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The Lost Milbury Files: Tommy Salo

The next Swede between the pipes.
The next Swede between the pipes.

Billy Smith, last of the original New York Islanders, retired in 1988-89. While he was no longer the regular starting goalie (Kelly Hrudey and his headband had taken over), it's amazing that since then the Islanders crease has been one of the recurring weaknesses of the team.

Hrudey was actually traded in 1988-89 for Mark Fitzpatrick. The Islanders also acquired Fitzpatrick's Kings teammate Glenn Healy via free agency. Unfortunately, Fitzpatrick never panned out due to a rare illness that nearly ended his playing career. Healy split time with Fitzpatrick and a group of misfit goalies until 92-93. Healy's insane run in the 1993 playoffs left him looking for a payraise the Islanders wouldn't give. Fitzpatrick left via expansion draft to join Bill Torrey in Florida.

The revolving gate since then has been something else. We saw every type of goalie from Swiss cheese Tommy Soderstrom to "I swear the game hasn't passed me by" Ron Hextall. When the team hit rock bottom in 95-96 it was a four-goalie mess, with Soderstrom (who posted an .878 SV%) starting 50 games and the rest split between Eric Fichaud, Jamie McLennan and Tommy Salo.

Out of that group, Fichaud had the best SV% of .898 and nearly had a winning record at 7-12-1. McLennan was quietly released and it was revealed he contracted bacterial meningitis, a scary and potentially fatal illness. (He would recover, resume his career with the Blues and even win the Masterton Trophy.)

Soderstrom would play one more NHL minute is his career. Salo, who appeared to burn out in his second season following a good six-game showing, was sent back to the Utah Grizzlies.

Here's a secret, back then the Islanders were actually on a network that was PROUD to have them. So with the Islanders missing the playoffs, SportsChannel decided to show the Utah Grizzlies in the finals of the IHL. The place was absolutely nuts for Salo. His nickname was SuperSalo and they even had a cartoon on the scoreboard of him making saves and then flying away in a blue and red outfit with a big "S" in the middle. While I hadn't noticed Salo in the NHL, I couldn't believe we even had a guy this good somewhere in the system.

Desperation makes queer bedfolks, and without McLennan around and Soderstrom being Soderstrom, the Islanders had to call up Salo to backup Fichaud. Salo also had a strong camp, and the two split the first 41 games of the season just about down the middle. Fichaud managed four wins while Salo had eight. It also didn't help that Fichaud would suffer from shoulder injuries.

Mike Milbury had fired himself as coach -- oh, if only he hadn't stopped the firing there -- following the 45th game of the season with a 13-23-9 record. Assistant Coach Rick Bowness took over and all but named Salo the starter. Down the stretch under Bowness the team went 16-18-3 and Salo went 9-11-2 in his last 20 games of the year. Things were finally looking up for the Islanders between the pipes.

Salo: Best Islanders Goalie of the '90s

Now at this point if you hadn't watched the Islanders at the time, you might be mistaken that Salo was a great goalie on a bad team. While the team was bad, Salo had his problems with consistency. He'd go out and win the game by himself just as often as he'd blow the game about 10 minutes in. It also didn't help that Milbury seemed to not like him, and consistently pushed for Fichaud to get a shot again too. In the end though, Salo was easily the best goalie the team had during the decade, depending on your thoughts on Healy's stint.

The Islanders going into the 97-98 season had just drafted one of the highest-rated goalies in a long time -- you may remember him -- Roberto Luongo. So all they really needed was just to keep Salo around long enough to help make the team competitive and to push Luongo in his early years.

But something like that is never simple for the Islanders under Mike Milbury.

Any Google search for Tommy Salo brings up one of two things: Either a half ice goal he allowed against Belarus (when Salo was an Oiler), or the infamous arbitration hearing with Mike Milbury.

Now I'm not saying this is all Mike Milbury's fault. He probably had a certain budget handed down from whoever happened to "own" the team at the moment (which by NHL standards at that time, amounted to whoever could produce a shiny gold nameplate with an NYI logo and "Owner" etched under it). Milbury has said multiple times in interviews even after he returned to the broadcast booth that teams must take full advantage of when a player is an RFA, because it is a limited window and once they are a UFA there's nothing the team can do.

Milbury took that to an extreme though when he went to arbitration with Tommy Salo. With Salo sitting next to his agent, Milbury began ranting about how bad he was directly to his agent: Claiming that he was one of the poorest conditioned players in the league, that he wasn't an NHL caliber goalie, and tearing into him in what is considered one of the most infamous arbitration rants of all time. According to reports, Salo left the room to use the bathroom, and when he returned it was clear that he had been crying.

Let's just say, even if you weren't a fan of Salo, this isn't the best way to handle an arbitration. Especially when you consider that at the time Milbury had also been Salo's coach on and off. How are you going to work with this kid without him resenting you? All your doing is insuring that the second he has free agency he is off to another city. Milbury hits me as that boss that rips you apart in a private meaning, and then wonders the next day why you aren't friendly with him.

Eventually when Salo suffered a minor injury (causing him to miss six games) Head Coach/GM Mike Milbury made the decision to bring in Felix Potvin, which we talked about in a previous edition of The Lost Milbury Files. Salo proceeded to return from injury and outplay Potvin down the stretch. He eventually was traded to the Edmonton Oilers for Mats Lindgren and the draft pick that became Radek Martinek.

In the continued sense of twisted irony, Milbury once again proved to be completely wrong about Salo. From 99-00 to 02-03 Salo would finish fourth, second, sixth and sixth in games played by a goalie. Although he never got the Oilers out of the first round of the playoffs, he did help guide them to four straight playoff appearances. Salo quickly made a new name for himself in Edmonton:

"Unconventional and awkward, Salo is often off-balance, which forces him to make spectacular crowd-pleasing saves. While that's great for ticket buyers, it causes his defensemen headaches. Moreover, Salo also runs into problems when handling the puck. But despite all of the above, his teammates want him as their guy between the pipes any day of the week. Teammate Todd Marchant described him as being the team's MVP all year long last season. Salo can be white-hot. While with the Islanders, many followers doubted his potential as a No. 1 goalie. But since his arrival in Edmonton, he has proven them wrong. One of the NHL's steadiest No. 1 men." (The Sports Forecaster 2000-01, p. 177)

While Salo solidified his #1 position in Edmonton, the Islanders found themselves going through Felix Potvin, Wade Flathery, Roberto Luongo, Kevin Weekes, John Vanbiesbrouck, Chris Osgood, Garth Snow and Rick DiPietro. Interestingly, DiPietro took over the starting job during the same season that Salo would play his last year in North America.

Urban Legend

Nothing really that interesting in the urban legend section for Salo. The one thing I did find is that supposedly Salo had a history of freaking out while with the Islanders. He would destroy stuff in the locker room after getting pulled from games. During bad outings fans reported being able to hear him cursing and screaming in the tunnel. These all come from Islander fans though, so one wonders if Milbury the coach didn't help things.