While the 1980s were kind to the New York Islanders, the start of the next decade was a different story. The four-time Stanley Cup Champions won just one playoff series after their “Drive for Five” stalled in 1984. Their star, Pat LaFontaine grew tired of losing, and more importantly, the uncertainty of ownership.
The owner at the time, John Pickett, was pretty detached from the team. The much-maligned owner, accused of pocketing $12 million of revenue from their cable deal rather than reinvesting it in the team, moved down to Florida. Pickett turned over day-to-day operations to four Long Island businessmen better know as the “Gang of Four” who each bought 2.5 percent of the team.
LaFontaine, who played in the 1984 Stanley Cup Final was entering the option year of a contract that paid him about $425,000 annually. Under NHL rules at the time, a player entering his option year automatically became a free agent if he was not offered a new contract by August 10. LaFontaine wanted a contract comparable to Detroit Red Wings center Steve Yzerman, who was making $1.5 million annually at the time. After nine months of negotiations between the two, parties broke down, LaFontaine requested a trade. Shortly after the request, Pickett officially put the Islanders up for sale, confident that it would sell quickly.
Lafontaine, the third overall pick in the 1983 draft, was not traded. He finished the 1990-91 season with the Islanders registering 41 goals and 44 assists. He was not traded during the summer either and did not report to training camp for the following season. LaFontaine was firm in his stance that he would never play another game with the Islanders if Pickett still owned the team.
Pat did not want them to construe the request for a trade as a means of eliciting a contract offer with more money from the Islanders, said Don Meehan, LaFontaine’s agent. He simply does not want any of their money anymore. There is no offer they could make that would interest him.
On October 25, 1991, LaFontaine got his wish and went to Buffalo with left winger Randy Wood and defenseman Randy Hillier for Sabres center Pierre Turgeon, forwards Benoit Hogue and Dave McLlwain and defenseman Uwe Krupp.
Oh Captain, Bye Captain
LaFontaine was not the only one unhappy with the team’s current situation. Captain Brent Sutter, who was a member of the 1982 and 1983 Cup teams, also requested a trade. Sutter, one of the best two-way forwards in Islanders history, wanted to play for a team that was committed to winning and wasn’t constantly in financial limbo. General manager Bill Torrey, who was the architect of the Cup-winning teams, was also responsible for sending the ten-time 20-goal scorer, and the last active Islanders Cup winner, to Chicago for Blackhawks center Adam Creighton and left wing Steve Thomas. Sutter was traded on the same day as LaFontaine.
We owed it to the rest of our players to get moving, get the furor over with, said Torrey. As much as I’m painted as a conservative, bow-tied old fogey, times have changed, circumstances have changed, and we’ve had to deal with it.
It left Pat Flatley as the last player to have played in a Stanley Cup, the 1984 Cup Final against the Edmonton Oilers. Flatley would replace Sutter as captain.
Dawn of a new era
It usually is very tough to get equal or close to equal value when trading disgruntled players. Torrey managed to make the best of a bad situation. Turgeon, the top overall pick in the 1987 draft was a three-time 30-goal scorer with the Sabres. He was considered more of a playmaker than the pure goal-scoring LaFontaine.
He had an immediate impact in his first year with the Islanders. Number 77 scored 38 goals in 69 games. The following season would be his best as the French Canadian scored 58 goals and 132 points, and helped the team reach the playoffs for the first time since 1990. Turgeon scored what would be the series-clinching goal vs the Washington Capitals in Game 6 of the Patrick Division Semifinals. As he celebrated the goal, Turgeon was blindsided by Capitals forward Dale Hunter. Pierre separated his shoulder and missed six of the seven games vs the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Patrick Division Finals.
The Islanders defeated the Penguins in 7 games and advanced to the Wales Conference Finals against the Montreal Canadiens. Turgeon would score two goals and five points but was not completely healthy as the team fell to the Habs in 5 games. He was awarded the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for the 1992-93 season. Turgeon scored 147 goals and 340 points in 255 games on the Island. He was traded to the Montreal Canadiens as part of the Kirk Muller deal on April 5, 1995. That trade is considered the start of the Islanders’ downfall. Turgeon would go on to score 246 goals following the trade.
The two so-called “throw ins” in the trade also had an impact on the Island. Hogue had his best seasons on the Island. In 3-plus seasons, he scored 105 goals. A day after Turgeon was traded, Hogue was sent to Toronto for “goaltender of the future” Eric Fichaud. Krupp would man the blue line for three seasons with the Islanders, racking up 94 points.
Steve Thomas headed the return in the Sutter deal. “Stumpy” would have his best seasons in an Islander uniform. In the 1992-93 season, Thomas scored 37 goals and 50 assists for a career-high of 87 points. While Turgeon was injured in the 1993 playoffs, Thomas stepped up and had 17 points in 18 games. The following season, he set a career high with 42 goals. Thomas was shipped to New Jersey as part of a three-team deal with Toronto. The Islanders received Wendel Clark.
Pickett thought he had sold the team on a couple of occasions. The latter being to John Spano. After Spano was revealed as a fraud, Pickett finally sold the team to businessman Howard Milstein and Phoenix Coyotes co-owner Steven Gluckstern. The deal closed in early 1998, seven years after Pickett put the team up for sale. LaFontaine’s last game in the NHL was March 16, 1998. All of the players acquired by the Islanders on October 25, 1991 had moved on by then. One era had ended and another error was well underway.