Neil Smith spent five years building the New York Rangers into the NHL's best team as the 1994 trade deadline approached -- only to realize he had more work to do.
The Rangers had come a long way under Smith, who took over as general manager in the summer of 1989 after New York was swept by Pittsburgh in the opening round of the playoffs. They finished first in the Patrick Division in 1989-90 -- the first time they'd finished first in any fashion since 1942. Two seasons later, they won the Presidents' Trophy for finishing first in the overall standings -- the first time that had happened in 50 years.
GARTNER GETS LEFT OUT
Mike Gartner is in the Hockey Hall of Fame because of his regular-season brilliance -- he had a record 15 consecutive 30-goal seasons, and his 708 goals are sixth on the all-time list. But Gartner never got his name on the Stanley Cup -- in fact, he never even played in the Final.
It looked like that might change in 1994, when Gartner was a key part of a New York Rangers team that was leading the overall standings as the trade deadline approached. Little did Gartner know the Rangers had other plans.
After three 40-goal seasons, Gartner had 28 in 71 games when GM Neil Smith shipped him to Toronto at the trade deadline in a deal that brought former Edmonton star Glenn Anderson to New York. Smith, desperate to have his team end a championship drought that dated to 1940, was willing to sacrifice Gartner for a five-time Cup winner who was near the end of his career.
Gartner, who had come to the Rangers at the trade deadline in 1990, was unhappy to be leaving.
"It was disappointing to leave the team at the trading deadline in 1994," he said. "We had a great feeling that whole year. We were in first place overall and we had a feeling that this could be the year."
Gartner actually almost had a chance to play against his former team in the Final. The Leafs won the first two rounds before losing to Vancouver in the Western Conference Finals.
"There was actually a chance we could have played New York in the Final," he said. "We lost to Vancouver in the semis, but it was almost looking that way (that he would get to play the Rangers in the Final) for a while. That would have been pretty strange."
Instead, he had to watch the team with which he spent most of the season win the Cup without him.
Said Gartner: "To be with the team for a number of years before that and see it build to that point and then get traded and watch that same team that I'd been playing with go on to win the Stanley Cup was obviously a tough thing to watch." -- John Kreiser
But both of those teams were bounced in the second round of the playoffs, and when the Rangers missed the playoffs the following season, Smith knew he needed more changes -- starting with bringing in Mike Keenan behind the bench.
"I think the players all wanted to redeem themselves from the year they had before," Smith remembered years later. "And with Keenan, the new sheriff in town, they were really pushed right from the get-go to have a good year. I had to get someone like Keenan because this was a star-studded, veteran team that needed someone hard-nosed to run it."
It worked -- the Rangers started fast and spent most of the season on top of the League standings. But as the season went on, cracks started to show. With his team's Stanley Cup drought in its 54th year, Smith knew he had to do something.
"There were a number of things that had to be done," Smith said. "We felt that the playoffs were different -- that a different type of team would win the playoffs, as opposed to who would win in the regular season."
To Smith, that "different kind of team" meant more grit and more experience -- particularly experience in winning the Stanley Cup. If it meant sacrificing some skill and young talent, so be it.
That would be a major shakeup for any team -- it was almost unprecedented for a team leading the League.
But Smith and Keenan had their eyes on the big prize -- even if they didn't necessarily agree on who could get them there.
"I liked Amonte and Mike Gartner, but I wound up moving Gartner for Glenn Anderson because we wanted another experienced playoff guy," Smith said. "We used Amonte to get Noonan and Matteau. I didn't like the trade at the time, but it gave us some experienced, veteran guys that Keenan liked.
"I also wanted MacTavish because I didn't think we were strong on faceoffs. We sent Marchant (to Edmonton) for him."
The deals paid an instant dividend when Matteau scored the tying goal in his first game as a Ranger, giving his new team a rare point in Calgary.
"They looked to me like the best team at the time, and I didn't think they needed to make changes," Matteau remembered years later. "When I first heard I was being traded to New York, I said, 'Oh my God, I'm just going to be a spare player, I'll be on the fifth line, just waiting in case someone gets hurt. I was very surprised to get traded to the Rangers.
"We were down a goal in Calgary and we pulled the goalie. Coach Keenan sent me on to the ice and I scored, so that was a pretty good debut for me and the Rangers. It made me feel a little more at home. I scored the next night, too, against the Oilers in Edmonton. After that, I was pretty much set on the team."
The revamped Rangers went on to win their second Presidents' Trophy in three seasons and routed the Islanders and Capitals in the first two rounds before facing New Jersey in the conference finals. Matteau became the toast of New York by scoring twice in double-overtime -- including a wraparound that won Game 7 and sent the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final.
"The puck went up in the air (into the Devils' zone), and someone lost track and I was facing the puck all the time," Matteau said. "The puck went into the corner. I got it and tried to make one move on the short side. (Scott) Niedermayer was hugging me, holding my arm. I kind of tried to put the puck in front of the net while I was along the far post and it was one of the luckiest bounces ever on my part. I saw the puck going in very slowly. I was the first one to see the puck go into the net. It was one of the greatest feelings of my life."
The Anderson deal paid off in the Final -- the future Hall of Famer had the winning goals in Games 2 and 3. Noonan provided grit all though the spring, and assisted on Mark Messier's Cup-winning goal in Game 7.
Smith knew he paid a big price, but championships are forever -- especially when you haven't won one in 54 years.
"We weren't built to be a dynasty," he said. "It was a team that wasn't winning the Cup in their prime. Most of them were later on in their careers. A dynasty is built from a team that's just peaking and happens to win, and throughout their peak they keep winning or coming close to winning. The Islanders and Edmonton were like that. We were built to win the Cup and try to adjust from there and see if you can ever do it again.
"I knew that that team had to go down. I had to use up every single bit of currency to get that team positioned the way it was. It was go for broke, do it. I'm sure that if you told Ranger fans in the summer of 1992 or 1993 that, 'We're going to have to make some hard decisions and trade some of the future, and you may not like what you'll see in the late '90s, but you'll be Stanley Cup winners, you'll experience that -- Rangers fans would have traded 20 years of non-playoffs for that."
He's only 17 but he can see the ice so well and he moves the puck and goes to the open ice all the time, so I just think he's a player that is ready to play in the NHL. I'm really looking forward to coaching someone like this.
— U.S. National Junior Team coach Ron Wilson on Auston Matthews, the projected No. 1 pick of the 2016 NHL Draft