You’ve all likely seen the 30 for 30 “Big Shot” about the NY Islanders mess of an ownership situation in the late 1990’s (97 to be more specific). The team was in a complete downward spiral. From 96-2000 the team was the laughing stock of the league, much how the Edmonton Oilers have been. Milbury had overseen that entire era for the Islanders and he was desperate to change. Now I must warn, viewer discretion is advised.
Going into the 2000 draft in Calgary, the Islanders had won the draft lottery and were selecting 1st. There was a bit of debate heading into the draft of whether to pick Calgary product Dany Heatley, or Slovakian winger Marian Gaborik. Most assumed Heatley, but Gaborik was in the picture.
But Milbury was having no part of either who would each go on to have outstanding careers being two of the best snipers of their time. What transpired is maybe the most bizarre set of moves in NHL history.
To Islanders: Roman Hamrlik
To Oilers: Eric Brewer, Josh Green, and the 31st pick (Brad Winchester)
Result: Solid. Not much separated Hamrlik and Brewer the remainder of their careers, but the Islanders needed a solid veteran who could play in any situation and play 25 minutes a night. Brewer wasn’t ready for that.
To Islanders: Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha
To Panthers: Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen
Result: Humiliating. I recall people saying Milbury saw Kvasha as a potential superstar and made it his mission to acquire him, apparently at any cost. Kvasha was never anything more than an average 2nd line winger at his peak, 3rd liner most of his career, and Mark Parrish had a few solid seasons with the Islanders while playing alongside Alexei Yashin, but nothing outstanding.
Meanwhile as we all know, Jokinen became a very solid point producer. Nine times he had 50 or more points, five times he had 60 or more, and from 06-08 he had 89, 91, and 71 point seasons. As for Luongo, you’ll be able to check his numbers out in the hall of fame in a few years.
Not included in that trade was also the fact that this cleared the way for Milbury to take Rick DiPietro with the top pick in the draft, over Heatley and Gaborik. After trading for the 5th pick, Milbury proceeded to select Raffi Torres over Scott Hartnell.
All this maneuvering got the Islanders nowhere for the 2001 season. In fact, they fell a spot in the standings from 27th to 30th (behind 2nd year Atlanta and expansion teams Minnesota and Columbus). So at the 2001 draft, Milbury took two more massive swings.
To Islanders: Mike Peca
To Sabres: Tim Connolly and Taylor Pyatt
Result: Win. Though they didn’t really get a return on their investment of Peca as far as assets go (Mike York), they did get a culture change. Peca was immediately named captain of the team, and put together his best season ever in 2002. However, a hit from Darcy Tucker in the 2002 playoffs destroyed Peca’s knee and even though he was still a useful player, it really appeared to ruin the prime of his career. On the other hand, Connolly wasn’t a nothing player, but his stats don’t reflect the impact he had on a team. Known as a soft, one dimensional centre, Connolly was also plagued with concussion problems most of his career. Pyatt was a journeyman who managed to play in over 850 games in his NHL career, but never produced more than 37 points in a season.
To Islanders: Alexei Yashin
To Senators: 2nd overall pick (Jason Spezza), Zdeno Chara, and Bill Muckalt
Result: Better than the Panthers deal from the year before. Spezza will get consideration for the Hall of Fame some day with a few more good seasons, Chara is in on the first ballot. In fairness, Yashin was very good for the Islanders not just during the 2002 season, but also in the 2002 playoffs. But this was a guy who had close to Mario Lemieux type talent, and he gave the Islanders zero series wins, one season of over 70 points. One of the worst trades in NHL history.
When the dust settled in all this, Milbury had achieved his goal. He made the Islanders a playoff team. From 2002-2007 the Islanders made the playoffs in four out of five seasons. They lost in the first round each time, and other than in 02 against the Leafs, the other three they weren’t even competitive.
Now as I’m certain Islanders fans have done for a long time now, you can look at just about all of Milbury’s deals for the Islanders and see that he lost them. But let’s just focus on the 2000 and 2001 drafts. He won two of the four deals, but the two he lost he didn’t just lose, he executed the franchise. Had he just done those two good deals, taken Hartnell over Torres like he should have in 2000, those Islander teams may have become a powerhouse in the East. A core of Kenny Jonsson, Spezza, Chara, Jokinen, Luongo, Heatley, Hartnell, Peca and Hamrlik, that team would have been a beast.
But instead, they became not much of anything before going through another lengthy rebuild.
So maybe you’re a fan of the Oilers or Leafs or Avs and you’re getting sick of the seemingly constant rebuild and want your team to take a big step and become that elite team and you think a couple of big moves on Friday and Saturday will do just that. But you’re running a massive risk in doing those types of deals for little return. It’s painful (especially for the Oilers), but you have to stick with it. Mike Milbury tried the shortcut route, and he drove off a cliff.
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