January 2 - Milbury's Island
With the unexpected success of the New York Rangers this season, the
travails of Long Island's NHL team might be going unnoticed by many.
Not by me, however. And it is time for me to say what most others have
been saying for a long time:
It is time to replace Mike Milbury.
When I tell people I am an Islander fan, or that I used to work there, the
first thing I'm asked is "How does Milbury keep his job?" To be honest, I
am at the point where I can no longer explain it.
When he took over as GM from Don Maloney in December 1995, two months into his first season's
as the squad's head coach, he inherited a team that was struggling, but wasn't in nearly the bad
shape everyone thought. Maloney's biggest mistake, the Kirk Muller-Pierre Turgeon fiasco, was the
right move in concept, but unfortunately brought back a player that had no desire to play on Long
Island. The deal eventually cost Maloney his job, but the cupboard was far from bare, although it
would have taken some patience from the organization to realize that. Among the players in Islander
uniforms at the time of the trade were Ziggy Palffy, Mathieu Schneider, Darius Kasparaitis, Bryan
McCabe, Todd Bertuzzi and Wade Redden (the second overall pick in the 1995 Draft), all of whom, ten
years later, are highly productive players in the league.
When Milbury took stewardship, his first order of business was to clean up the Muller mess and deal
the malcontent, who was now kicked off the team. He did so, and in spectacular fashion, moving
Muller and Redden in a three team trade for, most notably, Bryan Berard (the #1 pick in 1995) and
Things started to get a bit strange right after that, however.
First, Straka was waived for financial reasons less than two months after being acquired, even
though the team was hard up for players with offensive capabilities. The next training camp, Palffy and
Travis Green both held out, coming to terms at the end of training camp (Green) and early in the
season (Palffy). Ownership issues then took center stage, with a revolving door spinning atop the
organization, including a brief period when a fraud names John Spano "owned" the team.
While the ownership changes were going on, Milbury was forced to work with paltry budgets that were
far below the norm. Sure, he was occasionally able to deal for established players, but invariably
those deals ended up heavily favoring the other team upon reflection (more on that in a minute).
Finally, in April 2000, Charles Wang of Computer Associates purchased the team and gave Milbury
the opportunity to work with a real budget, like other GMs.
Unfortunately for Islander fans, Milbury has failed them. Miserably. The team has made the last three
playoffs, but has yet to advance past the first round and has not won a playoff series in the ten years
Milbury has been General Manager.
"Mad Mike" has made the big deal his trademark. Of course, there is a reason other teams keep
coming to him for blockbusters. Check out these two deals, the biggest examples of what could have
--February 6, 1998: Islanders trade Bryan McCabe, Todd Bertuzzi and a third round pick to Vancouver
for Trevor Linden. McCabe, now 30, is the leading contender for thei year's Norris Trophy, while
Bertuzzi, also now 30, is one of the most feared power forwards in the sport (regardless of all of the
controversy). Linden, was 27 at the time (although it proved to be an "old" 27). One of the game's
most respected leaders throughout his career, he lasted just 15 months in orange and blue before
being dealt for a first round draft pick.
--June 23, 2001: Islanders trade Zdeno Chara, Bill Muckalt and the second pick in
that year's draft (which became Jason Spezza) to Ottawa for Alexei Yashin (right).
The 6'9" Chara, now 28, was a Norris Trophy finalist in 2003-04 and is among the
elite defensemen in the league today. Spezza, now just 22, is among the Top 20
scorers in the NHL. Yashin, after signing an untradeable ten-year, $90-million
contract upon his arrival, has proven to be anything but the player he has misled
everyone to believe he actually is (which is coming as no surprise to everyone in
Ottawa and many other NHL observers).
So now, the Islanders are, at best, a middle of the pack team, with a so-so chance
of making the playoffs. But is just making the playoffs good enough? It looks like,
to Milbury and the Islanders, it is. This year's squad is nothing more than a .500 team, when .500 is
no longer good enough. A team needs to be more than a game or two above that benchmark in the
new NHL to make the postseason. This team just isn't good enough.
Of course, in the end, it will all end up being coach Steve Stirling's fault and he will be the guy to take
the fall - just as it has been the coach's fault ever since Milbury moved into the GM role. Just ask Rick
Bowness or Bill Stewart or Butch Goring or Peter Laviolette about Milbury, who changes coaches
about as often as he changes shirts.
Sooner rather than later, Milbury has to take the fall. It is time for someone else to try and restore pride
to Long Island's hockey team.
(Editor's Note: Ten days after this article was written, Coach Steve Stirling was fired. At the same time,
Milbury announced he was stepping down as GM upon the naming of his successor.)