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.
So far in this series, we’ve seen a few archetypes for ex-Islanders. We’ve seen players that were expected to take over for legends, players that felt like they were around longer than they actually were and players that seemed like they should have been bigger deals.
Defenseman Ken Leiter kinda ticks all of those boxes. The native of Detroit was about to be a sophomore at Michigan State when he was selected in the fifth round of the 1980 draft, the same draft that also yielded Kelly Hrudey and Greg Gilbert.
‘’The day the Islanders drafted me, I didn’t even know the draft was being held, to be honest,’’ he said. ‘’I was out with my buddies in Detroit, and when I came home my mom was in tears. It was just a great day in my life.’’
Leiter played three more standout seasons at Michigan State before being assigned to the minors, where he would play the next three seasons. He had a couple of cups of coffee with the big club in that time, which is why he wore four different numbers for the Islanders. He got to practice with the dynasty dudes ahead of the ill-fated ‘84 Stanley Cup final, too.
Heading into 1986-87, and after sending Paul Boutillier to Boston as compensation for signing enforcer Brian Curran, Leiter was expected to take up a top four spot on defense and chip in a little toughness to boot.
And who was Leiter’s defense partner for the season opener in 1986? One Denis Potvin. No pressure, kid.
His first full season would also be Leiter’s best ever in the NHL. He nailed down career highs in goals (9), assists (20) and points (29) and games played (74). He had only 30 PIMs that season, which seems kinda low for a guy that had a reputation for toughness. Still, that would be an NHL high for him, too.
Here he is on a Don Cherry highlights video, scoring a goal against new addition Paul Coffey and the Penguins.
Leiter played in 11 playoff games that spring including The Easter Epic, in which he earned an assist on Pat LaFontaine’s series-winning goal in the fourth overtime.
His next season was a step down, with only 51 games played, four goals and 13 assists. He played in four playoffs games as the Islanders lost in the first round to the Devils.
And then he was gone. He was placed on waivers in October of 1988, but told GM Bill Torrey that he wanted to retire.
‘’My heart wasn’t in it,’’ Leiter said yesterday from his home. ‘’My job with them had never really been secure, and I decided why should I torture myself with this uncertainty day in and day out?’’
He was claimed by the Minnesota North Stars (who offered to trade veteran defenseman Curt Giles to the Islanders for him, which would have really been something), with the understanding that he was leaning towards leaving the game for good. After just four games as a North Star, Leiter did indeed retire.
It’s weird to look at a guy’s hockey-reference page see that he was a call-up for two seasons, a regular for two seasons, then simply done. Ken Leiter had an unusual NHL career, but he was an important Islander in his short time.
There’s another interesting note on his hockey-reference page. Waaaaaaaaay down at the bottom, players with career point share scores most similar to Leither are listed. Among those names is another important Islander: Adam Pelech. Please don’t retire yet, Cobra.