As New York Islanders fans sit down at the dinner table with family and friends this Thanksgiving holiday, they will reflect on the past year and give thanks. They will also give thanks that these figures are no longer part of the New York Islanders franchise.
The long-time New York Ranger and former Islander winger was named Islanders General Manager in 1992. He replaced Bill Torrey, the architect of the Stanley Cup teams, who was forced out. It was unknown at the time that this was the move that started the Islanders downfall. The Isles did make their magical run to the Conference
finals in 1993 but that team was already in place by the time Maloney took over. Maloney quickly dismantled the 1993 team starting with Glenn Healy, who was left unprotected in the expansion draft so they could trade backup goaltender Mark Fitzpatrick to Quebec for Ron Hextall. Maloney’s biggest Isles blunder was the Kirk Muller fiasco. Maloney traded Pierre Turgeon and Vladimir Malakhov for Muller and Mathieu Schneider in 1995. In fact, the Islanders did not come out as winners in any of Maloney’s trades. Maloney was fired later that year.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s first lockout shortened the season to 48 games. The Isles were struggling leading up to the deadline, going 10-20-4. Don Maloney felt that the team needed to go in a different direction. It needed an attitude adjustment. So he decided to trade the team’s top player, Pierre Turgeon and top defenseman Vladimir Malakhov to the Montreal Canadiens for Kirk Muller, Mathieu Schneider and Craig Darby. Turgeon was 25 at the time. In 4 seasons on the Island, Pierre scored 147 goals in 255 games. He also had the most goals (58) in a single season by an Islander not named Mike Bossy. No Islander has scored 50 since. The 29-year old Muller, was the Captain of the Canadiens. He raised the Cup in 1993 and was a 4-time 30 goal scorer. He was on the decline though. Maloney thought that Muller’s leadership would help his team. That plan backfired in a big way. Muller felt betrayed by Montreal Canadiens General Manager Serge Savard, who had assured him that he wouldn’t be traded. So what changed things then? Don Maloney changed things. He made Pierre Turgeon available!! Savard jumped at the chance to bring in the French Canadian. So Muller took a few days to report to the Islanders. He flat out lied to Maloney telling him that he was upset being traded and not upset being traded to the Islanders.
It took Muller 6 days following the trade to play a game for the Islanders. It basically took begging from Maloney to report. He promised Muller that he would try to move him during the offseason. So Muller went from a General Manager promising him that he would not be traded to another General Manager promising him that he would be traded. Muller played 12 games for the Islanders in 1995 season, scoring three goals. In comparison, Turgeon had 11 goals and 9 assists in 15 games. The 1995 offseason came and went without any takers for Muller. He started the 1995-96 season with the team. For someone who was brought in for leadership and toughness, Muller sleepwalked through the opening month of the season and brought little to the table but distractions. In 15 games, Muller scored just 4 goals.
On November 12, 1995, new head coach Mike Milbury and Maloney sent Muller home (with full pay) to await a trade. On December 2, Don Maloney would finally get put out of his misery and was canned. Mike Milbury would perform double duty now, both as head coach and general manager. Now as general manager he had to deal Kirk Muller. Milbury ordered Muller back to the team but Muller once again showed his true colors and refused. On December 21, Milbury suspended him. Kirk Muller finally got his wish and on January 23, 1996, Milbury traded Muller to his hometown Maple Leafs in a 3-way trade with the Senators. To sum up the Turgeon/Muller trade. Muller played a total of 27 games with the Isles while Turgeon scored 38 goals in his first full season with the Habs. Muller for his sake didn’t return to the Coliseum until the following season. Naturally he was booed out of the building every time he was on the ice that night and for the rest of his dwindling career. Muller even had the nerve to wear Number 9, which was Hall of Famer Clark Gillies’ number.
The Texas businessman wanted to buy an NHL franchise. After failing to purchase the Dallas Stars and Florida Panthers, Spano set his sights on the New York Islanders, whose owners were desperate to sell. He signed a deal to purchase the Islanders for $165 million dollars in 1996. For four months he actually ran the team. Fans chanted his name during games and was hailed as a savior who would build a new arena and keep the team on the Island.
Spano convinced banks and the NHL that he was worth over $200 million dollars. In reality he was worth just a few hundred thousand. When he was due to make payments, Spano would send only a fraction of what was due, $5,000 instead of 5 million, $1,700 instead of 17 million. Finally the truth came out and he was exposed as a fraud. In May he was sentenced to his third prison term.
Former Islander defenseman Rich Pilon told me for someone who claimed to be a young millionaire, he thought that it was weird that he would travel alone and did not have an entourage. I highly recommend the ESPN 30 for 30 called “Big Shot” on Spano. He told ESPN that he told different people different stories so he wouldn’t get caught.
“I set it up so other people couldn’t talk to other people, or they didn’t have enough knowledge to put two and two together. The guy at the bank knew one thing. The guy at the NHL knew another. My attorney knew something else. If they would have all got together, they would have realized something wasn’t right.
There is an urban legend regarding the Darius Kasparaitis trade from the Islanders to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux and Spano became friends and Mario even vouched for Spano to become the Isles owner. The NHL did not have a vetting process back then. Spano owed Lemieux for helping him become and asked Mario who he would like from the Islanders roster. Without hesitation, Lemieux said “Kasparaitis”. I reached out to Kasparaitis and asked him if he had heard of this story.
“I didn’t hear about this but a week earlier Mike (Milbury) came to me and said that he wasn’t going to trade me. The trade does make sense now.”
“Mad Mike” sent the team into a tailspin that it took over a decade to recover. We all know the disastrous trades (Trevor Linden for Bryan McCabe and Todd Bertuzzi, Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen for Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha, and of course the Yashin trade).
I want to focus on his draft record. During his tenure as general manager, Milbury had 14 first round draft picks, four of which were in the 1999 draft. “Mad Mike” selected Tim Connolly, Taylor Pyatt, Branislav Mezei and Kristian Kudroc. The four players combined for 307 games played with the Islanders. He selected two first rounders (J.P. Dumont and Michael Rupp) who went unsigned. Rupp scored two goals with the Devils in Game 7 of the 2003 Stanley Cup Final.
Later that month Milbury had an opportunity to select former Isles playoff hero J.P. Parise’s son, Zach in the first round. He elected to take Robert Nilsson, who played just 53 games with the Islanders. 2004 brought Petteri Nokelainen, playing just 15 as an Islander. Of the 14 first round picks, only Rick DiPietro and Sean Bergenheim played mulitple full seasons.
My apologizes to anyone who lost their Thanksgiving appetite reading this.
Noel Fogelman is a 5-time Emmy Winner and started his career working on the Buffalo Sabres Pre and postgame shows for the Empire Sports Network. He then went to Bristol, CT to work at ESPN on NHL2Night and its coverage of the Stanley Cup. Follow me on Twiter @thefirstnoel19