Mike Milbury is and always has been a bullshit artist.
While those skills have been useful to him in his career as a hockey analyst on television, they also came into play during his time as an NHL general manager. Just this week on the No Sleep Til Belmont podcast, former Islanders play-by-play announcer Howie Rose talked about how Milbury helped him in his early days with the franchise by being able to make stories out of essentially nothing, a very helpful thing when the team you’re covering is so terrible.
This post was going to be about one particular episode, in which Milbury wove a tapestry of bullshit so voluminous that it actually almost came true. There was at least something to Milbury’s pursuit of Blackhawks restricted free agent Jeremy Roenick in the summer of 1996, with even the player himself openly discussing contract negotiations with the Islanders ahead of what would have been a major trade. The Islanders needed a star and the Blackhawks didn’t want to pay Roenick what he was asking, so the match seemed like a good one.
A lot of ink was spilled over the Roenick gambit and other unsuccessful attempts at bringing top talent to the Islanders. A year later, both Milbury and his new boss, owner John Spano, openly talked about flooding Colorado with offer sheets in an attempt to bring in either Joe Sakic or Peter Forsberg, who the Avalanche both needed to sign in the same summer. Spoiler: That didn’t happen, either.
I don’t need to explain how acquiring any of these guys would have helped the Islanders at the time. All of them were All Stars, two of them were Stanley Cup champions, and all of them would have been - by leaps and bounds - the most talented player on the Islanders’ mostly woeful roster. Imagine Ziggy Palffy playing with Roenick, Sakic or Forsberg as his center. Go ahead, we’ll wait.
But in pondering this classic episode of Mike Milbury bullshit, I had another thought: What if Milbury wasn’t ever the Islanders’ general manager?
Let’s go ahead and think about that, too. Because he almost wasn’t.
Mike Milbury was hired as Islanders coach by GM Don Maloney in the summer of 1995. Three months later, Maloney was fired (in large part due to the disastrous Pierre Turgeon-Kirk Muller trade from the previous season) and Milbury was named as his replacement. And we were stuck with him for the next decade-plus.
In between those two events, there was an interim GM who raises an interesting What If? scenario.
Darcy Regier had come to the Islanders as a player, having been acquired with Wayne Merrick from Cleveland for Jean Potvin and J.P. Parise in 1978. He played only 11 games as an Islander in the early 80’s, spending the majority of his time in the minors. When he retired in 1984, Regier joined the Islanders front office and wore a few different hats over the next few years including minor league head coach, NHL assistant coach and, eventually, assistant general manager. He spent one year away with the Hartford Whalers, but returned to the Islanders to serve as assistant GM under Maloney, beginning in 1992.
After Maloney’s firing, Regier was named interim GM, and held the post for about 10 days. One of the voices choosing the team’s new GM would be Al Arbour’s, and candidates included Regier, Milbury, former Canadiens GM Serge Savard, Butch Goring and, maybe, Denis Potvin. I have no idea how much of that is actually true, but in the end, Milbury got the gig and Regier stayed on as No. 2.
At least, for another couple of weeks, anyway. That was when Milbury fired him just before heading out to Switzerland to watch the World Junior Championship (was Mike’s email not working that day?), and saying the reasoning was because he and Regier were “unable to fully agree on an organizational philosophy.” While Regier didn’t disagree about their disagreements, he was clearly blindsided by the firing. Yes, he and Milbury had been the final two choices for the GM job and he had lost out, despite all of his years of service to the franchise. But Regier claimed to have been over it. Maybe somebody else wasn’t...
About six months later, Darcy Regier would reappear in Buffalo, having been named Sabres GM in June of 1997. He would stay in that role for 16 years, guiding the team through several distinct eras thanks to some unstable ownership regimes (sounds familiar).
The Sabres made the playoffs eight times, the conference finals four times, and the Stanley Cup final once under Regier’s watch. Having a nearly unbeatable star goalie for a few years certainly helped, but Regier’s Sabres had a history of making lemonade out of lemons, no matter what chaos was going on around them.
Milbury’s Islanders only made the playoffs three times in 10 years, never advancing past the first round. He, of course, also dealt with more than his fair share of unreliable owners, but somehow those lemons never turned into lemonade. Eventually, even the fresh ones just got moldy like the rest of them.
The What If?
Would Darcy Regier have been a better general manager for the Islanders than Mike Milbury? Well, he sure as hell couldn’t have been worse, right?
Dom actually tackled this question about nine years ago when referring to Regier’s firing as a low key turning point in franchise history. Regier certainly wasn’t perfect as a GM, but after watching Milbury’s Greatest Hits unfold in real time (some forced on him by awful ownership), I can say I have a great respect for what Regier was able to do in Buffalo with similar constraints placed on him. The fact that Regier had a history with the Islanders before even becoming an assistant GM and having a shot at the big chair just makes me wonder a little more about what could have been.
The Islanders didn’t have Dominik Hasek but in the year following Regier’s firing, they drafted Roberto Luongo fourth overall. Had that scenario played out but with Regier at the helm, how would things have turned out? Instead of constantly getting pennies on the dollar after every trade like Milbury seemed to do, what would Regier have done with some of the Islanders players of that era? Who knows?
We do know that what Milbury did didn’t work, to say the least. And Regier, coming from the same organization but with much more patience, probably would taken a far different tact than him.
Come to think of it, you know who else had a history with the Islanders before getting a very brief chance at being GM? Neil Smith...