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Islanders Goaltending History: The Curse of Billy Smith?

Billy Smith manned the Islanders crease for two decade, and the club has spent the next two decades searching for his replacement.

An all too common sight for Islander fans. (No, not Radek Martinek.)
An all too common sight for Islander fans. (No, not Radek Martinek.)
Lou Capozzola

From their expansion season to almost the '90s, there was one constant between the pipes for the Islanders: Billy Smith. It was an amazing run for the goalie and the team, including four Stanley Cup wins, five finals appearances, a Vezina, a Conn Smythe and a William Jennings. It finished with his 31 hanging from the Rafters at the Coliseum. There are very few comparable runs in the NHL.

Smith's final season was 1988-89, and in the 20+ years since the Islanders have struggled to replace him. Only one other goalie in team history has over 300 games (Smith had nearly 700) and only one goalie has taken the team beyond the second round of the playoffs since then. The Islanders have had plenty of good goalies come and go ... but it feels like something beyond the control of the team afflicts its goalies.

Illness, Injury. Injury, Illness

During Smith's final season he saw the player that had taken over as starter, Kelly Hrudey, traded to the Kings for promising youngster Mark Fitzpatrick. While Fitzpatrick was a bright prospect and showed some flashes of it in his first season, he was diagnosed with Eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome and missed almost all of 1990-91. He returned to the league the following year and had a long NHL career, but he was never the same player.

In the 1991 Draft, the Islanders took goalie Jamie McLennan 48th overall (3rd Round). He played well enough in his first season (1993-94) that the team traded starter Ron Hextall. While McLennan wouldn't reach the heights that he did during his first season as an Islander, it was hardly his fault considering the team in front of him. After the 1995-96 season he nearly died to what he thought was the flu but ended up being Bacterial Meningitis. The team quietly didn't place a qualifying offer for McLennan after that. McLennan was signed by the Blues and had a solid if unspectacular career as a backup.

Not to worry though. In what arguably might have been Don Maloney's best trade, he picked up Eric Fichaud from the Leafs for Benoit Hogue. Fichaud was considered "The Next Roy" before people figured out that Quebec had a small industry of "Next Roys." While Fichaud and Tommy Salo split duties at the start of the 1996-97 season, a shoulder injury gave Salo a chance to shine. The shoulder injury would become a recurring problem for Fichaud who was out of the NHL by 00-01.

Salo of course would have a solid NHL career even if he was somewhat inconsistent as an Islander. While Salo didn't get hurt that often, in 1998-99 he suffered a few sprains that caused him to miss some time. The first one was short and led to the Wade Flaherty era. The second one was a two-week injury that led to one of the greatest Milbury trades. Consistent with Milbury's policy, Salo was eventually traded to the Oilers for magic beans.

We'll Just Draft Our Way Out of This Into More Illness, Injury

Fortunately for the Islanders, they drafted a goalie first overall in the 2000 Draft, a timely replacement for the goalie they'd drafted fourth overall three years earlier before concluding he should be moved immediately. (No, I won't be beating that dead horse other than to say the 2000 #1 pick ranks second all-time in games played for goalies in Islanders team history.)

Even Chris Osgood, who fell in their laps off the waiver wire and backstopped the 2001-02 club's return to the playoffs, saw an ankle injury steal 19 games down the stretch in 2002-03, returning just in time to be traded to the Blues.

In 2008 the Islanders added promising youngster Kevin Poulin to their prospect pool. Poulin fell to the 5th round due to a knee injury he had suffered. After having a promising 10 game debut that even had Kevin Weekes excited. Of course that 10-game stint ended because of an injury to his other knee. While he has made it back to the NHL, he's yet to look as good as he did during that early stint.

Right now it's looking like a great future trivia question: Who were the next two players the Islanders took after drafting John Tavares in the 2009 Draft? If you said Calvin DeHaan and Mikko Koskinen, congrats!

While DeHaan has his own issues, the injuries to Koskinen are incredibly ironic for Islander fans. Two games into his first AHL season he suffered a torn laburm in his hip which knocked him out for almost the whole season. While he did come back and play a few games, even getting some NHL work, he's never lived up to the promise since the injury.

Also selected in that draft was Anders Nilsson. This was before Snow spent a whole draft on defenseman, so obviously the plan was that one of these guys would hit. After having a promising AHL debut in 2011-12, Nilsson too missed large chunks of 2012-13 with a mystery illness. Eventually it was reportedly discovered that Nilsson had an illness which caused him to have a low B-12 count along with being allergic to gluten and diary.

Finally, while he wasn't really an Islanders goalie, Al Montoya deserves a mention here. Picked up for almost nothing in a moment of desperation, Montoya proceeded to catch fire for the Islanders in 2010-11 going 9-5-5 with a 921 SV%. He looked to be continuing the tear into 2011-12 and had started 10 of 12 games when Evander Kane crashed into him. The resulting concussion caused him to miss most of the season, and his stats have been largely pedestrian since.

It's been 23 years since Billy Smith last left the Islanders crease. Yet the Islanders haven't had a starter whose lasted more then 3 or 4 seasons since then. At the same time they haven't been out of the first round of the playoffs since 1992-93.

The only question: Who skated too close to Billy Smith's crease to elicit this curse?