The New York Islanders - along with every other NHL team and many other businesses - have temporarily suspended operations due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 Coronavirus. The Center for Disease Control and World Health Organizations have strongly advised the public to practice self-quarantining and avoid close contact and crowds to limit the spread of the virus. But that doesn’t mean we can’t gather in a virtual space and talk about old hockey players.
As long as the Islanders are on pause, we’ll run this series to give folks a place to chat, reminisce, and generally relieve the stress of the times.
And finally, Islanders.
Those are the 12 teams that employed Mike Sillinger, the most traded player in NHL history, over the course of his 17-year career. He was traded during the season eight times, in the offseason once and as signed as a free agent by two teams, the last of them being our own Islanders.
Sillinger’s reputation for being a movable asset, as well as his nickname of “Suitcase,” were well known by the time he came to Long Island. He was 35 when he was signed by Neil Smith during his 40
minutes days as Islanders general manager in the summer of 2006. Smith knew Sillinger from over nearly two decades prior when the former was scouting director for the Red Wings. Detroit took the center from Saskatchewan in the first round of the 1989 draft at 11th overall and he spent four years in red and white before being traded for the first time in April of 1995 (meaning he missed that year’s trip to the Stanley Cup final and the subsequent glory days that would follow).
Then it was trade after trade after trade after trade after trade. Sometimes it was Sillinger asking to be moved to a better situation. Sometimes it was new management that decided he wasn’t in their plans. One team made him a contract offer, then traded him when he didn’t sign right after a pre-game skate.
He was looking for a degree of stability when he signed with a team scooping up all of the veteran free agents they could find. The Islanders offered him a three year deal, while St. Louis, who wanted him back after trading him to Nashville, only offered two. Not only did Sillinger stay with the Islanders for the entirety of his contract (not to mention outlasting the guy who signed him by a ton), he had one of his most productive seasons at that very late stage of his nomadic career. He had 26 goals and 59 points in his first season on the Island, the second highest totals for either that he ever had in one season (he split a 32-goal, 63 point season between the Blues and Predators a season earlier).
He played in his 1000th game during the 2006-07 season, which you can watch here in its entirety. It’s mesmerizing to see him in so many jerseys during the opening, many of which I’m sure I forgot he ever wore. Case in point: I had no idea that he was a Flyer, let alone that he was traded by them to Tampa Bay in the Chris Gratton trade, that I still remember being a big deal at the time.
That season, Sillinger was part of a mercenary-filled, Wade Dubielewicz-aided playoff team. He was a key center, anchoring a third line behind Alexei Yashin and Viktor Kozlov, playing on all special teams, and generally providing the kind of “good, solid player on a budget” that had made him so desirable for so, so, so many teams over the years. In Season 2, he watched as the team around him gradually got worse, which is probably one thing you don’t have to worry when you get traded all the time. Injuries took a toll and limited him to 52 games in 2007-08, but he still managed to pot 14 goals for non-playoff team.
Sillinger wore an “A” for most of his time with the Islanders, and along with captain Bill Guerin and Doug Weight, was seen as a leader for the 2008-09 squad. But a hip injury just a few games in cost him the majority of a season that would end with Guerin traded and the Islanders securing a first overall pick. In August of 2009, as a free agent again, he announced his retirement.
His impact on those transitional Islanders was probably a lot greater than we think it was. He was a trusted, all-situations center and the third leading scorer on a playoff team, then served as a veteran mentor for a roster that kept de-aging before his eyes. In interviews, he always seems very philosophical about not just having a long career at the highest possible level of hockey, but also about having to move your entire life and family over and over again over that career.
The best piece of advice is don’t feel sorry for yourself. I think that’s what happens is when guys get traded, whether they like it don’t, they have to welcome it as a new opportunity. Whether you’re traded because you’re playing good or not playing good, it doesn’t matter. That’s the way I always looked at it, that it was a new opportunity for Mike Sillinger, to be a big part of a new team.
Then again, Mike’s not the only sage in the Sillinger family.
“It is sad the first few times, but houses are just things,” Karla Sillinger said. “I’ve gotten to live in amazing spots and meet so many different people, and I’m just a girl from Saskatchewan, so I’m lucky. We’re probably a stronger family for that. I feel sorry for the 18 teams that haven’t had Mike Sillinger.”