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The Lost Milbury Files: Bryan Berard

In the last installment of the Lost Milbury Files we went over the case of J.P. Dumont which started when the Islanders were unable to sign him to a deal. That is going to be a continuing trend for the first few of these.

Inexplicably the Islanders organization would have the money to bring in veterans, yet somehow were unable (or unwilling) to give money to youngsters. Even when the team did sign younger players, Milbury tended to trade them before their contract. The few who managed to stick around and see arbitration against Milbury did not have it end well.

Anyway, the Berard story actually starts with the 1995 draft, in which Don Maloney took Wade Redden second overall. Ottawa took Bryan Berard with the first overall pick. Within seven months, one of the odder trades in NHL memory took place. In the end the Islanders swapped Berard for Redden, while also gaining Martin Straka and getting rid of Kirk Muller. After 22 games it was determined Straka was too expensive, he was exposed to waivers and claimed by Florida.

Bryan Berard though was a stud and then some. In his rookie campaign he finished with 48 points, two points behind rookie scoring leader Jarome Iginla. At the end of the season Berard won the Calder, along with being named to the NHL All Rookie team. The future was looking bright for both the team and Berard. But while he had a repeat point performance (46) in his sophomore campaign, his minus-32 was not just worst on the team (by 13) but fifth worst in the league. He was still young and plenty of players have bounced back from tough sophomore seasons.

The Goaltending Issue

Of course there's the little problem of the Islanders goaltending woes. Not really woes, but more like Milbury despised Tommy Salo. This despite Salo being one of the best goalies to come up through the Islanders system since Kelly Hrudey. Salo was the first starting goalie in years to be the starter the following year. I actually had the joy of watching his run with the IHL Utah Grizzlies to the Turner Cup. I was amazed that he was a part of the Islanders while we were watching McClennan, Soderstrom and Fichaud struggle to sub-.900 SV% seasons.

In 98-99 though it was playoffs or bust for Mike Milbury, who had installed himself as coach again. While the team started strong, a 7 game losing streak at the end of November into December put any playoff hopes on life support. An injury to Salo left the Islanders with Wade Flaherty and Marcel Cousineau to pick up the slack. When your hoping to be a playoff team while outside the bubble, any points lost are important. Flaherty and Cousineau could be considered point sieves.

Felix "Not Quite Cat" Potvin

Felix Potvin had been an outstanding goalie for 6 years in Toronto. He was one of the key reasons the Leafs got to back to back Conference Finals in his rookie and sophomore years. But Toronto decided to jump on Curtis Joseph when he became a free agent. The plan was to either have one of the best goaltending duos in the league, or trade Potvin for another important piece. But since every GM in the league knew the Maple Leafs were going to have to trade Potvin, they couldn't get a fair offer for him. So they began the season with both goalies.

To make matters worse, when Potvin did start for the Leafs, he proceeded to turn in some of the worst performances of his career. Of his five starts for Toronto, only in one game did he manage a SV% above .900. That he went 2-3 in those 5 starts were more due to the team then anything he did. Eventually it was decided that it was better not starting Potvin (who eventually refused to report) then to keep starting him and have his trade value drop even more.

The Trade

In what might have been one of his most short-sighted trades, Milbury dealt Berard for Potvin pretty much straight up. It was a jaw dropper then, and still is when you consider the amount of potential Berard was flat out oozing with. Not only that, but for a team that continually struggled to score goals outside of Ziggy Palffy, trading away someone who was 4th and 3rd on the team in points in his first two seasons doesn't help. Also Berard was great on the point for the power play too.

The logic, short-sightedness and impatience of Milbury is captured perfectly by one of his quotes at the time:

"This is a good young player and there were certain things that we saw and certain flaws that we tried to address and correct," Islanders general manager Mike Milbury said. "Some we had success with and others we didn't. Perhaps Toronto will have more success with Bryan.

"He did come a long way defensively maybe at the expense of his offense. Maybe they'll find the right blend in Toronto."

Essentially, we gave up on a 21-year-old who already has 119 NHL points from the blueline because we're already out of ideas.

At least Potvin was only 27 at the time of the deal, instead of being over the hill (Linden). Not quite shockingly though, Potvin didn't work out with the Islanders. He played 11 games down the stretch in 98-99, losing his starting job back to Salo in almost no time flat. He would play a total of 33 games for the Islanders as he was eventually traded (with a 2nd and 3rd round pick) to Vancouver for Kevin Weekes, Dave Scatchard and Bill Muckalt.

Potvin struggled in Vancouver and was eventually dealt two years later to the Kings for a conditional pick. While with the Kings (and former Islanders teammates Ziggy Palffy, Bryan Smolinski), Potvin would recapture some of his earlier magic. He helped lead the Kings in a first round upset of the Wings and proceeded to push the eventual Stanley Cup champion Avalanche to a 7th game before being knocked out. Potvin went on to be the starter for two more seasons in L.A. before a one year stint as Andrew Raycroft's backup in Boston. At the relatively young age of 32, that's where Potvin's career ends.

For Berard though, it's always going to be a career of "What if?"s. I remember Toronto fans raving about him when he first started with them. He quickly turned around his defensive problems, going +7 in 38 games after being traded. He then put up 9 points in 17 playoff games helping the Leafs get to the Eastern Conference finals. Unfortunately on March 11th 2000, the Leafs were playing the Senators and Berard's eye was clipped by the stick of Marian Hossa. This caused a slash on the sclera which resulted in a retinal tear and a detached retina. Berard nearly lost the eye in the emergency room that night.

The injury was so bad that Berard's insurance company actually paid out, as it wasn't believed he could return to the game. He sat out the 00-01 season, going through 7 surgeries to get his vision to 20/600. Even then, he still needed a contact lens to get his vision to the league minimum 20/400. Berard returned the insurance settlement and started playing hockey again. Trying out for and eventually making the Rangers 01-02 team. Unfortunately Berard was never able to match the player he once was. He played with 4 teams in 6 seasons, with the Rangers, Bruins and Blackhawks all walking away from him after one year stints.

Berard's final NHL season was with the 07-08 Islanders, he made the team after getting a training camp invite. He led all Islanders defenseman in points that year, despite playing just 54 games. In 08-09 he was invited to training camp with the Flyers, didn't make the team and eventually played 25 games in the KHL. He was 31 during his last pro season.

I once debated the Berard for Potvin trade with someone, who proceeded to inform me that because Berard got hurt, it was a good trade for Milbury. The chances of such a serious injury happening are so miniscule, that you would have to believe if he had stayed on the Island it wouldn't have happened. That he was able to recover and make something of a career of it after the injury shows how much talent Berard had. It's just unfortunate that his career was basically cut so short.

Urban Legend

So why do you trade away a young hot shot Calder-winning defenseman for a goalie whose been struggling big time? Without getting too inappropriate -- and just to illustrate the extreme reaches of the rumor mill -- one rumor/urban legend circulating at the time was that Berard took a romantic interest in Milbury's daughter, much to Milbury's dismay.

Of course I should point out that I can't even verify the presence/age of any Milbury's daughters (don't want to get creepy here). But it just shows that these urban legends about Milbury's trades exist, or get fanned, because the trades were so outright crazy and demanded deeper reasons. People dig a bit too hard to make sense of them, and fans desperate for an explanation will consider anything.