Forty years ago today, the Islanders filled their first roster via an expansion draft led by legendary GM Bill Torrey, who knew most of the castoffs he'd just picked were just placeholders for a team that would be built around the entry draft.
Torrey's success is well known, but today in our continuing What If? series, we take a look back and imagine how Islanders history might have gone differently if he'd never been shown the door 20 years later. We started this series by wondering what might have been had Dale Hunter not been a tool, and followed that up by imagining Mike Milbury had the foresight to turn four first-rounders in 1999 into the Sedin twins.
Today's little adventure takes us back to the end of the 1992 season.
For the first time since the franchise's third season, the team missed the playoffs in back-to-back years. This year was different though. The ever-patient owner John Pickett had handed the team owner to the infamous "Gang of Four." Despite Pickett owning a majority of the Islanders, he allowed the gang (Robert Rosenthal, Steven Walsh, Jerry Grossman, Ralph Palleschi) to run the day-to-day operations of the team. They quickly forced Torrey to step down and replaced him with assistant GM Don Maloney.
Torrey wasn't even at fault at the time for the Islanders missing the playoffs. At the time the top four teams in each division (with two divisions in each conference) made the playoffs. Although eight points behind the fourth-place Devils, the Islanders were five points better then the Sabres and 14 points better then the Whalers, who both made the playoffs from the Adams Division.
There were also plenty of distractions for the team. Pat Lafontaine turned down a contract offer and refused to report -- largely thanks to an irreparable relationship with Pickett. Although LaFontaine was traded on Oct. 25 for Pierre Turgeon, the Islanders struggled out of the gate to a 4-10-2 record by Nov. 10. Although Mark Fitzpatrick returned in late Feburary, Steve Weeks and Glenn Healy struggled in net, putting up respective .891 and .880 SV% on the season.
The Islanders though were clearly a team on the rise, not a team in need of a massive face change. Only three players on the roster were over 30, with a clear majority of them being in the sweetspot of 25-28. New franchise player Turgeon was all of 22. The team had 4 other forwards with 70 or more points on the season; Ray Ferraro (27), Derek King (24), Benoit Hogue (24) and Steve Thomas (28). It isn't too surprising that this team went on a run the following season, defeating the two-time defending champions Pittsburgh Penguins in 7 games. But it was too little too late for Bill Torrey.
Bow-ties in Florida
The fresh expansion Florida Panthers were quick to grab Torrey and make him their first general manager. Torrey put together a solid team of veteran castoffs, youngsters never given a shot and the Panthers' own youngsters. The expansion Panthers were one of the best expansion teams in NHL history, falling only one point short of a playoff spot and one win under .500 on the season (back when .500 really meant .500). The Islanders got the 8th seed that season, giving them the right to be swept in the first round by the Short Island Smurfs.
The Panthers followed that up by falling just a point short of the 8th seed again, as the Rangers barely got in to keep from missing the playoffs the season after winning the Cup. Meanwhile the Islanders just about bottomed out, only finishing the season ahead of the perennially awful Ottawa Senators. That they defeated both teams that finished in the 8th seed in the last week of each season only added more salt to the wound.
In 1995-96 the Panthers would crack the glass ceiling and get into the playoffs. Thanks partially to RatMania the team went on a wild ride in the playoffs. They knocked off the 5th seeded Bruins in the opening round, then had to take on the top seeded Flyers before facing the 2nd seeded Penguins in the Conference Finals. The game-winning goal in Game 7 came from a 58-foot slap shot by former Islander Tom Fitzgerald against Tom "playoff clutch" Barasso.
Although the Panthers would be swept in the finals by the Avs, no one can doubt Bill Torrey's expertise in putting together an expansion team which was competitive so quickly. Torrey retired from the Panthers after the 2001 season. In the Panthers' first eight years they made the playoffs on three occasions and had their much-celebrated Cup run. Since his retirement, the team has only made the playoffs once, 10 years after he left. His "number" is retired, hanging beautifully in the rafters.
But What If?
Sure, Torrey had struggled somewhat transitioning the team from the early '80s dynasty to what it would become. But he had done a pretty good job of keeping the team competitive year to year while moving old pieces out and bringing in the new. There are those who believe the Gang of Four replaced Torrey just to put their stamp on the franchise. A stamp that would look even more awful when they decided to start messing with the jerseys.
By 1995-96 almost everyone from the magical run of 92-93 was gone. Ultimately this culminated in one of the worst trades in Islander history (outside of Milbury's regime) when Maloney sent a "struggling" Pierre Turgeon (ONLY 27 points in 34 games) to the Montreal Canadiens for Kirk Muller. It was a bad trade even before Muller infamously refused to report to the Islanders. That trade cost Maloney his job in the long run, and opened the door to Mike Milbury as GM.
Torrey was the mastermind behind the 92-93 team, and you have to believe if it was him in charge still, the team would have stayed together. One of the first things that jumps out when looking at Maloney's transactions was his trade to get Ron Hextall. Hextall, then on the Nordiques, was traded for Mark Fitzpatrick and the teams swapped 1st rounders. While the Islanders did take Todd Bertuzzi at 23, the Nordiques used the 14th overall pick in order to add Adam Deadmarsh to the team.
Although Hextall had a great run to get the Islanders into the '94 playoffs, he never really fit and was eventually traded to the Flyers for Tommy Soderstrom. Considering that Torrey had originally traded for Fitzpatrick, and then added him to the Panthers via the expansion draft, he had a lot of faith in him. At the very least Fitzpatrick and Torrey 1991 3rd rounder Jamie McLennan might have made a solid goaltending tandem. It would have kept McLennan from being thrown to the wolves like he was.
While Maloney had to work under the new ownership's financial constraints, an argument could be made that hockey in Florida had the same constraints to deal with. Plus, if the team continued to improve and make the playoffs, not only do they make more money through ticket sales, but via merchandising as well. If he kept the Islanders competitive and in the playoffs for most of the '90s, maybe there isn't a generation of Long Island Ranger fans today.
Then you have to consider legendary Islanders coach Al Arbour. He retired following the 1994 season and moved upstairs to the offices. But looking back, he might have still had some gas in the tank to keep coaching. From the New York Times:
Early in the season, when asked about roster changes during a slump, Arbour said he had a "wish list" for Christmas, but the roster didn't change in any significant way at that time. After the Islanders failed to make any deals at the trading deadline in late March, Arbour has groused about not having "pieces of the puzzle" and "cards to shuffle."
You would have to believe that Torrey would have done his best to keep Arbour happy. Since Arbour retired, no coach has lasted more than two-plus seasons -- with Scott Gordon's two-and-change being the longest tenure. When it's not broke, don't fix it, and Arbour coaching the Islanders is definitely an example of something that didn't need fixing.
Maybe this Islanders team put together by Torrey wasn't a Cup contender, but it would have been a perennial playoff team. Even if the money might have become tighter, Torrey seemed to have the patience with youngsters that was missing for much of the '90s after he left. When you look at some of his later Islander trades, moving an aging Brent Sutter for Steve Thomas, trading up to draft Darius Kasparaitis, swapping Doug Crossman (who?) for Ray Ferraro -- Torrey still had the magic, even if the Gang of Four couldn't see it.
Plus, anything that historically would have kept Mike Milbury from taking over the team, we love those scenarios.
Maybe going to Florida and starting fresh (along with the beautiful weather) was exactly what Torrey needed. Sometimes a change of scenery can give you a fresh lease on life that you might need, even if you don't know it. At the same time, while we all love the '93 team, sometimes gambling on a fluke run can be detrimental to the team. Just take a look at the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers recent Stanley Cup runs. Both teams believed they were solid Cup contenders after 2004 and 2006 and hurt themselves in the long run by overpaying to keep those teams together.
While Torrey's last group of Islanders might have been a perennial playoff team, it's just as easy to imagine them as a team JUST good enough to capture the 8th seed. When you start getting into that cycle, you're getting middle of the pack draft picks. You're also dealing those picks to find the one last piece of the puzzle, which might never work out. Sometimes it is better to flat out collapse and have a few bad seasons rather than be on the verge for a few seasons.
But in the event of such a collapse, you need someone with a plan on the other side. Kind of like Torrey.
In closing, we can imagine a much better '90s if Bill Torrey had stuck around. But at the same time, who knows what the '00s might have held for us as the core got older with fewer blue chip prospects in the system? The game itself was also changing, and maybe it was a good time for both Torrey and Arbour to move on. Despite Torrey's good run with the Panthers, it wasn't enough to keep them from being an also ran for the decade after his tenure there. But the dismissal of Torrey has to be the second-worst move of the Gang of Four, after their decision to make Milbury one of his successors.