Friday, February 24, 2012
Top 10 Greatest New York Islanders
Continuing my series of the top 10 players in each of the Tri-State Area teams' histories.
Tonight, the New Jersey Devils host the Vancouver Canucks, defending Western Conference Champions, who last night ended the Detroit Red Wings’ record 23-game home winning streak.
And the New York Rangers and New York Islanders face off at the Nassau Coliseum in perhaps the NHL’s nastiest rivalry, one that English soccer fans would call a “derby.”
From 1975 to 1988, the Islanders were a superb team. From the first round in 1980 until the 1984 Finals, they didn’t lose a Playoff series. They are the only team besides the Montreal Canadiens to win 4 straight Stanley Cups in the NHL era, and the only team besides the Canadiens to win at least 3 straight Cups since 1964. They won as many Cups in 4 years as the Rangers have won in 86 years – and 1 more than the Devils have won in 30 years.
But in 1988, the Devils beat the Isles in the Playoffs – the only time the 2 nearby rivals, whose fans nonetheless share an intense and justified hatred of the Rangers, have ever met in the postseason. Except for a run to the Conference Finals in 1993, the Isles haven’t done much since. The Isles haven’t made the Playoffs in 5 years, and haven’t won a postseason series in 19 years.
But they have had their moments.
Top 10 Greatest New York Islanders
Honorable Mention: John Tonelli, Number 27, left wing, 1978-86. One of the guys who turned a young team with a lot of promise into an all-time great team. His hat trick to bring the Isles back from 3-1 down to the Pittsburgh Penguins to win a deciding game kept their Cup run alive.
Honorable Mention: Pierre Turgeon, Number 77, Center, 1991-95. Injuries kept him from being one of the top players of his era, but what he did for the Islanders in that '93 Playoff run, including scoring the Game 7 overtime winner against the Washington Capitals (and then getting sucker-checked by Dale Hunter) will live for as long as there are hockey fans on Long Island.
Honorable Mention also to general manager Bill Torrey and head coach Al Arbour.
10. Brent Sutter, Number 21, Center, 1980-92. Not the best of the 6 Sutter brothers of Viking, Alberta to all play in the NHL (a 7th brother didn't quite make it), but a pretty good one, certainly better than his brother and Isle teammate Duane. He arrived during the championship years and fit in seamlessly as a plugger, scorer, tough guy. He had the daunting task of replacing Denis Potvin as Captain, and did so for four seasons before being traded to the Chicago Blackhawks.
9. Bob Bourne, Number 19, Center, 1974-86. Didn’t stand out in the regular season, but did when it counted. He had 74 points in the 74 playoff games during the four-year Stanley Cup run. Only Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy had more.
8. Bobby Nystrom, Number 23, right wing, 1972-86. A pretty good player, not really a great one, but he'll always be remembered for May 24, 1980, taking a Tonelli pass in overtime of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals and sending the Nassau Coliseum into a frenzy.
7. Pat LaFontaine, Number 16, center, 1983-91. He starred for the Buffalo Sabres, who (unlike the Isles) retired his number, before concussions shortened his career, before a brief comeback attempt with the Rangers. Despite hanging up his skates at age 33, he scored 468 goals and 1,013 points, and his 1.17 points per game is the best of any American-born hockey player.
6. Clark Gillies, Number 9, left wing, 1974-86. Before the Isles could get good, they had to get tough, in an NHL dominated by Boston's Big Bad Bruins, Philly's Broad Street Bullies, and some tough guys on the Rangers. Gillies was the answer, but he was no mere goon: He could actually play, scoring 319 goals in his career. He was much more of a Claude Lemieux type than a Tie Domi.
5. Butch Goring, Number 91, center, 1980-85. Brought in for the 1980 stretch drive, his acquisition is the most important in club history. Taking 91, the reverse of the 19 he wore in Los Angeles, because Bryan Trottier had 19, he was the final piece of the puzzle, turning a team that couldn't win the big one into a team that won all of them. Since so few players will ever wear such a number, the Isles should retire it.
4. Billy Smith, Number 31, goaltender, 1972-89. Sure, he was a punk. But until Martin Brodeur, there was never a better goalie in the history of Tri-State Area hockey than Battling Billy. No, not Gump Worsley. No, not Eddie Giacomin. No, not Roy "Shrimp" Worters of the old New York Americans. Smith was a great one, especially in the postseason.
3. Bryan Trottier, Number 19, center, 1975-90. There was something of a smugness to him. But he earned it. He actually won 6 Stanley Cups, getting 2 more at the end of his career, with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he wasn't just along for the ride, either: He was still contributing. But it's his Uniondale contributions that will be remembered first. He may have been the best passer in the league in his time (at least, outside of Montreal).
2. Mike Bossy, Number 22, right wing, 1977-87. A back injury cut short one of the most spectacular careers any hockey player would ever have. He was just the 2nd player, after Maurice Richard, to score 50 goals in a season’s first 50 games.
1. Denis Potvin, Number 5, defenseman, 1973-88. He was a star in junior hockey with the Ottawa 67s, and was taken by the 2nd-year expansion Islanders as the first pick in the 1973 Draft. He was supposed to be the Isles’ Bobby Orr. He was more than that: He was enough of a star and enough of a leader so that, to extend the Bruin analogy, he was both their Orr and their Phil Esposito.
He remains the only man to Captain a New York Tri-State Area team to 4 Stanley Cup wins. In 1979, he became the 2nd NHL defenseman, after Orr, to score 30 goals and 100 points in a single season. At the time of his retirement, he was the NHL’s leader in career goals and points by a defenseman.
And, for the record, even Ulf Nilsson, the Ranger he injured in an infamous 1979 regular-season collision, has said it was a clean hit. Therefore, when Ranger fans shout, “POTVIN SUCKS!” they are being idiots. Since retirement, he has been a broadcaster, first for the Florida Panthers, now for the Ottawa Senators. For a time, his brother Jean Potvin was his Islander teammate.
Torrey, Arbour, Potvin, Bossy, Trottier, Smith, Gillies and LaFontaine are in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Potvin, Bossy, Trottier, Smith, Nystrom and Gillies have had their numbers retired; Torrey is represented in the rafters of the Nassau Coliseum by a banner with a bowtie, which he always wore; and Arbour is represented by a banner with the number of games he coached, 1500.
If the Islanders do move sometime in the next few years, because they can't get a deal to replace, or to at least adequately renovate, the Nassau Coliseum, it would be a shame. But they'll always have those moments in the late Seventies and through most of the Eighties, especially in the early Eighties when they were one of the very best teams the game of hockey has ever seen.
UPDATE: Later in 2012, it was announced that they will move to the Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn for the 2015-16 season, after their lease in Uniondale runs out. Not culturally, or politically, but geologically, Brooklyn -- and Queens, too -- are part of Long Island. So the name still works. And, unlike with the Coliseum, you can take the Long Island Rail Road directly to the Barclays Center, as it's across the street from the Flatbush Avenue Terminal.