Best in Class: The New York Islanders Dynasty

In the interests of a ration of ducats for the humble blogger, I was asked to discuss a team in history that "exhibited exceptional class."

There's an obvious answer here, so I tried to think of obscure ones -- this year's Islanders, who stood up for themselves when officials and the special rulebook for last-place teams would not, came to mind. But frankly there has been no classier NHL team in my lifetime than the dynastic Islanders and the "core of four" who participated in all four Islanders Stanley Cup wins and a record 19 consecutive playoff series wins from 1980-84.

Why so classy, my brother? Let me count the ways.

First, let's consider context. While in terms of talent there is simply no comparison between the 2010-11 and dynasty era Islanders, they are similar in one significant way: Bigger, badder teams abused them and took liberties until the growing Isles fought back by practicing the NHL's ever-present but taboo darker arts. (It's funny how winning teams rough you up and act like it's just part of being a champ, yet when the tables are turned they react like it's a crime against humanity.)

Just as teams like the Flyers and Penguins routinely had their physical and "hey, that's hockey" way with the Isles in recent years, the up-and-coming Islanders of the late '70s faced repeated bullying from the established and notoriously bloody Flyers and Bruins.

Yet as older fans will tell you, bit by bit the Islanders fought back -- Clark Gillies going multiple rounds with Terry O'Reilly being a notable example -- carving out their own space and enabling the talent assembled by Bill Torrey and Al Arbour to shine.

[Video] Dynasty Islanders discuss turning the corner

The prime players? There were many.

 

The Generals

Bill Torrey: The "Architect," Torrey knew the secret to rebuilds before rebuilds were cool. Rather than burn his expansion draft picks on marginal NHL players the way so many expansion teams did for the Montreal Canadiens, Torrey held on tight, with patience. The Canadiens tried to get the Denis Potvin pick (1st overall, 1973) out of his hands, the way they got the Guy Lafleur pick out of Oakland's hands a few years before. Torrey wouldn't budge.

Al Arbour: "Radar" -- a nickname that followed the bespectacled Arbour since his playing days -- was that rare coach who is both feared and beloved by his players. With veterans and rookies, he struck the right balance. He handled the tricky but rewarding task of shepherding along young thoroughbreds like Potvin well enough and long enough so that he was still around to see the fruits of his labor.

Arbour's St. Louis coach and mentor Scotty Bowman warned him when he was offered the Islanders job: "You take that job, you'll be losing for 10 years." Instead, 10 years later he was winning his fourth Cup while Bowman came up short in Buffalo. The era in which Arbour coached is of a kind we'll never see again. But every conversation of the greatest coaches in NHL history includes Arbour.

Jimmy D: So Torrey set the philosophy and selected Arbour as his field general. But who would help them acquire some of the best talent of all time? A big chunk of credit goes to Jimmy Develano and his scouting staff, who kept the pipeline well supplied. Jimmy D took stories and lessons from the Isles when he left to run his own gig in Detroit, where the Red Wings have done okay since his arrival.

[Video] Arbour interview on HNIC

 

The Officers

You know how this list goes, but any time it's put together it still awes:

Bryan Trottier: Driven, talented, possessing great hands and vision, and -- perhaps as important -- two-way acumen at a time when few realized how important that was.

Mike Bossy: A pure sniper, Bossy took the league by storm like no other sniper ever has. He scored 50+ goals in each of his first nine seasons (averaging 59.4 per year), then in season 10 when a career-ending back injury limited him to 63 games and "just" 38 goals, that was a wrap. He came, he saw, he scored. A lot.

Denis Potvin: Smooth skater, devastating hitter, incisive passer, good shooter, he outscored Bobby Orr. So, pretty good then?

Billy Smith: Let's see, they had franchise players at center, wing and D, what's left? "Clutch" is in the eye of the beholder, but there was something about Battlin' Billy come playoff time. Goaltending is hard to separate from the tea in front of him, but Smith's stats adjusted for that era stand up well to history. So do all those rings.

Clark Gillies: The first captain before Potvin, the man who had both talent and the courage and strength to tell O'Reilly to go get your shinebox, Gillies defined the power forward positions, which is why he's in the Hall of Fame. When stat-oriented second-guessers of the future re-evaluate HOF selections the way they do to old baseball selections, Gillies will be a target and that sequence will betray why sometimes -- no, really -- you had to be there.

Those are the Hall of Famers...

 

The Infantry

Bob Nystrom: The only non-HOF Islander with his number in the rafters, he is Mr. Islander for how long he was there, how well he did, the big goals he scored, and the aggressors he took on, wild blond mane flowing every which way. Plus, that voice is like the Barry White of hockey.

Butch Goring: The "final piece," the man whom every trade deadline retrospective now conjures, the guy with the funny helmet and the legendary wardrobe.

Ken Morrow: Underrated and softer spoken in the shadow of Potvin, Morrow's defensive positioning, smart use of size, and ability to fight through multiple knee injuries made him an essential part of the Dynasty. As with several of the above, he still plays a role in the organization today -- a key one on the hockey ops side.

John Tonelli: Scrappy and relentless, there would be no dynasty if not for Tonelli's heroics in the tying and winning goals in the winner-take-all Game 5 vs. the Penguins in 1982. After he moved on, I was always sorry to see him fall just short of further Cups as a veteran with the Flames and Kings.

Bob Bourne: The speedster who scored 15 shorthanded goals between 1980 and 1984. The Austrian Gremlin has a different game from Bourne's but still...when Michael Grabner goes on a rush you see things.

Lorne Henning, Anders Kallur (today's Islanders European scout), Gord Lane, Dave Langevin, Wayne Merrick, Stefan Persson, Duane Sutter -- these guys round out the celebrated "core of the four" who played on all four Cup teams, and of course there were many more who had big parts in some of those Cups.

*  *  *

If you're a younger fan, it probably gets old hearing old-timers wax nostalgic about these guys -- and certainly the organization around the turn of the millennium were guilty of going to this nostalgia well too often. But at least you can understand why they are dear to fans' hearts.

I was just a tyke for those days; it took years of reading and looking back to fully understand what my dad had me watching. No team has won as many as three consecutive Cups since, and no team will ever match those 19 consecutive playoff series wins. If the sponsor's topic of choice is "class" and "brotherhood," from the GM's office to the fourth line, I can think of no better example.

[Video] Great Islanders Goals: 1972-88

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