[News note: According to Newsday's Arthur Staple, the Islanders will officially announce Brent Thompson's hiring as assistant coach today. We have a thread for that.]
There are very few players who make an impact on the league during their career while notching under 200 career points. There are also very few players who are beloved by fans of three division rivals. For 852 of his 863 career regular season games and pretty much 14 years in the NHL, Darius Kasparaitis was a force to be reckoned with in the Atlantic/Patrick Division for the Islanders, Penguins and Rangers. He started that career with the Islanders, but like many other promising youngsters went on to green pastures elsewhere.
Becoming An Islander
In his last draft as Islanders GM, Bill Torrey moved up to 5th overall to pick Kasparaitis. He traded the 8th overall pick (became Brandon Convery) and a 2nd rounder (became Jim Carey, yes that Jim Carey) for the 5th. Kaspar was the 3rd defenseman taken in the draft after Roman Hamrlik and Mike Rathje. Although under 6 feet tall, Kaspar would quickly become known around the league as one of the grittier hard working guys in the league.
You also can't talk about Darius Kasparaitis for long without mentioning his hip check.
For the most part Kaspar was one of the last players in the league to use a hip check, and he put it to good use. It got to the point that Kaspar would get his own highlight reel section in the hockey hits VHS tapes that used to come out in the day. Combined with his No Fear style of play, he quickly became a fan favorite on the Islanders.
The Making of a Legend
When you're a rookie defenseman in 1992-1993, you should be intimidated by Mario Lemieux. Especially after Lemieux and the Penguins had won two straight Stanley Cups while Mario was widely considered one of the top two players in the league. During the playoffs, Mario decided to cross check the young Darius in a play that only Mario could get away with. Mario might have been looking to intimidate a youngster who was giving him trouble in that famous series. If so, it had the opposite of the intended effect, as Darius spent the rest of the shift both knocking around Mario and yelling at him:
Kaspar's play was considered one of the keys to the Islanders' upset of the Penguins in the second round, disrupting his play to the point that Mario had "only" 3 goals and 6 assists in the 7 game series. Mario over his career had 172 points in 107 playoff games, including 44 points in 23 playoff games in 1990-91 and 34 points in 15 playoff games in 1991-92. Lemiux's 18 points in 11 playoff games in 1992-93 was his lowest career total in which the Penguins made the 2nd round.
After playing 70+ games as a rookie and in his second year, Kaspar struggled with a multitude of injuries and having to return to Russia due to an illness to his father. In 1994-95 he played 13 games, in 1995-96 he played 46 games. In both seasons he was a double-digit negative (-11, -12 respectively) plus/minus. With Ziggy Palffy, Derek King and Travis Green combining for 60% of the Islanders goals in 1996-97, Mike Milbury decided to bring in someone to help the offense.
That someone was Bryan Smolinski, a player that Milbury knew from his time with the Bruins as he was a 1990 first-round selection by them. Excluding the strike shortened 1994-95 season, Smolinski had posted a 50- and 60-point season in two of his first three seasons. In his first season with the Islanders he matched that with a 56-point output in only 64 games. He would go on to post two more 40-point seasons before being part of a salary dump as a part of the Ziggy Palffy trade.
Milbury claimed that you needed two top lines and four top defenseman in order to be a Cup contender. He considered Kaspar to be expendable:
''I make him as a fifth defenseman, a very good fifth defenseman,'' said Milbury, adding that his top four are Dennis Vaske, who is expected to play on Wednesday for the first time since last Nov. 22, Bryan Berard, Bryan McCabe and Kenny Jonsson.
Before you ask, yes, that's the same Dennis Vaske who was originally drafted in 1986 and proceeded to not play more than 20 games in a season after 1994-95. Although Kenny Jonsson would play out the rest of his NHL career as an Islander, Bryan Berrard was traded during the 1998-99 season while Bryan McCabe was dealt halfway through the 1997-98 season.
Kaspar added some much needed toughness to the Penguins, and ironically was considered one of Mario's key bodyguards. He also overcame most of his earlier career injuries and never played less than 40 games in a season until his career winded down with the Rangers. That he ended up, like many former fan favorites on the Islanders in this period, with the Rangers shouldn't be too surprising. Kaspar himself mentioned that possibility following his trade:
''I'm not excited,'' he said. ''I'm excited to go and play for a good team. But the New York Islanders were my first team. I have a lot of good friends outside here.
''I love this place. But what can I do? It's a business. I hope I get more points.
''I'm all right. My wife's a little upset. You never know, maybe I'll come back. Or maybe I'll come back as a Ranger.''
Following the Trade Tree
Kaspar is also another case of scattered dividends during the Milbury Era. He was traded with a throw-away prospect for Brian Smolinski. Smolinski was eventually traded along with Palffy, Marcel Cousineau and a 4th rounder for Josh Green, Olli Jokinen, Mathieu Biron and a 1999 1st rounder (Taylor Pyatt). This was the trade that the NHL originally squashed, forcing the Kings to include Jokinen as part of the deal. (Of course this was the same NHL front office that would two years later reportedly tell Wang to keep around Milbury.)
- Josh Green was a part of the trade for Roman Hamrlik who left the Islanders as a UFA.
- Olli Jokinen was a part of the even more infamous Roberto Luongo trade. Oleg Kvasha was traded for a 2006 round 3 pick and Mark Parrish was traded for Jeff Tambelleni, who left the team as a UFA.
- Mathieu Biron was traded for Adrian Aucoin, who would leave the team as a UFA.
- Taylor Pyatt was part of the trade for Mike Peca, who was then traded for the immortal Mike York, who was then traded for Radny Robatille and a 5th rounder. That 5th rounder? Matt Martin.
So we eventually traded Kaspar for Matt Martin. Maybe there is karma in the hockey world?
The Urban Legend
The Kaspar trade came during the infamous ownership of con man John Spano. Since the NHL had apparently no vetting process -- or at least, no process to keep broke con men from taking over a club -- one of the ways Spano became owner was that the owner of the Penguins allegedly vouched for him. (Spano had also reportedly established a golfing buddy relationship with Lemieux himself. Hey, they "clicked.")
According to legend, Spano owed a favor to the Penguins owner for helping him become owner, so one day the Penguins ownership asked Mario who he would like from the Islanders roster. His immediate response was Kaspar, and that's why this deal was made at the time.
Obviously there's no official sources for this, and it would be a quick and easy way for Milbury to pass the buck by blaming Spano for the trade. But as with all of these Lost Milbury Files, the urban legends of the time are offered here as food for thought.