The question of “Which was the best team to never win the championship?” is a loaded one for the New York Islanders franchise, because it defies the “1980s Capitals” and “1980 and for 40 more years Flyers” nature of the question.
Some of the best New York Islanders teams to fall short eventually did win the Stanley Cup, as the team of the late ‘70s that was already pegged for greatness by Stan Fischler as early as 1976 went on to become the NHL’s last true dynasty.
After that, with one notable exception that consisted of very much the same roster, the franchise has (almost) never come close. So there is a case to be made that the 1984 Islanders should be disqualified from the debate, leaving only the 1992-93 semifinalist (they were hosed int he conference finals vs. Montreal) Islanders as a candidate.
But there are three rather significant Islanders who appeared on that 1983-84 squad who ended up in the “never to win the Cup” category, and that’s the focus of the argument presented here.
First, to get it out of the way: It’s hardly fair to call the 83-84 a “never to win” team. They won their first three playoff series, extending the record streak to 19 consecutive series wins, and only lost in the Stanley Cup final.
(Many fans and members of the team still argue that a big factor in their loss to the Edmonton Oilers was the NHL’s suspicious insistence on going to a 2-3-2 format, thus ensuring the up-and-coming Oilers — who were swept in the final the previous year — had a long opportunity to close out the series at home.)
What’s more, the dynasty’s “Core of Four” was intact, if battered by fatigue and injuries, on that team. Most of the roster had four Stanley Cups and don’t belong in the “never to win” conversation.
But the Islanders had two “pat” Olympian rookies who played the majority of that year’s playoff games and were expected to carry the torch forward: 20-year-old Patrick Flatley was third on the team in playoff scoring with 15 points as he appeared in all 21 playoff games. 18-year-old Pat LaFontaine wasn’t far behind with 9 points in 16 playoff games.
While dynasty stalwarts like Mike Bossy, Bobby Nystrom, Butch Goring, Clark Gillies and Denis Potvin were about to fade and/or retire sooner than you’d expect at the time, several of them played significant and highly productive roles during that playoff run. (A battered Nystrom logged just two points in 15 games, John Tonelli had just four points in 15 games, but Gillies and Bossy were 1-2 in team playoff scoring.)
After essential talent eye Jimmy Devellano left to helm the Detroit Red Wings, the Islanders under Bill Torrey had several misses in the draft as the ‘80s wore on. But LaFontaine and Flatley were some of the finer picks of the later Devellano era and there was little reason to think they wouldn’t help extend the dynasty’s winning ways.
Alas, the 1984 loss in the Drive for Five turned out to be not a speed bump but a true end point. LaFontaine logged 54 points the next season as a 19-year-old behind future captain Brent Sutter (102 points) and Bryan Trottier (59 points). Kelly Hrudey, who played 23 regular season games in 1983-84, became a fixture in goal for the rest of the decase as Billy Smith’s career entered its twilight. But the Islanders lost the 1985 Patrick Division final to the eventual Stanley Cup finalist Philadelphia Flyers.
(The second half of the ‘80s in the Patrick Division was led by the Flyers, who made the final twice (‘85, ‘87) only to lose to the Oilers, and the Washington Capitals, who were the definition of a “best team never to win.” The Capitals were routinely in the top five in the league, but they were bounced in the playoffs by the Islanders in 1985 and 1987 (the year of LaFontaine’s Easter Epic game 7 quadruple-OT winner), and when they finally beat the Islanders in 1986, they somehow lost the Patrick final to the 78-point, sub-.500 Rangers.)
So: LaFontaine did indeed become a star with the Islanders and took over the scoring lead in 1987-88 at the age of 22. Flatley became a captain-in-waiting. Hrudey grabbed the reins in goal and made 73 saves in the Easter Epic.
But the Islanders’ perennially low-revenue arena situation and financially troubled ownership — which were nagging issues from the first year of the franchise — finally caught up to them. It’s why heart-and-soul Islander John Tonelli ended up being traded (to Calgary, where he was a Cup finalist again, before reaching the finals yet again with the Kings), and it’s why LaFontaine eventually forced a trade (to Buffalo), just as captain Brent Sutter was dealt (to Chicago) on the same Black Friday. And it’s why successor captain Flatley also finally found an exit, joining the hated Rangers as a free agent in his final NHL season.
To be an Islanders fan who lived through this lengthy era is to be pained by all of the unforced errors of management and ownership that ruined a good thing. But that’s only half of it; one can’t bemoan that misfortune without recognizing the great joy and luck that accompanied the only NHL team to ever win 19 consecutive playoff series on its way to four-and-almost-five Cups.
The Islanders’ Cup run might have ended at two, and John Tonelli might never have saved their bacon in 1982. Every fan who sees their team win a championship knows so many things had to fall just right for it to all happen. Four in a row? All the more.
It’s the luck of the draw and timing that the Islanders won Cups from 1980 to 83 rather than, say, winning in 1980 and not again until 1984, the kind of thing normal champions might do. And it’s the misfortune of the draw that LaFontaine and Flatley joined them just in time to be fixtures on the Best Islanders Team(s) Never to Win it All.