14), and a strong end led to a 42-28-8-4 record for 96 points. They were a point behind Philadelphia and a point ahead of the Devils for second in the Atlantic. Unfortunately, this meant a first round with Toronto. A series that turned nasty when Darcy Tucker and Gary Roberts essentially took out Peca and Jonsson, respectively, in Game 5. The Isles lost in 7 games, but the drought was over.
The madness was not. With the team back in the postseason and ownership satisfied with the big improvement, Milbury remained the GM. All this time, through ownership changes, budget restrictions, and a myriad of big moves that would have sunk any GM if/when they went awry, Milbury was still at the helm. The Isles would make the playoffs for two more seasons after this one, however the low playoff seeds plus short playoffs made fans wonder what could have been had Milbury kept Luongo, Chara, Berard (or Redden instead), Bertuzzi, and others as they blossomed on different teams and helped them excel to a level the Isles would not reach in the 2000s. Milbury pulled his team out of the worst run of Islanders hockey in franchise history. But at what cost?
Any Other Thoughts: Just because a GM can clean up his own mess does not mean he should. While Milbury ended the drought he inhereted, he arguably made it worse. If it was not for the ownership issues behind the scenes and his actions helping to keep costs low, then he would have been fired much earlier in this drought. Whereas Nashville had a direction and needed time (and some offensive luck) to break through, Milbury kept dealing, dealing, dealing until a solution was found. The end result was not a contender or a team built for the future. The madness slowed down, but it never went away. Such as firing Laviolette after two straight playoff appearances, trading Czerkawski for Aaron Asham in 2002, Isbister and Torres to Edmonton for Janne Niinimaa and picks in 2003, and more. Milbury would resign in 2006 to be replaced by Neil Smith, who was dumped a month into the job and replaced by Garth Snow. Wang was solid with the money and his commitment to the team, but he needed to be smarter with his GM choices. Pickett, the four minority shareholders, and Milstein/Gluckstern arguably did not care. Perhaps that is the bigger lesson.
Of course, being able to spend a lot does not avoid a run of futility. Just look at Manhattan.
The New York Rangers
Also Known As: Our Hated Rivals
Playoff Misses and Proportion: 35 misses out of 95 total seasons; 36.8% missed.
Current Situation: To the disappointment of all of the People Who Matter, Our Hated Rivals had a good season wherein they earned 110 points and the fourth best points percentage earned in franchise history. The team survived Pittsburgh and Carolina before falling to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals. This season ended a four-season playoff drought, which included getting beaten in the Qualifying round in 2020 - leading to their surprising draft lottery win for Alexis Lafreniere.
A Summary of a Notable Drought: The Rangers’ history after 1940 was, well, not good. The team had multiple droughts after World War II, in the 1950s, and parts of the 1960s. Other than three or four awesome seasons in the 1970s, the Rangers were a good but not great team. Of course, this ended in the early 1990s with the Cup win that anyone living in the Tri-State Area has heard about since 1994. Three seasons after that Cup win, the Rangers would begin a seven-season playoff drought - the longest in their team history. Unlike some of the other teams that had long droughts, the Rangers had plenty of cash and stable ownership. They had prestige and even a recent championship. What went wrong? To understand this, we must begin with GM Neil Smith and touch on - ugh - their rise in the early 1990s.
Neil Smith was brought into the Rangers organization in 1989 as their GM, which included future stars in Brian Leetch and Mike Richter. Tony Amonte from the 1988 draft would grow under Smith and the 1989, 1990, and 1991 draft classes yielded players who would play for quite a while in the NHL such as Rob Zamuner, Aaron Miller, Louis DeBrusk, Jim Cummins, Doug Weight, Sergei Zubov, Sergei Nemchinov, and Alexei Kovalev. Picking up Mike Gartner from Minnesota for Ulf Dahlen and a fourth rounder in 1990 was shrewd.
The big deal would come in October 1991 when Smith swung a big trade that brought Mark Messier to Manhattan. Specifically, Bernie Nicholls, DeBrusk, Steven Rice, and future considerations for Messier and future considerations that became Jeff Beukeboom. Messier was immediately named captain and it kicked off a trend that Smith would later follow: acquiring veterans with success - especially from Edmonton. Save for 1992-93, the team was a leader in the Atlantic Division but could not get past the second round.
Over the next few seasons, the group that would form the (in)famous 1993-94 Rangers came together. Adam Graves, formerly of Edmonton, was signed as a free agent in 1991. Tie Domi and Kris King were sent to Winnipeg for Ed Olczyk, a veteran from the 1980s Blackhawks in 1992. Roman Oksiuta and a third rounder were sent to Edmonton for Kevin “I think I know a little something about winning” Lowe. As Richter took over the net, Vanbiesbrouck was sent to Vancouver. The backup became Glenn Healy, a veteran, who was acquired from Tampa Bay for a third rounder. A young Doug Weight was traded to Edmonton for Esa Tikkanen in March 1993. To replace Ron Smith and Roger Neilson from 1992-93, Mike Keenan was signed to be the head coach for 1993-94.
During that fateful season where Richter was a stud, Zubov, Messier, and Leetch were point machines, Graves put up 52 goals, and Kovalev dropped 23 goals and 56 points at age 20, Smith kept dealing. Early in the season, he sent James Patrick and Darren Turcotte to Hartford for Steve Larmer, Nick Kypreos, Barry Richter, and sixth rounder. By the trade deadline, Smith’s moves became bolder. Amonte, who was developed in the Rangers system, did not have a particularly productive season. He was sent to Chicago for (sigh) Stephane Matteau and Brian Noonan. Mike Gartner, who was acquired for relatively little and put up three straight 40-goal seasons, just had the 28 goals in 1993-94. Smith sent Gartner to Toronto for another ex-Oiler in Glenn Anderson (and a fourth and the rights to Scott Malone). Todd Marchant was a seventh-round selection in 1993 who was showing real promise. He was moved to Edmonton for the helmetless Craig MacTavish. You know what happened in 1994, but the larger point is that Neil Smith became a fan of moving younger/struggling players for established veterans.
The 1994 offseason had its own issues with Mike Keenan walking out on the Rangers. Or the Rangers breached his deal, if you believe Keenan. “Iron Mike” was a very controlling head coach and feuded with Smith all season. When he left to go be the head coach and GM in St. Louis, I would imagine the front office breathed a sigh of relief. Smith hired Colin Campbell, the team’s associate coach for three seasons, to be the new head coach. Other than moving Doug Lidster and Esa Tikkanen for Petr Nedved, the 1994-95 team was mostly the same. Smith would add Pat Verbeek in season, getting him from Hartford in exchange for Glen Featherstone, Michael Steward, a 1995 first rounder that became J-S Giguere, and a fourth rounder in 1996. Even with the addition of Verbeek, the team was not as good and the team barely made the playoffs by a point. They did beat Quebec and Smith decided to go a bit bigger in the offseason.
After drafting, well, only Marc Savard developed out of the 1995 draft class, Smith was more active. He signed Bruce Driver and Ray Ferraro out of free agency. Smith made another big deal for a 1980s star: Luc Robitaille. Smith sent Nedved and top defenseman Zubov to Pittsburgh for Robitaille and Ulf Samuelsson. Richter had a good season and the team performed well in 1995-96. Matteau was sent to St. Louis for Ian Laperriere - which would become part of another big trade by Smith near the deadline. In March 1996, Ray Ferraro, Laperriere, Mattias Norstrom (the best player from the Rangers’ 1992 draft class), Nathan Lafayette, and a fourth rounder in 1997 were sent to Los Angeles for Jari Kurri, Marty McSorely, and Shane Churla. The Rangers earned 96 points in the season and got eliminated in the second round. After a 1996 draft where the Rangers took no one who would become anyone of note, the offseason began again. The Kurri deal ended up being a rental; he signed with Anaheim. Verbeek would leave and sign with Dallas. Lowe would go back to Edmonton to finish out his career as a player before going into (sigh) management. No matter, Smith had a bigger prize: The Great One.
You see, Wayne Gretzky was traded to St. Louis in 1996. Keenan and his difficult ways did not get on with Gretzky. Rather than stay as a Blue, he signed with the Rangers. The opportunity to play again with Messier and a bunch of other vets didn’t hurt either. Gretzky was stupendous (97 points at age 36), the offense and goaltending were top-ten but the team earned just 86 points for the final playoff spot in the Atlantic. The 1997 deadline deal was more muted; just sending Sergei Nemchinov and Noonan to Vancouver for Russ Courtnall and Esa Tikkanen. The Rangers made a run to the ECFs but lost there. In the 1997 offseason, Smith figured it was time to move on from Robitaille so he traded him to Los Angeles straight-up for Kevin Stevens. Before the season, Pat LaFontaine became available from Buffalo. Smith traded a 1998 second rounder and future considerations for the ex-Islander and Sabre scoring machine. Alas, the 1997 offseason featured a draft class whose best players would be Mike York and Mike Mottau; and saw a departure of Glenn Healy to Toronto and, more importantly, Mark Messier, who would sign with Vancouver in free agency - much to the eventual disappointment of both sides. Smith made a big play for Joe Sakic, who would have been a fantastic replacement for Messier. However, thanks in part to the movie Air Force One, Colorado had the money to match the offer sheet to keep Sakic in Denver. This led to the LaFontaine trade.
Now, you may have picked up on the fact that the Rangers did keep some of their 1994 core in Leetch, Richter, Graves, and Kovalev. You may have also picked up on the fact that the Rangers moved a lot of players to bring in those established talents. For the most part, those older players did quite well. Messier, Gretzky, Verbeek after that first season, Larmer, and so forth contributed quite a bit. Unfortunately, Father Time would eventually win, some of those older players would move on, and the replacements would not always be so good. Especially as those weaker draft classes would catch up with New York. Now, we can begin a joyful walkthrough of the worst stretch in Rangers history, starting with the 1997-98 season.
Gretzky was still very much Great as he put up 23 goals and 90 points in 82 games. LaFontaine put up 23 goals and 62 points. Leetch was still a 50+ point player, Kovalev rebounded from an injury-shortened 1996-97 season, and Niklas Sundstrom - the first round pick in 1993 - seemingly looked like a contributor with 19 goals and 47 points. However, the decline was showing elsewhere. Graves put up 23 goals and just 35 points. Kevin Stevens put up 41 points, which is not bad but far from Robitaille showed. Dan Cloutier, the team’s top pick in 1994, would back up Richter - who was now 31 and posted a not-so-hot 90.3% save percentage in 72 games. The Rangers fell below league median in goals and goals against. Campbell was fired when the team was 17-24-16 and ex-Oilers coach John Muckler oversaw a 8-15-2 finish to the season. The Rangers finished with 68 points and missed the playoffs by 15 points. Surely, the 1998 draft would help sooth the sting of a bad season, right? The Rangers did draft Manny Malhotra at seventh overall along with Jason Labarbera and Tomas Kloucek.
The 1998 offseason saw Smith keep Muckler on as the head coach. He went out and got some more help. Tikkanen was brought back for a third time. John MacLean was signed after New Jersey moved him to San Jose in the 1997-98 season. Before the season started, Smith swung two 2000 picks to Detroit for Mike Knuble. Shortly after the season started, Alexander Karpovtsev and a 1994 fourth rounder was sent to Toronto for Mathieu Schneider. Unfortunately, the team would be without LaFontaine; he retired in October and there would be no real replacement for him. A bigger deal was made in November: Kovalev was sent away. Smith traded Alexei Kovalev, Harry York, and future considerations to Pittsburgh for Nedved (he’s back!), Sean Pronger, and Chris Tamer. By the trade deadline, Ulf Samuelsson was moved for 1999 second rounder and the 2000 third rounder New York traded to Detroit for Knuble. Would this yield a better season?
Yes, but still not near the playoffs. Richter rebounded with a 91% save percentage in 68 games played, and the younger Cloutier was a solid backup with a 91.4%. This helped the goals against a little bit. The offense did get a boost in Gretzky’s last season as he put up 62 points; MacLean put up 28 goals and 55 points; Graves rebounded for 38 goals; Nedved would put up 20 goals and 47 points in 57 games. Stevens, Sundrstrom, and Knuble would chip in. Marc Savard played his first full season and put up 45 points. Malhotra made the roster right out of junior and would, well, not add much despite his vaunted offensive skills when drafted. The Rangers did improve to 77 points, which still meant a double-digit miss of the playoffs. Smith had more work to do to improve the team. Especially as Gretzky retired after this season. What he did, well, did not really improve the team.
At the 1999 NHL Draft, Smith decided to make waves. First, he sent Savard and the Rangers’ first round pick to Calgary for their first round pick to move up two spots, Calgary’s third round pick, and the rights to Jan Hlavac. That first round pick was used on Jamie Lundmark. The third would be moved back to Calgary, which would be used on Craig Anderson. Lundmark never became much of anything in the NHL, but he at least was given over 200 games of a chance. That is much more than the other first Smith picked up. Smith sent Cloutier, Sundstrom, a 2000 first rounder (would be used on Nikita Alexeev), and a 2000 third rounder (the one re-acquired in the Samuelsson deal) to Tampa Bay for their first round pick at fourth overall. That pick would be used on Pavel Brendl, who absolutely did not turn out well. Free agency saw more veterans come in: Calgary scoring winger Theo Fleury, forward Valeri Kamensky, defenseman Sylvain Lefebvre, defenseman Stephane Quintal, and goaltender Kirk McLean. Smith sent Peter Popovic to Pittsburgh for Kevin Hatcher. He even took a flier on Alexandre Daigle, which cost all of future considerations sent to Tampa Bay. These players would play a role on a Rangers team that should be and sort of was getting younger with Jan Hlavac (he was signed), Mike York, Kim Johnsson, and others.
The 1999-2000 season did feature positive developments on the youth front. Hlavac put up 42 points in his first season. Mike York cracked 26 goals and 50 points in his first season too (he finished third for the Calder). Johnsson cracked the blueline and played a regular role. Smith even brought in a young Radek Dvorak before the new year; a result of sending Todd Harvey and a fourth rounder in 2001. He put up 33 points in 46 games. While Fleury put up 64 points, Nedved was still the team’s top scorer, and Schneider played a long behind Leetch - who only played in 50 games - the returns kept diminshing. MacLean dropped to 42 points; Graves fell back to 23 goals and 40 points; and Knuble dropped off further, leading to moving him to Boston for Rob DiMaio of all players. Worse, Richter was still the starter with a 90.5% save percentage in 61 games. McLean posted an 89.6% in 22 games, so he did not challenge his peer. The Rangers’s peak was in January where they went 10-4-1-0 and looked like they could get back in the playoff race. They then won seven games for the rest of the season, ending with Muckler getting fired with four games left and John Tortorella (!) serving as the interim for four winless games. The Rangers entered 2000 with a 29-38-12-3 record for 73 points and again well outside of the playoffs.
The 1999-2000 season would be it for Neil Smith. The architect of the team that provided its greatest season in this modern era ended with the team missing the playoffs three straight seasons. His penchant for getting veterans helped in the short term but it did not lead to long-term success or improvements. Especially at the cost of sending the drafted players that did turn out to be good, longtime NHLers for those vets. Oddly, he never sought to improve on Richter. Leetch was still the boss on defense and proved his worth; but Richter was declining as a goalie as he entered his 30s. Now, he was an unreliable goaltender behind a team that needed a new direction. Ownership decided to pull a Smith and ask themselves, Who from Edmonton’s past is available? The answer: the architect of those Edmonton dynasty seasons, Glen Sather.
Sather was given the job ahead of the 2000-01 season. He named former Oiler Ron Low as head coach. At the 2000 draft, Sather and his staff would draft two players for the Rangers future: Dominic Moore and a big reason for the drought ending, Henrik Lundqvist. Neither would make a real impact until after the lockout in 2005-06. In the meantime, Sather brought back another Oiler and Ranger favorite: Mark Messier. The 39 year old was happy to return after three lackluster seasons in Vancouver. Sather was surprisingly inactive with the roster. There were not many other free agent moves of note other than Vladimir Malakhov - but he only played in 3 games in 2000-01 due to injury. Trades were akin to minor deals like sending DiMaio and Darren Langton to Carolina for Sandy McCarthy and a fourth rounder. How would the team do with a different coach plus Messier?
Under Low, the offense flourished. Leetch had a 79-point season, his highest scoring season since his Norris-winning 1996-97 campaign. Nedved, Fleury, and Dvorak each scored at least 30 goals and 67 points. Messier put up 67 points as he turned 40. Hlavac put up 28 goals an 64 points. After him the scoring dropped; York only provided 31 points, Graves put up 10 goals and 26 points; Malhotra was still struggling with theNHL game; and McCarthy added all of 11 goals and 21 points. The offense put up 250 goals. The problem: defense. The Rangers let up a lot of shots and the goaltenders absolutely struggled. Richter and McLean put up 89.3% and 88.9% save percentages respectively. Waiver wire pick up Guy Hebert, in what would be his last NHL season, managed to out-do both with an 89.7% in 13 games. Spot appearances by Johan Holmqvuist and Vitali Yeremeyev were awful. The Rangers gave up 290 goals, the most in the NHL. Still, the team finished with a 33-45-5-1 record for 72 points. Not good, not the worst (See the Islanders), and it gave Sather an idea of what he felt he needed to do.
At the 2001 NHL Draft, Sather finally cut the cord for one of the remaining heroes of the 1994 season: Adam Graves. He (and future considerations) was sent to San Jose for Mikael Samuelsson and Christian Gosselin. At the draft itself, the Rangers picked a goalie at tenth overall: Dan Blackburn. A possible heir to Richter. They also drafted Fedor Tyutin, Marek Zidlicky, and Ryan Hollweg. In the offseason, free agency’s biggest “get” was a pre-season signing of post-eye injury Bryan Berard. More importantly, Sather swung his first major trade. And it was to Philadelphia of all teams. Eric Lindros was unhappy with how he was treated as a Flyer. So the Rangers sent Pavel Brendl, Hlavac, Kim Johnsson, and a third in 2003 for Lindros’ rights. Lindros would end up being a fine fit for New York and lead the team in scoring in 2001-02 with 37 goals, 73 points, and 72 games played.
Lindros, a healthy Malakhov, and how the team started the season were the highpoints of 2001-02. Problems emerged elsewhere. Fleury put up 63 points but his behavior was getting to be an issue as he racked up 216 penalty minutes. Nedved’s production dropped to just 21 goals and 46 points. Dvorak too fell to 17 goals and 37 points. Messier fell even harder in his 41-year old season with just 41 games played and 23 points. Malhotra was not developing as they would like. Dan Blackburn made the team and backed up Richter right away - and had to start when Richter missed time due to injury. The 35-year old Richter did post a 90.6% in 55 games, but Blackburn fell below 90% in 31 games. Combined with a defense that allowed over 2,600 shots, the Rangers were among the worst in giving up goals again.
As the team struggled into the second half of the 2001-02 season, Sather started to make more changes. Prior to the new year, he sent Zdeno Ciger to Tampa Bay for Matthew Barnaby. In March, big moves were made. First, he gave up on Malhotra, sending him and Barret Heisten to Dallas for veteran Martin Rucinsky and Roman Lyashenko. Second, he decided he needed another big-name veteran forward for offense. Pavel Bure was available. Sather sent Filip Novak, Igor Ulanov, the 2002 first and second round picks, and a fourth in 2003 to Florida for Bure and a 2002 second round pick. Third, Mike York - who was having a good season, too - was sent with a fourth rounder in 2002 to Edmonton for Tom Poti and Rem Murray. The season ended with a crash in the second half for a 36-38-44- record of 80 points. Sather fired Ron Low. It was time for more changes.
At the 2002 draft, the Rangers moved their first and second picks, so they did not have much to do until the second day of the draft. They would pick Petr Prucha in the eighth round, so there was that. However, the draft was also where Sather cut things off with Fleury. Rather than try to retain him, he sent his rights to San Jose amid a swap of sixth round picks. Sather tried to do the same with Mike Richter, sending his signing rights to Edmonton for a fourth rounder in 2003. However, Richter did not sign in Edmonton and re-signed with New York. Top Hartford scorer, Derek Armstrong, would be sent to Los Angeles for a conditional sixth rounder (and he would breakout in LA). In free agency, Sather made the infamous decision to give Bobby Holik $45 million over five seasons. It was thought that he could elevate the center position taken up by Lindros, Nedved, and Messier. Sather also made the not-as infamous decision to hire former Colorado assistant coach and Islanders legend Bryan Trottier as head coach.
The 2002-03 Rangers were a team that suffered with some real misfortune. Bure missed part of the season with strep throat and suffered a significant knee injury in-season that would end up ending his career. He played in just 39 games for 19 goals and 30 points. Richter only played in 13 games and was knocked out of the last one due to an accidental knee to the head. That would also end his career. It would also lead to Blackburn having to play more than he perhaps should have (32 games, 89% save percentage) and a deal that would bring in a goalie. While Nedved saw a rise in goals and points with 27 and 58, Lindros fell to 19 goals and 53 points. While Poti put up 48 points from the blueline, Leetch was kept to 51 games and 30 points and Malakhov provided just 17. While Messier played a full season for 40 points, Dvorak struggled to score at all with just 6 goals and 27 points in 63 games with New York. Oh, and the $9 Million Man Named Holik scored just 16 goals and 35 points in his first season. All while this was happening, Sather was continuing to shape the roster through transactions.
The injury to Richter and subsequent workload to Blackburn forced Sather to get a goalie. He found a willing partner in Nashville, who wanted to move Mike Dunham. Sather sent Tomas Kloucek, Rem Murray, and the rights to Marek Zidlicky to Nashville for Dunham. Dunham would be an upgrade in net with a 92.4% save percentage in 43 games. He provided a welcome improvement that the Rangers needed for years over an aging Richter. More moves would be made as the team struggled under Trottier. Mottau was sent to Calgary for a late pick. Boris Mironov was acquired for a fourth in 2004. To help the scoring, Sather brought back Alexei Kovalev. It took an eight-player deal where Mikael Samuelsson, Rico Fata, Joel Bouchard, and Richard Lintner were sent to a then-hapless Pittsburgh team for Kovalev, Dan LaCouture, Michael Wilson, and Janne Laukkanen. Kovalev would provided 10 goals and 13 points in 24 games. By the trade deadline, the Rangers moved the struggling Dvorak and Cory Cross to Edmonton for Anson Carter and Ales Pisa. Carter provided just a goal and five points. The one other major move of the season involved Sather himself. He fired Trottier and took over as head coach for the final 28 games of the season. The team went 11-10-4-3 under Sather to finish at 32-36-10-4 for 78 points. If only Richter and Bure did not suffer career ending injuries, Lindros and others did not hit a slump, and if only the team won a month for a change. They missed the playoffs by five points but it felt much, much further.
Sather made the decision to stay on as head coach for the 2003-04 season. It would be a season of change, though. Mike Richter would retire before the season. Dan Blackburn would suffer a career-shortening shoulder injury that damaged his nerve to the point where he had to use two blockers in an attempted comeback in the future (it would not work). Leetch’s signing rights were sent to Edmonton for Jussi Markkanen and a 2004 fourth rounder. Leetch would sign with the Rangers. Messier’s signing rights were sent to San Jose for what would become a fourth round pick in 2004 (Ryan Callahan, in fact). Messier would also sign with the Rangers. The team signed Greg de Vries, Chris Simon, Jan Hlavac, and Martin Rucinsky. Ales Pisa signed in Russia and McCarthy signed elsewhere. (Aside: The less said about the 2003 draft for New York, the better.)
The 2003-04 Rangers struggled out the gate. They were not bad, but they were not making any traction towards a winning season. It all fell apart with a 4-10-2-1 January. A month where Sather realized the team needed a major change. Goaltending was not great. Dunham would finish the season with an 89.6% save percentage over 57 games, with Jussi Markkanen outperforming him in 26 games with a 91.3%. The defense was not so bad, but Poti took a big step back in production and Leetch’s 36 points would lead the blueline - a far cry from when he was a consistent 50+ point producer. The offense struggled as Bobby Holik would be the only Ranger to score more than 25 goals and Messier finished second in team scoring with 43 points. Lindros could have topped both but injuries limited him to 30 points in 39 games. You could call it a rebuild, but you will not if you know how this story ends.
The most important trade for that ending took place in January. Anson Carter was not having that great of a season with 10 goals and 17 points in 43 games. Down in Washington D.C., legendary winger Jaromir Jagr “only” had 45 points in 46 games. The Capitals swung a big deal for the guy who put up at least 95 points per season since 1992-93 (1995 excepted) but he “only” put up 79 and 77 in his first two seasons with the Caps. Washington wanted to move on from Jagr. So they, somehow, someway, for some reason accepted Anson Carter for Jagr. Straight up. One for one. A deal that makes Larsson for Hall look even. Jaromir Jagr would go on to put up 15 goals and 29 points in New York. And much, much more to come.
Sather really cut bait with the roster in a week of deals prior to the 2004 trade deadline. March 2 saw Kovalev being sent to Montreal for Josef Balej and a 2004 second rounder. March 3 featured Nedved and Markkanen (yes, the better goalie that season) going to Edmonton for Stephen Valiquette, Dwight Helminen, and a second rounder in 2004. It also featured Leetch being sent to Toronto with a conditional pick for a first in 2004, a second in 2005, Jarkko Immonen, and Maxim Kondratiev. On March 6, Simon was sent to Calgary with a seventh rounder for Blair Betts, Jamie Mclennan, and Greg Moore. On March 8, Matthew Barnaby and a third was sent to Colorado for Chris McAllister, a second round pick in 2004 (so many seconds!), and David Liffiton’s rights. Also, Malakhov was sent to the Flyers for Rick Kozak and a 2005 second round pick. On March 9, Greg de Vries was sent to Ottawa for Alexandre Giroux and Karel Rachunek; Martin Rucinsky was sent to Vancouver for R.J. Umberger, and Martin Grenier; and Jeff Paul and Paul Healey were swapped in a deal with Florida. This was a series of trades that screamed, “We’re tearing it down and building it up.” Only problem was: What was there to build? There was Holik, Poti, Jagr, Dunham, and uh, guys. Fedor Tyutin would at least make the roster and Jamie Lundmark got the first of a few chances to perform. Dominic Moore made a cameo of five games too. But the pickings were a bit slim with so many past prospects - regardless of how they turned out - gone in past moves.
That would be Sather the GM’s problem. Sather did make the decision in February to step away from the bench. As the Rangers were on the cusp of cratering, Sather left when the team was 22-29-7-4. He named assistant coach Tom Renney as the head coach. The Rangers finished with a 5-11-0-4 record under Renney for a season total of a not-nice 69 points. They finished with the third worst record in the East, only ahead of a truly awful Penguins and Capitals team.
It appeared a the team would go all-in on a rebuild in the 2004 offseason. At the draft, the only moves were made for picks moved around. They traded up to nineteenth overall with Calgary to join their sixth overall pick. A swap of second rounders would be acquired that would end up yielding Brandon Dubinsky - the best of a draft class that yielded Callahan in the fourth round, Lauri Korpikoski at 19th overall, and goaltender Al Montoya at sixth overall. Free agency saw Sather sign Michael Nylander and Kevin Weekes. Plenty of expired contracts were let go: Bure, Lindros, McCarthy, Messier, and Mironov. Hlavac signed in the Czech Republic and McLennan signed with Florida. Of course, the real story of the 2004 offseason was the pending CBA expiration.
The argument became about needing to implement some kind of salary cap or luxury tax or something to level the playing field between big market and small market teams. While the Rangers have fallen off a cliff in the past seven seasons, all of those big name acquisitions by Smith and Sather came with hefty price tags. Holik’s contract was a bright example of how the Rangers could just out-bid anyone. Of course, those arguing against such restrictions would point out how bad the Rangers were in light of, say, a Minnesota team being competitive for far less money. Those in favor pointed out how the Rangers could keep signing and adding players priced out of smaller teams and eventually figure out how to build a roster. Ultimately, this argument killed the 2004-05 season. As we know now, the salary cap supporters won. With those big name contracts mostly off the books combined with the moves made by the end of 2003-04, it appeared the Rangers would rebuild.
SIKE. There would be no rebuild. Sather moved with the quickness when the offseason properly began in 2005. At the draft, he traded a first and a second to Atlanta to move up to twelfth overall, taking Marc Staal. Before August 2, a compliance buyout was used on Holik to free the Rangers from that $9 million hit. When free agency began, Martin Straka and Marek Malik signed. Martin Rucinsky was brought back, as was Ville Nieminen, Jason Ward, Darius Kasparaitis and Michal Rozsival. Trevor Gilles was flipped to Anaheim for Steve Rucchin in a more minor offseason trade. New deals were given to Poti and Weekes with entry level deals given to Montoya, Prucha, Jessiman, and most of all that 2000 goaltender pick Henrik Lundqvist. The goaltending position was open with Dunham, Valiquette, and LaBarbera moving on.
The 2005-06 season was a massive comeback season for the Rangers. Yet, only two under-25 players really played a major role in that comeback season. The first was Petr Prucha. He came over and dropped 30 goals and 47 points in 68 games. It would be his most productive season in the NHL and it was a standout. The second was, of course, Lundqvist. The Rangers’ goaltending position was out of sorts as Smith and Sather held onto Richter for too long. Lundqvist finished five seasons in Sweden and jumped right into the NHL to play extremely well. He posted a 92.2% save percentage in 53 games, easily besting Weekes’ sub-90% as a backup, and finished third in Vezina voting, fourth in Calder voting, ninth in Hart voting, and made the All Rookie team. Lundqvist was a big reason why the Rangers finished the season with just 211 goals allowed. Renney’s systems also helped the team give up fewer shots than league average; another plus in the back end.
However, for all of the touting of a younger team, the team was still led by veteran skaters! In terms of scoring, the next “home grown” player after Prucha in terms of points was Fedory Tyutin’s 25 points in 77 games. The team attack featued Nylander and Straka dropping 70+ point seasons in their 33-year old season. Rucinsky put up 55 points in 52 games. Rucchin added 36 points in his 34-year old season. Midway through the season, Sather sent Maxim Kondratiev to Anaheim for a fourth rounder and Petr Sykora. The ex-Devil winger put up 16 goals and 31 points in 40 games. While not as old, Roszival led the blue line in averagee ice time followed by Poti, Tyutin, and 30-year old Marek Malik. Only Tyutin was developed by the Rangers and under the age of 25. When the deadline approached, Sather sent Nieminen (who just put up 17 points in 48 games) to San Jose for a third round pick that was sent to Anaheim a day later for Sandis Ozolinsh - another veteran defender. This was a team led by older players.
And the leader was Jagr. I have no idea what happened in Kladno during the lockout. Whatever it was, it rejuvenated Jagr to his Pittsburgh days. In his 33-year old season, Jagr absolutely torched the NHL with 54 goals and 69 assists for 123 points. This smashed the franchise record of 109 points by Jean Ratelle set in the 1972-73 season. He took over 360 shots. He put up 24 goals and 28 assists on the power play, taking full advantage of a NHL that really meant calling obstruction leading to more power plays than usual. Jagr finished just behind Jonathan Cheechoo for the Rocket Richard and Joe Thornton for the Art Ross. He also finished second to Thornton for the Hart Trophy; Jagr would win the Pearson and be named to the NHL’s First All-Star team. I cannot stress enough how crucial Jagr was for the Rangers. As surprisingly good Straka, Nylander, and Rucinsky were, Jagr was just on another level. He scored 54 of the Rangers’ 250 goals, for goodness’ sake.
Between Jagr leading a 30+ core to put the Rangers near a top ten scoring finish and Lundqvist and the defense locking things down, Renney’s Rangers squad finished with a 44-26-12 record for 100 points. If there was any concern, then it was in finishing the season with a record of 8-11-4 in the final two months of the season. Still, the drought was not only over, but the Rangers returned to being competitive instead of an underachiving, overspending team that necessitated a salary cap to be put in the league.
All it took was for Sather to find the right group of veterans, get lucky with Lundqvist being picked and coming over eventually, not moving all of the young guys, and finally moving on from the Rangers that made the early 1990s great under Neil Smith. Rebuild? Ha. I laugh at this idea that the Rangers rebuilt this team. I laugh at the suggestion. The playoff appearances would return for another three seasons after this one in 2005-06.
Speaking of playoffs, how was 2006 for New York? Fortunately for the People Who Matter, the New Jersey Devils were hotter than an inferno going into the playoffs. They absolutely scorched the Rangers. They outscored them by a combined 17-4 in a four-game sweep. The glorious victory was led by the EGG-cellent line of Patrik Elias (11 points in 4 games!!!!!), Scott Gomez, and Brian Gionta; featuring great contributions from Jamie Langenbrunner, Brian Rafalski, Paul Martin, and, naturally, Martin Brodeur.
Any Other Thoughts: The Rangers’ most recent “rebuild” did not last long thanks to management seeking out free agents and deals to improve the team sooner rather than later. The Rangers got out of this seven-season slump by Sather just signing/acquiring the right group of veterans, getting the right coach in Renney, and getting really lucky that Lundqvist was A) drafted at all and B) willing to sign after the lockout. They were mired in it in part of Smith and Sather getting big names, most of whom actually were still good, but suffering from moving the few good players drafted in that time period and not drafting and developing enough of them. They were still stuck on their ways of how the 1993-94 team was built and between time and fortune, it just ran out. I suppose the larger lesson is that you can build a team from free agency and trades to success. The issue I have with that is that Smith and Sather did that in the previously and missed the playoffs seven times since 1994.
I still do not get how so many moves were made but Richter was seen as untouchable until injuries knocked him out of hockey. Leetch was still a stud, so he deserved to be untouchable until 2004. But sticking with Richter among all of the chaos in the roster and big dollars spent really hindered any sustained progress. Under Smith is one thing; he did win a Cup with him. Under Sather, I do not know. Another lesson there: Don’t stick too hard to team/Cup heroes if they are not performing well.
Your Take So Far
This was another super-long post because the two New York team droughts alone were so long that it required full context. The Islanders suffered in part due to ownership issues, internal budget constraints, and a GM way too trigger-happy on a deal. The Rangers kept getting the names, not getting enough substance, suffering in their system, and did not pull out of it until the Cap Era began with, of all things, a top-4 scorers all 33 and over led by Jagr’s last spectacular season. If nothing else, appreciate the details that went into the failures of the two New York teams and contrast them with the other three teams in this post.
The next part will cover the other hated rivals of the Devils: Philadelphia. You will be surprised at the drought covered there. Ottawa has no shortage of pain to look at. Pittsburgh had an extensively bad run with ownership issues and a real threat of leaving Pittsburgh altogether. San Jose and St. Louis, funnily enough, do not have long droughts in their histories.
In the meantime, what have you learned from this look back at the playoff droughts for the Wild, Canadiens, Predators, Islanders, and Our Hated Rivals? What did you takeaway about those various situations in terms of how they got there and how they did (or did not) get out of them? Did I miss any important details about each of these team’s droughts that have significantly contributed to their struggle or how it ended? If so, what were they? Are you looking forward to Part 5? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about these playoff droughts in the comments. Thank you for reading.