On Saturday, March 9, 2019, the New York Islanders held Bill Torrey Appreciation Night at Nassau Coliseum. Torrey, who passed away on May 3, 2018, was known as “The Architect” thanks to his shaping of the league’s newest franchise into one of the all-time great NHL dynasties within a decade of the team’s formation.
A lot goes into constructing a Stanley Cup champion. Here is how “The Architect” laid the framework of the last four-peat in pro sports:
Bill Torrey Breaks Ground
In 1972 the NHL saw two expansion teams join the league. The first, the Atlanta Flames, joined the West Division. The other team would find a home on Long Island, New York and be placed in the East Division. That team was the New York Islanders.
The Islanders’ first owner, Roy Boe, knew that in order to make New York’s second team relevant he needed his team to contend. Bill Torrey, former president of the California Golden Seals, became the first hire in franchise history on Feb. 14, 1972.
Rather than acquiring veterans, Torrey’s main focus was on building a young nucleus in order to ensure an extended period of success for the team.
In the year’s expansion draft, Torrey selected some young players such as defensemen Bart Crashley and Larry Hornung and goaltender Billy Smith.
The 22-year-old Smith had just five NHL starts to his name with the Los Angeles Kings. He would go on to play 674 regular season games in net for the Islanders. His presence in goal was vital to the 1980-83 Stanley Cup teams, as he won 57 playoff games with a .906 save percentage and 2.61 goals against average over 72 playoffs games during that stretch. He also captured the 1982-83 Conn Smythe Trophy, which is awarded to the best performer in the season’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. Smith would stay with the team until his retirement after the 1988-89 season, and, four years later, his No. 31 was retired by the Islanders; he was elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame later that year.
Crashley and Hornung ended up choosing to play in the emerging World Hockey Association (WHL). While neither would ever play a game in an Isles uniform, they would turn out to be key pieces in assembling the core, but more on that later…
Torrey also selected veteran and two-time Stanley Cup Champion Ed Westfall in the 1972 expansion draft. Westfall became the first captain in franchise history. While he would retire the year before the Isles won their first championship, he proved to be a clubhouse leader who was essential in the development of the myriad of young talent Torrey would collect.
Two days later, with the first and 33rd overall picks of the 1972 Amateur Draft, the Islanders selected wingers Billy Harris and Bob Nystrom.
Harris turned into one of the most durable players in the league, playing over 550 consecutive regular-season games for the team and topping the 60-point mark every season between 1974-75 and 1977-78. Nystrom was a blue-collar, hard-nosed grinder who made up for any skill he lacked with hard work. He went on to play his entire 14-season career with the Isles, earning the nickname “Mr. Islander.” His No. 23 would be retired by the team in 1995. He is best remembered for his series-winning goal in overtime against the Flyers in Game 6 of the 1980 Stanley Cup Final, winning the Islanders their first of four consecutive titles.
The Islanders’ inaugural season was one of the worst in league history. The team started the season 6-38-4 and then fired head coach Phil Goyette. His replacement, Earl Ingarfield, didn’t do much better. The team finished 12-60-6 with just 30 points.
Torrey Draws the Blueprints
After finishing with the worst record in the league, New York was awarded the first overall pick of the 1973 amateur draft. Despite Montreal Canadiens’ general manager Sam Pollack’s attempts to pry the pick away from Torrey, he held onto the selection and took future Hall of Fame defenseman Denis Potvin. They also used the 33rd pick to select defenseman Dave Lewis.
Potvin would go on to become arguably the best player in franchise history. Prior to the 1979-80 season, Potvin was named team captain, a position he would hold until ceding it to 25-year-old Brent Sutter prior to his final season in the league. He also holds the distinction of owning first retired number in team history, as his No. 5 was lifted into the rafters on Feb. 1, 1992.
Torrey also spent the offseason recruiting former St. Louis Blues coach Al Arbour. The late Hall-of-Famer went on to coach exactly 1,500 regular season games for the Islanders. He would lead the team to 15 playoff berths, 29 series wins, and of course, four Stanley Cup Championships. He sported a .601 winning percentage in 198 postseason games coaching the Islanders.
While the product on the ice still had a long way to go, the team experienced a 26-point improvement under Arbour, as Potvin led the team in points and won the Calder Memorial Trophy, which is awarded to the league’s best rookie.
Torrey had an amateur draft for the ages in 1974, using the fourth and 22nd overall picks to select a pair of future Hall-of-Famers in forward Clark Gillies and center Bryan Trottier. The two combined to play 27 years with the Islanders and make six All-Star teams. Gillies would serve as team captain 1976-79 and Trottier would go on to win the 1979-80 Smythe Trophy. Both would eventually have their numbers retired by the team.
Torrey didn’t stop there in 1974 though, he also drafted defenders Dave Langevin and Stefan Persson with the 112th and 214th overall picks, respectively. Persson would be called up during the 1977-78 season play his entire nine-year career with the team and while Langevin opted to play for the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers, this is not the last we will hear of him.
After the draft, Torrey acquired yet another young piece in the 38th overall pick of the draft, center Bob Bourne from the Kansas City Scouts for the rights to WHA players and former 1972 expansion draft picks Bart Crashley and Larry Hornung. Bourne would play the first 12 years of his 14-year career with the team.
By the time the 1974-75 season ended, it had become clear that the Islanders had arrived. They improved on the previous season’s record by 32 points and secured their first playoff berth in franchise history. They notched their first ever series win against the New York Rangers during the preliminary round on a game-winning goal in overtime in the decisive third and final game from left wing J.P. Parise. In the quarterfinals, the Islanders became just the second team in North American professional sports history to overcome a 3-0 deficit as they beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games. They would almost pull off the feat again in the semifinals, forcing a Game 7 but this time losing the deciding game to the team that would win that season’s Stanley Cup, the Flyers. No matter, the Islanders were now a legitimate contender.
Torrey Lays the Foundation
The 1975-76 Isles seemed like an even better team than that of the previous year. Trottier played his first season in the NHL and took home the Calder, and, at just 22 years old, Potvin won the first Norris Trophy of his career. The Islanders totaled 101 points, and, after beating the Vancouver Canucks and Buffalo Sabres in the preliminary round and quarterfinals, they once again fell in the semifinals, this time to the eventual Champion Canadiens.
Torrey continued to build through the draft in 1976, selecting Mike Kaszycki 33rd overall and defenseman Ken Morrow 68th overall. Morrow is best known for playing on the USA Men’s Hockey Team during the 1980 Olympics. That team famously upset the Soviet Union during “The Miracle on Ice.” After winning gold in Lake Placid, Morrow joined the Islanders for their first Stanley Cup Championship run. He became the first player in the history of hockey to win a gold medal and a Stanley Cup during the same year. He would play with the Islanders until his retirement after the 1988-89 season.
In 1976-77 the Islanders continued to trend upwards, improving upon the previous campaign’s point total for the fourth consecutive season. This team amassed 106 points, and for the third straight year lost in the semifinals to the eventual title winner, as the Canadiens won their second Stanley Cup of four straight. Over those two postseasons, Montreal went 24-3, with all three losses coming against the Islanders.
The 1977 Amateur Draft brought Torrey and the Islanders yet another franchise player in the 15th overall pick, forward Mike Bossy. Bossy was a gifted scorer, and he went on to establish himself as one of the greatest in NHL history. Over his 10-year career, he averaged 1.497 points per game, the third-best total of all-time, behind just Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. The Hall-of-Famer went on to make eight All-Star teams, lead the league in goals, and win the 1981-82 Smythe Trophy. Bossy’s No. 22 was retired by the team on March 3, 1992.
Also taken in that draft was winger John Tonelli 33rd overall. Tonelli chose to play for the WHA’s Houston Aeros, but he would find his way to The Coliseum eventually.
Torrey made another key move midseason, trading with the Cleveland Barons for center Wayne Merrick. Merrick would finish out his career on Long Island.
The Islanders finished the season with 111 points. Denis Potvin won his second Norris Trophy and Bossy scored 91 points en route to being named the Islanders’ third Calder Trophy winner in five seasons. The playoffs were once again met with disappointment, however, as this time the Islanders fell in the quarterfinals against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
After the 1977-78 season, the struggling WHA’s Aeros folded, and the Islanders were able to reclaim Tonelli, who ended up playing on two All-Star teams and spent a little under eight seasons with the Islanders.
The 1978-79 Islanders appealed to be the franchise’s best team yet. They paced the NHL with 116 wins as Potvin became just the second defenseman to top 100 points in a season and won his third and final Norris Trophy. Potvin was actually one of three Islanders over the 100-point mark that season, a Bossy had 126 and Trottier had 134, more than anyone in the league that season. For his performance, the Islanders center was awarded the Hart Memorial Trophy, which goes to the league’s most valuable player.
After beating the Chicago Black Hawks in the quarterfinals, the Islanders 1978-79 playoff run ended with the familiar feeling of disappointment, as they dropped the semifinals in six games to the hated Rangers.
“The Final Piece[s] of the Puzzle”
After five consecutive playoff disappointments, the Islanders were skating on thin ice. If they weren’t able to get a championship with this core soon, they would likely blow it all up and start from scratch.
In the 1979 draft, Torrey selected winger Duane Sutter 17th overall. Sutter played the first eight seasons of his career with the Islanders, appearing in 120 postseason games for the team.
Following the 1978-79 season, the WHA folded and the four teams merged with the NHL. One of those teams was the Oilers. While Dave Langevin had played his entire career in Edmonton up until that point, now that they were in the NHL, the defenseman had no choice but to report to the NHL team that had originally drafted him in the seventh round in 1974 – the Islanders.
The Isles got off to a slow start, looking like a shell of the team that had topped 100 points in each of the last four seasons. On the morning of Dec. 7, 1979, they were sitting at 8-12-4 when Torrey pulled the trigger on a trade for defenseman Gord Lane, giving up Kaszycki in the process.
The Islanders improved from there, yet on March 10 sat just three games over .500. Torrey knew he had to make a blockbuster deal, he truly felt that despite their current struggles, this was a team that was just one player away. The trade that Torrey would make next would go down as likely the most important trade of his career, trading away a pair of homegrown players in Billy Harris and Dave Lewis to the Los Angeles Kings for center Butch Goring. Goring was later hailed as the “Final Piece of the Puzzle,” and rightfully so, as he had 62 points in 78 playoff games with the Isles.
The Finished Product
The Islanders finished the regular season with 91 points, falling under 100 for the first time since 1974-75. Yet, for whatever reason, this team felt different.
With a nucleus made up of goaltender Billy Smith, defensemen Denis Potvin, Stefan Persson, Dave Langevin, Ken Morrow, and Gord Lane, forwards Bob Nystrom, Clark Gillies, Mike Bossy, John Tonelli, and Duane Sutter, and centers Bryan Trottier, Bob Bourne, Wayne Merrick, and Butch Goring Torrey finally had the team he had dreamt of building since he joined the Islanders in 1972. Each of these players would win the next four Stanley Cups with the team.
The rest, as they say, is history…